There's been a bit of an Orwellian vibe about recollections of Nelson Mandela since he died. People who had previously called him a terrorist are now calling him a freedom fighter. World leaders are comfortable saying that he stood for forgiveness and non-violence, while conveniently forgetting to mention that he disn't always advocate for non-violence and the connections he drew between apartheid in South Africa and the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis and Indigenous Australians by settler Australians.
My fear is that history will re-write the story of Mandela in the same way that I think happened to Jesus. Enthusiastic Christians who can't help but maintain the structural violence of the church seem to equate Jesus with patriarchal, homophobic and oppressive beliefs, forgetting that Jesus was considered a terrorist by the Romans, was willing to take a stand against injustice in all its forms, and would have had far more in common with the more radical left of the modern church than with Tony Abbott and George Pell.
I remember reading an article by Walter Wink, a progressive Christian theologian, about Jesus' teachings from a non-violent social change perspective. It's called "The Third Way" and sheds new light on the "turn the other cheek" passage. His message was possibly more like training for freedom riders and radical activists than a message of passivity.
When the slappee turned the other cheek, the slapper is faced (excuse the pun) with a dilemma; they must choose between using their left hand (unclean) or using a backhanded slap (only delivered to children or slaves, so makes them look really bad) to slap the other cheek.Taking all the clothes from your back and standing there naked is another way to humiliate the oppressor, as apparently nakedness was as much an embarrassment for the viewer as the one who was naked. Carrying the soldier's pack a second mile infringed the military code and created a dilemma for the soldier.
So, according to Wink, Jesus was never suggesting that people passively resist, he was giving them clever tools for resisting, humiliating, and surprising their oppressors. They were techniques for taking back power through creativity and surprise. The important thing for me is that Jesus, like Mandela, didn't stand for passive resistance, forgiveness without justice or maintaining structures of violence.Yet, the story has been diluted over time and we rarely hear Jesus referred to as an activist or freedom fighter anymore.
So, I hope that when we remember Mandela, we remember the entire, complicated, human and committed man that he was, and note that he questioned and opposed oppression and apartheid everywhere, right up until his death. And I hope we don't try to squeeze him into a convenient box that fits the current political climate.