Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Playing the enemy: common grace and wisdom

A few weeks ago I read John Carlin's excellent book Playing the Enemy. It tells the story of Nelson Mandela's project of nation building in post-apartheid South Africa, climaxing with the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.

It's rare that a retelling of events in recent history that are in my own living memory can evoke as much emotion as they did at the time. John Carlin's book almost moved me to tears as I was led to appreciate the great significance of the events that formed the Rainbow Nation. I understand the book is to be made into a film, and I should imagine that it will transfer across media very well.

The book is really a biography of Mandela himself. He is represented as a political genius - using his charm and charisma pragmatically to achieve what he wanted, and being very aware of his surroundings. Mandela is quite a hero of mine, and whilst the book sometimes overstates his saintlike qualities, I felt I understood him further after this sketch.

One of the things that I've found myself responding to time after time is Mandela's strategy to always expect the very best to come out of a conversation, even those in situations of confrontation. Time and again, Mandela seems to go beyond reasonable expectation in giving his opponents the benefit of the doubt. He seems to assume that people are generally good - undoubtably corrupted by other influences - but good nonetheless. Here's a case in point of Mandela at work, responding on radio to one far-right opponent Eddie von Maltitz:

For a full three minutes he [von Maltitz] ranted and raved at Mandela - communism that, terrorists the other, the destruction of our culture, civilised standard, and norms. He ended with a brutally direct threat. "This country will be embroiled in a bloodbath if you carry on walking with the Communist thugs."
After a tense pause, Mandela replied, "Well, Eddie, I regard you asa worthy South African and I have no doubt that if we were to sit down and exchange views I will come closer to you and you will come closer to me. Let's talk, Eddie."
"Uh... Right, okay, Mr. Mandela," Eddie muttered in confusion. "Thank you," and he hung up.
[page 151]
I've been made to return to Mandela's strategy on several occasions in recent days. I wonder if often tense meetings would be made easier if we gave our opponents the benefit of the doubt as Mandela did. Mandela's theology seems to imply universal goodness and evil systems. A closer Biblical theology is of universal depravity of all human hearts. But I wonder whether our understanding of this true theological diagnosis of the heart sometimes causes us to put limits on the common grace he has placed into the hearts of all humans, and leads us into unnecessary confrontation and arguments when they might be diffused.

1 comment:

Elisabeth said...

Defused, I think you meant...?