I took my two-week-old son to hear Nelson Mandela speak in Harvard Yard. The regal eighty-year-old president of South Africa might have been the oldest person in the crowd of 25,000 that day, while Luke Carroll Wallis, comfortably asleep in his stroller, might well have been the youngest.
My wife Joy and I thought their overlap in history would be a good early memory for our first child. I look forward to telling him about it someday.
On that perfect day, though, he slept as a crowd weary of Washington scandals eagerly embraced a true moral leader. That's what I'll tell my Luke someday--being a leader just takes being smart, but being a moral leader takes character. The world's most respected and honored political leader told stories, made jokes (about himself mostly), graciously thanked everyone around him, and, characteristically, only accepted the honor on behalf of his people.
"We accept the honor of the degree being bestowed upon us," he said. Humor and humility are not always the characteristics of activists, but they are of genuine leaders that people are willing to follow. I won't just tell Luke that but Joy and I will try to raise him to laugh easily and not be his own press agent.
I'll tell Luke about a small meeting I attended with Mandela and U.S. religious leaders shortly after his release from prison, and the blessing I had to be at his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. I'll try to describe what I saw in this man who had the power to transform people and nations.
Of course, I'll tell Luke that Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace prize, but I'll also tell him why I think he won it. I don't believe it was finally because he was the leader of the African National Congress, or because he created the conditions for the first democratic election in South Africa. I will tell Luke it was because of what happened to him during 27 years in prison. It was there that Nelson Mandela had his spiritual formation, there he prepared for a new nation, there he began molding a people-black and white-to think in new ways.
I hope to teach my son to value spiritual discipline and preparation, something pretty counter-cultural in our 'I want to have everything and have it now' society. Joy and I will try to teach Luke that preparation enables us to develop a longer term perspective, find an appropriate spiritual practice, stay focused, learn patience, and balance contemplation with action.
Mandela's Robben Island prison home was called "Mandela University," because he was educating everyone around him to a vision of a new South Africa. The sweep of his influence was again demonstrated at his inauguration, when
several of his former prison guards were given honored seats close to their former prisoner and teacher. Mandela had no guarantee that he would ever live to see the new South Africa, or that he would ever get out of prison. But he knew that his task was to get ready.
Many people recall where they were on February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in front of the eyes of the world-erect, strong, and astonishing. Some talk of how they woke up their children to witness the momentous event. He emerged with a spring in his step and a dignity on his face that belied his years of suffering.
Henry Louis Gates helped introduce Mandela in Harvard Yard, and testified that he always had a "Free Mandela" poster in his college dorm room and later hung it in his daughter's nursery. Gates said to the Harvard students, "Nelson Mandela didn't walk out of prison into freedom, but as one who had been free the whole time. Mandela has always been free."
In his sermon the following Sunday, Peter Gomes, Dean of Harvard's Memorial Chapel, said of Mandela, "This is a man who knows who he is. His ideals are intact. He doesn't live with the illusions of his demons. He does not stagger at the uneven motions of the world." Simply put, Nelson Mandela knew who he was, and that's the most important thing I want for my son Luke.
I'll use the example of Mandela to help teach Luke the important distinction between power and authority that the modern world fails to understand. Most see the two as the same, but they are not. Power is the ability to control things; moral authority is the capacity to change things. Those in power really don't change anything. They just manage things as they are, because to gain power they have agreed to accept things as they are. On the contrary, those with moral authority can transform political realities, in part, because they have chosen not to accept the current definitions of those realities. Power depends upon coercion, moral authority utilizes inspiration.
We'll teach Luke history. We'll teach him that Pharaoh had the power, but Moses had the authority. Pilate had the power, but Jesus had the authority. The medieval popes had the power, but St. Francis had the authority. The
British had the power, but Gandhi had the authority. The southern governors had the power, but Martin Luther King Jr. had the authority. The rulers of apartheid in Pretoria had the power, but Nelson Mandela had the authority.
In every case, those with the power are not even remembered now, except in relation to those who had the authority.
My son will have to learn that moral authority doesn't come easily or without cost. Moses struggled with his calling in the wilderness. Jesus went out into the desert at the onset of his ministry to fast for forty days. St.
Francis led a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Martin Luther King Jr. suffered death threats, 28 arrests and imprisonments, and an assassin's bullet. Nelson Mandela spent three decades in prison. All had to prepare,
all got ready, and all paid the price. Luke, in his own way, will have to go through his own preparation too.
Mandela is someone the world believes to have integrity and character. Whatever Luke tries to accomplish, those will be the most important things to strive for. We'll try to teach him that. Mandela is not a perfect person, nor one without sin and flaws, nor someone who hasn't made mistakes. I want to teach Luke to accept his humanity too.
Mandela smiled at the crowd often during his speech at Harvard, and accused the students of coming just to "see how a man of eighty looks." Since Luke was in the audience, Mandela was smiling at him too. He told us, "There is
no easy walk to freedom, but it is the only walk worth taking." Someday, I'll pass that wisdom along to Luke.
Jim Wallis is the editor of Sojourners magazine and convener of a Call To Renewal--a new coalition of faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty. He is author of the forthcoming 'Faith Works: Lessons From the Life of an Activist Preacher,' to be published by Random House in early April.