My wife, Joy, and I thought their overlap in history would be a good beginning for our first child, even if he slept through this momentous event in his life. I look forward to telling him about it someday.
On that lovely afternoon in 1998, a crowd weary of Washington scandals was eager to welcome and embrace a true moral leader. The world's most respected and honored leader told stories, made jokes (about himself mostly), graciously thanked everyone around him, and, characteristically, accepted the honor only 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 traits of activists, but they are of genuine leaders whom people are willing to follow.
I'll tell my son that anyone can be an activist, but that the activists who make a difference have to become leaders people can trust. I'll tell him about a small meeting I attended with Mandela and U.S. religious leaders shortly after his release from prison.
I'll tell him what a blessing it was to attend Mandela's inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. I'll try to do justice to the sweep of his influence by explaining that several of his former prison guards were in attendance, given honored seats close to their former prisoner and teacher. 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--not, 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, but because of what happened to him during 27 years in prison.
It was in prison that Mandela had his spiritual formation--that he prepared for a new nation and 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 countercultural in our "I want everything and I want it now" society. Joy and I will try to teach Luke that preparation enables us to develop a longer-term perspective, to find an appropriate spiritual practice, to stay focused, to learn patience, and to balance contemplation with action.
Mandela's Robben Island prison home came to be called Mandela University, because he was educating everyone around him to a vision of a new South Africa. He 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.
Henry Louis Gates, the author and chairman of Harvard's Afro-American studies department, helped introduce Mandela in Harvard Yard, and saidthat he'd had a "Free Mandela" poster in his college dorm room and later hung it in his daughter's nursery. Gates told 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, the 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.
I'll use the example of Mandela to help teach Luke the important distinction between power and authority, which the modern world often fails to understand. 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.
But 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 on coercion; moral authority on inspiration.
Joy and I will 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 aren't 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 40 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 prepare too.