Friday, January 22, 2010
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley
This is the poem that gave artistic license to the current movie “Invictus”. I’ve seen the critics copy of it, and am here to tell you that it is a fine movie. Centered around Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa released after 27 some odd years in prison, and responsible for the democratic turn-around of that country from its Apartheid background, the movie renders a fine example of Christian Grace. I’ve not studied Mandela’s spiritual background, I suppose it to be Christian in origin, given the portrayal of his character in the movie, yet the movie isn’t touted as a religious vehicle. Any more so than the aforementioned poem is. The author William Ernest Henley, suffered from tuberculosis as a boy, and the poem appears to come from the inspiration lent by the fortitude that allowed him to conquer his infirmities. It’s final two lines…”I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” at first glance might tend to preclude a dependence on God, yet a master is not sovereign, nor a captain a creator, so I have no problem with the spiritual aspect of the poem. At any rate, given that this particular poem isn’t a factual representation of the literary example given by Mandela to the rugby team captain, but rather another quote from an American president is, it isn’t the Nexis of the movies inspiration to me.
For there is much about the film that does inspire. Twenty seven years in prison would definitely conquer most men. Mandela combating apartheid, bigotry, and prejudice successfully upon his release is monumental at the least. His use of a national sports team as a tool to chip away at the barriers between the past, and present was a stroke of genius. And yet there is one point, for me, that stands out more than any other. That is grace, and the forgiveness that comes from it’s expression.
During his campaign for the presidency, Mandela understood that his opposition was the “enemy”. Yet, after achieving success, he recognized that his opposition maintained control over essential aspects of the countries government, and therefore must be worked with, rather than against. To succor that oppositions good will, his plan was to support the one symbol of unity the preceding establishment had utilized, to wit, the rugby team.
Many of his own supporters lobbied to remove the team from existence, out of spite, and revenge, more than anything. Simply because, now, as the ruling power, they could. And yet Mandela, in spite of the fact that this very team represented the white political majority of the past, as well as all the persecution, prejudice, and pain that went along with it, chose to champion them, and in fact inspire them to do better. As a gift of balm for the wounds of the past, he made winning the rugby World Cup his mission for those first few years of his presidency. He understood the principle of “heaping burning coals on your enemies head”.
At first glance, that statement in itself reeks of revenge, and vindication. Yet, if a person were to conduct a valid study of the referenced Christian scripture, they would find the source of this strategy of doing good to overcome evil sound. “But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.” Romans 12:20
I have a mentor that I have had the pleasure of sitting at the knee of from time to time. He originates from Lebanon, is a converted Muslim, has a doctorate in Christian theology, is fluent in Hebrew, and describes this scenario from scripture as thus: In the ancient cities, and villages of the Middle East, due to the sparseness of these villages, as well as the importance of life giving fire, it was a common practice to offer passing strangers a coal from the communal hearth. This communal hearth was maintained by the village, and kept perpetually burning. Travelers often didn’t possess the means to start a fire, and when they ventured into town, whether they might later prove to be enemies, or not, they were presented with a bowl of embers from the hearth, which custom of the time involved carrying balanced on the head. They were offered a spot within the protective walls of the village, and treated as brothers. The Hebrew words for “enemy, and stranger” are loosely synonymous, and derive from the same root word. So when we treat a stranger, or an enemy, with kindness, rather than hostility, by giving them something so important of ourselves, as life sustaining fire, or the likes, we offer them an alternative to what they might have expected from us in view of the circumstances. A stranger comes, expecting wariness, or hostility, and is offered a place at the hearth, he becomes a friend. An enemy comes, expecting perhaps at the least hostility, and at the worst open warfare, yet receives instead kindness, he may very well change his perspective on the situation, and become an ally.
This is Grace applied. And while I admit that I have been aware of this explanation of the scripture, and it’s applied intent, for some years, this is by far the best example of it applied in the real world that I have observed. In fact, as I watched the movie, and Mandela explained to his constituents his reasoning for re-instating the rugby team, I turned to my wife, and exclaimed to her these very words….” Heaping burning coals on their heads, that’s what it means! " The success of the practice is history. A nation was re-united, and a shining example of ambivalence, and grace was presented to the world in real time. An ancient rite, applied in modern times, lends credibility to the golden rule…”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Would that we could, and would, continue the lesson………..Unconquered Grace