Responding as Mandela

December 8, 2013 | 3 comments
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Nelson_Mandela_painted_portrait_P1040890Driving [1] to work Friday morning the news reports were of course all about Nelson Mandela who had passed away the night before. Mandela was unquestionably a savior on Mt. Zion in the Mormon sense of that term – one who brought life, one who spent his life working to unite those who, because of the tragedies of this mortality, found themselves divided. Like our Savior of old, Mandela led a life that has inspired and will continue to inspire millions around the world and across generations.

We’re all at least somewhat familiar with the hardships he faced – he spent almost as many years a prisoner to an unjust regime as our Savior lived altogether. During this time he often took inspiration from the popular poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

Mandela’s was certainly an unconquerable soul.

Continuing in to work Friday morning, I traveled across Key Bridge. There were police all across the bridge, a police boat in the waters beneath, and a police helicopter in the air above, searching for the body of someone who reportedly jumped earlier that morning.

And there is the world we live in – a world of heroes and saviors, women and men who exalt us and lead us to be more like our Heavenly Parents. And a world whose tragedies and hardships are so burdening as to lead some 30,000 of our brothers and sisters each year in this country alone to take their own life.

It’s worth pointing out that for us Mormons this duality is not merely an aspect of mortal life; rather it is a cosmic contradiction. When Elohim’s divine plan was triumphantly presented, when the daughters and sons of God shouted for joy at the presentation of the Plan of Happiness, a war ensued in which a third part of God’s children were lost. And Mormon accounts of the Celestial Kingdom include a God of transcendent love who both rejoices and weeps over our lives.

Christmas embodies this contradiction. A time of holiness and happiness, openness and giving, gathering and celebration. It is also a time of stress and anxiety, family disappointments and meltdowns, and a time when the pain of the loss of loved ones is often felt most intensely. In my own family Christmas Eve is a time both to celebrate the birth and life of the Messiah and also to commemorate the anniversary of the loss of my maternal Grandmother.

Given this intimate dance of joy and sadness, what are we to do? What should our reaction be? This is one of those profound eternal questions we never get away from and never fully answer. I’m going to give two answers urged by prophets and prophetesses in many cultures, and commonly articulated in our own tradition. Answers that are already hinted at in my remarks above. These are, if I understand correctly, God’s answers – the way that God copes in a universe where, as Abraham and Joseph Smith taught us, God is surrounded by other intelligences, each of whom has agency, agency that affects God.

First, there is Abraham 3:18-21. Here’s Joseph’s gloss: “God found himself in the midst of spirits and glory, and because he was greater, he saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have the privilege of advancing like himself–that they might have one glory upon another and all the knowledge, power, and glory necessary to save the world of spirits.” [2]

This of course dovetails well with what is perhaps the most oft-quoted Mormon verse, Moses 1:39: “This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” And how does God accomplish this? Christ tells his disciples that those of us who are greatest are those who are the least and servants of all – a statement that characterizes the content of our Savior’s life.

What about us then? What are we to do? The answer, of course, is the same thing. “Therefore, that we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them” Like our Heavenly Parents, we are to live an Eternal Life, a life taken up in and devoted to loving service toward our brother’s and sisters. Again, we have Jesus’s endorsement Moses’s declaration that the greatest commandment is to love God and our Neighbor.

What does this divine meaning and purpose in the midst of agency induced chaos amount to for us? At least in part it’s a matter of our realizing that there are no enemies. Neither the liberals nor the conservatives nor those of other ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, other countries, other religions, other militaries, nor the heretics, nor anyone capable of going under the identification of an other tribe – none of them are our enemies.

People from other groups – just like people from our own group – can and do and will make choices that affect us, that harm us, that limit our ability to build Zion. This is true, and it is by no means our duty to support others’ unrighteousness. But it is our duty to support them regardless. Because regardless, they are on our side, our team, and our work and our glory is to love them and enable the divine in them, just as God has and continues to do for us.

We will never be damned for loving too much, even if that love blinds us and leads us to make incorrect choices that are ultimately unhelpful. We will, however, and are already now damned when the way we have of promoting that which is right closes our hearts and souls to those who are not like us or do not share our views.

This is just as true when dealing with a friend of a friend on Facebook as it is when dealing with your next door neighbor or anyone else who curses you or hates you or tries despitefully to use you or persecute you. Our Messiah tells us to love them all.

Here’s Mandela’s wisdom on the subject: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

So in the first place, in response to the glory and heartache that are always intersecting in our lives, we should work and wear out our lives in loving and serving all others.

The second answer I’m emphasizing is hope. I feel the hope of God with regard to my own life. I don’t know if God yet knows where I’ll ultimately end up. I do know that God cannot force exaltation on me. But I also know and feel that God hopes I will accept the gifts of grace and opportunities to progress and return.

Margaret Walker is an ethicist who writes on moral repair. In a recent book she devoted a chapter to the role of hope. She reminds us of how intimately and ubiquitously hope is interwoven into the daily fabric of our lives. In addition to sweetening the mundane, she notes that hope saves us from terror and despair and that being saved from terror and despair is no small thing.

Additionally, she argues that hope is much more than wishful thinking and more than mere emotion. Rather, there is a dynamic efficacy to the nature of hope. “In hoping, we become alert to the ways and means by which the hoped for circumstance could come about. We imagine scenarios in which what is hoped for comes to pass and plays out before us. We create ideas and plans and awaken anticipation, excitement, or pleasure about what its realization and consequences will be like. The most obvious effect of doing any of this is to create motivation and energy that drive us to contribute to the desired outcome: move us to look for openings, imagine alternative routes, consider useful resources, preview motivating rewards, and thus to make what might be barely possible or simply uncertain appear somewhat more likely, and perhaps even within reach.” [3]

The hope of the gospel is a hope in the ultimately meaningful nature of the hardships we all face, hope to receive and impart to others the love of God. This hope not only spares us from despair, but as Walker notes, it is also far more than mere psychological comfort. It orients us in the right ways, opens us to possibilities, and makes it more likely that we will see what is hidden and be motivated to work and utilize our own agency in partnership with God.

Again, Mandela puts it beautifully: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.

In closing: we live in a conflicted universe. There really is genuine tragedy that we confront. Likewise, there is genuine, redeeming glory. On the one hand, partnering with God in wearing out lives in serving our brothers and sisters, working to build Zion, and on the other hand never losing our hope to see the love of God realized – these are two ennobling responses to the intermingling we all face of joy and suffering, keys to finding genuine happiness, both now and for the rest of eternity.

* * * *

[1] This is a version of a sacrament meeting talk I gave today.

[2] King Follett Discourse. Immediately following, Joseph says, “I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life that are given to me, you taste them, and I know you believe them. You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life; I know it is good. And when I tell you of these things that were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and rejoice more and more.” That strikes me as exactly right.

[3] Moral Repair (Cambridge, 2006): 50.

3 Responses to Responding as Mandela

  1. European Saint on December 8, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Thank you for this, James.

  2. Kent Larsen on December 8, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    Very nice.

  3. Robert Ricks on December 9, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Lovely, James. Looking forward to catching up soon.