Last week, I was privileged to be included in a U.S. congressional delegation that attended President Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa. The experience was an inspiring one, just as Nelson Mandela’s life uplifted so many of us in decades past.
I readily acknowledge that I was in need of the inspiration I received in South Africa. President Mandela’s passing marked the end of a difficult year for our world, and, especially, for those of us whose lives are troubled by poverty, conflict, violence or personal loss.
Nelson Mandela’s life offered guidance and hope to us all.
The Power of Forgiveness
On the long flight from Washington to Africa, I kept recalling a meeting with Nelson Mandela that I was privileged to attend back in 2005. Of all the wisdom that he shared with me at that time, what moved me the most was his reflections about how he felt when leaving prison after 27 years behind bars.
It was a lesson in the liberating power of forgiveness.
“I knew I was free,” President Mandela observed, “but I couldn’t be completely free unless I forgave those who oppressed me.”
Nelson Mandela’s compelling insight into the forgiving power of the human spirit is expressed in virtually every religious tradition – the calling to love our enemies and those who have oppressed or spited us.
As we pause to reflect during this holiday season, each of us knows that this spiritual wisdom about the power of forgiveness is the truth. Yet, at times, we find it extraordinarily difficult to follow this guiding principle when we, ourselves, are being attacked or harmed.
Nelson Mandela’s example reminds us that our own struggles to free our hearts from bitterness and rancor are worth our engagement. He succeeded in harnessing our God given power of forgiveness – and that success allowed him to unite his country and serve as an example for the world.
The Power of Humility
Forgiving those who have harmed us allows us the clarity of mind to realize another essential truth.
Powerful and effective as a leader, Nelson Mandela touched the king and the janitor in the same way.
In the process of triumphing on the South African stage, he became a positive example for our entire world.
At the core of this continuing impact was his humility. His example reminds us that we all are ordinary people who are called to the extraordinary mission of forging a better and more humane world.
The Power of a Positive Vision
Nelson Mandela’s life teaches us that personal humility expands, not limits, our ability to engage the world in a positive way. Humility allowed his strong sense of mission to become a force for good, rather than an end or obstacle in itself.
He gained the ability to free his nation from the bondage of servitude by first freeing his own spirit.
President Mandela’s long years of struggle taught him that, all too often, we allow our fears, anger or insecurities to forge internal chains that limit the power of our hearts and minds.
“Do not be pushed by your fears and problems,” he often observed. “Be led by your hopes and dreams.”
Nelson Mandela’s Legacy
His vision of the path to lasting freedom may well be Nelson Mandela’s most empowering lesson and legacy.
Life can often be difficult, both for us as individuals and for the societies in which we live. This we know all too well.
Yet, the shining teaching of a single, enlightened human being from South Africa rekindled hope in our troubled world.
If we free ourselves from bitterness and anger, if we live in humility and dedication to the welfare of others, if we stand on our highest principles and have faith, we, too, can create a better day for our families and for the generations yet to be born.
These are not new lessons. They date back to the recorded beginnings of humanity and live at the core of every religious tradition.
Still, in my own life, I have been lifted up by Nelson Mandela’s personal example of the kind of human being we each should aspire to become – selfless, loving, and dedicated to justice for every man, woman and child in our world.
During this holiday season, it is my hope and prayer that Nelson Mandela will continue to enlighten our community. Were he still with us in this life, I believe that he would remind us that our winter prayers express our highest aspirations.
From our differing faith traditions, we receive the Hope central to Christmas, the Light of Hanukkah, the Peace of Islam and the Unity of Kwanza.
“We are children of the same God,” our prayers proclaim. “We belong to the same human family - and we need not be alone in the darkness.”
We can be confident that President Mandela would agree.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.