Nelson Mandela Reflection from our Moderator

During our most recent board meeting, our moderator, John Modschiedler, gave one of his usual stirring reflections. He chose to add some context to the life and death of Nelson Mandela, and I wanted to share with you all. Thank you, John, for your leadership as moderator. —Pastor Julian

For this last board meeting of 2013 and my last as moderator, I’d like to do some brief personal reflection in the light of the passing away of President Nelson Mandela and what it and my reflections may have to do with us here at University Church.

As a pastor’s son, and my mother’s being the daughter of a pastor, I obviously grew up in the church, and you begin to hear about all the “stuff” that goes on in the First Testament of our Bible, including a lot of battles in war–some at God’s direction. (Oh, well, I guess that’s just the way things were back in all that ancient history.) Then, of course, there’s the Second Testament, and you learn about Jesus, who’s later called the Christ. He’s essentially a nonviolent religious and social revolutionary. There’s just that one incident when he gets angry and throws the commercial folks out of the temple for abusing it. But then he has to sacrifice his life and die in a most violent way so that we all may be reconciled with God.

A year and a half after I was born, WWII broke out in Europe; then Pearl Harbor happened–yesterday in 1941. Along the way you learn about Martin Luther’s “Here I stand, I can do no other”; Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death,” and the American Revolution; the near genocide of the native people; and slavery; but then you learn about Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution in India and Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent struggle, following in Jesus’s and Gandhi’s footsteps, including their own violent deaths, not to mention all the others who lost their lives in the civil rights movement. In different contexts we remember some more of our country’s violent history: the Civil War, the assassination of presidents and a major candidate, Bobby Kennedy.

What shall it be for us Christians: the age-old Cain and Abel way of violence and war or the new way of Jesus and nonviolence? The Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and H. Richard, major figures in our own church’s heritage and in modern Christianity, argued over pacificism (H. Richard) vs. non-pacificism (Reinhold) in the context of whether the USA should enter the war against Nazism. Pearl Harbor “decided it.”

Nelson Mandela, a Methodist Christian, began participating in peaceful protests, but then the apartheid government of South Africa massacred 69 and wounded 200 in Sharpeville. Thinking “peaceful protests” had failed, Mandela turned to violent protests not aimed at any human beings. But then, as we well know, upon his release after 27 years in prison, and soon becoming president, he pursued a nonviolent path of truth and reconciliation to heal his county with major help from Bishop Desmond Tutu.

To bring this to its conclusion, I need to go back in time again for a moment. By the time I got to seminary, the various doctrines of atonement, i.e., the way the historical church tried to understand why our salvation had to be accomplished in that gruesome way of the violence of the crucifixion began to bother me. No other religion has an execution as part of its founding event. By the time I got to graduate school at the Divinity School, U of C, I was still bothered by the problems of violence and nonviolence throughout history and specifically within Christianity. It’s what my dissertation–co-directed by Al Pitcher–was about. With the help of a philosophical perspective, I was finally able to accept the violent element in the crucifixion by focusing on the many passages in the Bible that speak of the faithfulness of God. Despite the worst possible violence that human beings could do, namely, execute God’s only son on a cross and thereby accept humans’ violence being done to Godself, God remained faithful to Jesus in his resurrection from the dead. Likewise, whatever decision we make in good faith, whether it be Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler, or Gandhi’s or King’s or Mandela’s decisions to act nonviolently, God will remain faithful to us. That, for me, is our only salvation.

We here at University Church and in our personal lives most probably don’t directly face any such dilemmas as choosing between violence or nonviolence, but we also know those options are being chosen daily, minute by minute, in this violent city, in this most violent country, and in many other places in the world. Nevertheless, I do believe that good seeds are being planted here at University Church that will bring forth nonviolent harvests. I’m grateful to have been a part of it for 44 years now, and I hope many more.

My opening prayer is simply that as a board we continue to plant good seeds. Amen.