When I was in Sri Lanka several years ago, not long after the end of its civil war, I had a long discussion over curry lunch with a man with whom I work, Nimal, about Nelson Mandela. If only Sri Lanka had its own Nelson Mandela, we lamented, perhaps the next generation could be liberated from the cycle of violence, resentment, revenge violence, entrenchment. But there were few Lankan voices at that time, or now, who were advocating the kind of message of reconciliation Mandela advanced: one that recognized the atrocities of the past, told the truth about them, yet advocated a compassionate and collaborative moving forward into a just future free of vengeance, beyond the suffering all had experienced. No victor’s justice. Of course, the end of the war in Sri Lanka, won by the government still in power, was very different from the end of apartheid in South Africa, with its change of political structure and its appointment of a former “terrorist” as president. So the analogy could only work so well. But the point was taken: that the end of war does not mean the end of suffering, and it’s rare to find people who rise out of the ashes and destruction of war with a clear vision and a compassionate heart that moves communities out of the cycles of violence, social-psychological divisions, communal competition, and into a healthy future. Phoenixes are mythic. Later the lunch conversation turned to Nimal’s family cat who had no name (typical of Sri Lanka). I was giving him a hard time about this feline indignity, especially considering their family dog had a name. Why don’t you call him Nelson Mandela, since this country needs one?, I joked between mouthfuls of curry. The next week when I was home I received an email from Nimal saying his family had named their cat Nelson Mandela. I laughed, delighted that back in Sri Lanka Nelson Mandela was basking in the sun, chasing geckos. And then, a couple years later, I received the following email from Nimal:
This is sad news about our peaceful Nelson Mandela.
This evening it is died peacefully.
My Daughter and son are very sad.
But this is the nature,
I pray Nelson Mendela will have Rest in the peace.
When I received the email my heart caught in my throat for a moment. For a split second I had forgotten that Nimal had named his cat after Madiba. Then I remembered and I felt relief wash over me, before the regret revisited me for Nimal and his family. Losing a family pet is hard.
But not like losing a hero like Madiba, of course. This saint among us, gone. We knew this was coming. He was old and had been sick for months. At my church, we had been commemorating him already, praying for him these past months. The world knew the end was nigh. But still, when death comes, even if you know it is coming, it feels so sudden and absolute. Death is not gradual or gentle; it is immediate and decisive. I assume there will be no other like Nelson Mandela in my lifetime. He is the living saint with whom I was lucky enough to have shared this earth for a brief time, as if breathing the same air could allow me to take something of his soul or spirit into me. But like all saints, like all those messengers of God we revere because they seem somehow human and yet more-than, he is gone. I thank God for eternal life and the knowledge that his spirit continues to shape me and this world, calling us into Kingdom creation. I thank God for his inspiration, the message that he still conveys that it is not namby-pampby, not weakness, not naive idealism, to forgive, to reach out, to strive, to put vulnerability above defense, to hope, to advocate, to critique. To love fiercely, to the point of giving oneself to others despite the fact that they hated you once and may still hate you. That kind of message lives on forever, beyond death, inspiring hope. Maybe even taking root in some young thing now, who will be the Madiba for the next generation. Thank God for eternal life. And Nelson Mandela, may God embrace you home into the heaven that you constantly strove to create here on earth. We shall not give up the fight.
I am very sad.
But this is the nature,
I pray Nelson Mandela will have Rest in the peace.