On February 11, 1990, I was teaching an adult education class in Zeeland, Michigan. No, I do not have some savant-like ability to remember what I did on every day of my life. It’s just that I was reminded of February 11, 1990 last week because that was the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
I heard about Mandela’s release that morning as I was driving to the church in which I was teaching. It was one of those moments when I felt the world had suddenly encountered a seismic shift, that things were better than they’d been the night before, and that the human race had taken a colossal step forward. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with South Africa, but I knew what was going on there. I had read Cry, the Beloved Country and thrilled to the movie Cry Freedom and gotten Alan Boesak to sign a book for me once. I had befriended South African students while in seminary and listened to their sad stories. Now Mandela was free. Look out world!
The first jolt to my optimistic naivety was about to be delivered. I expected the adult education class I was visiting in Zeeland to be as ecstatic about Mandela’s release as I was. I started my class eagerly, sharing the great news I had just heard. They took the news with a glassy-eyed look best described as “dead fish on ice in a shop window.”
Jim Bratt, writing on this website on Saturday, scolded the Christian Reformed Church for their inactivity towards apartheid. Daniel Meeter followed Jim’s post with a comment more charitable toward the RCA. Yet this moment in Zeeland seemed to capture the giant gap between denominational pronouncements and average people. I didn’t sense any hostility from them, any racially biased belief that Mandela was a communist or terrorist or any particular sympathy with their Afrikaans cousins. It’s just that Mandela meant nothing to them. What did his release have to do with the price of corn or what their high school age kids had done the night before or problems in the office furniture industry? By and large, many of them simply had never heard of Nelson Mandela. Those that had didn’t think his release would change a thing, or, if it did, it would change things in a country 8000 miles away but not here.
In a sense they were right. Since Mandela was released from prison Rodney King was beaten, OJ Simpson and George Zimmerman were found not guilty of murder, affirmative action became a political football and the Supreme Court knocked down key sections of the Voting Rights Acts. We live in a racially charged and divided nation.
But it still bothered me, and bothers me to this day, that that particular group of adults didn’t know Mandela, and didn’t identify him as a symbol of hope, equality, justice and freedom. Their sin was more a sin of omission than commission. They didn’t seem to be paying attention.
There is a huge disconnect here. According to Jim Bratt and Daniel Meeter, the CRC officially got apartheid wrong while the RCA officially got it right. As is often the case, those official stands meant little in many places. The church I was in on February 11, 1990, was an RCA church, and, like many churches, it was filled with people staggeringly indifferent to denominational pronouncements. What do we call that gap?
Last Thursday night, when the network newscasts were filled with various tributes and reflections about Mandela, I wondered how many millions changed channels to find something more interesting – a rerun of Two and a Half Men or Wheel of Fortune or Pawn Stars. In many cases those not paying attention are the very ones who should be most grateful that Mandela consistently chose peace and forgiveness over revenge and retaliation. But they didn’t pay attention in 1990, and they’re not paying attention today. As Don McLean sang in a different context some years ago: “They would not listen, they're not listening still, perhaps they never will.”