Nelson Mandela died several weeks ago at 95 years of age. Rarely has one man been able to so dramatically change an entire nation, at least a man who was not born to the throne or the power elite. Mandela used the tools of remarkable patience, incredible persistence and gracious humility to accomplish the end of apartheid in South Arica. In his younger days he tried more confrontative, and even violent approaches which landed in him prison for 27 years. Well, mostly what landed him in prison was simply opposing apartheid.
I am doing a sermon series on Gideon from Judges right now and Gideon was an insignificant man (though a part of a powerful family, just as Mandela was in his tribe) who rose from obscurity to radically change his world too. But before Gideon got started with changing Israel, he transformed his own family, knocking down the Asherah pole in the front yard an destroying the alter to Baal. He even sacrificed the prized calf set apart for his father’s Baal sacrifice to Jehovah on the rebuilt altar. One of the things that was impressive about Mandela was that he saw how the approach of most of his fellow protestors and colleagues was not working and in stead of getting bitter he changed his surroundings and strategy.
Ironically it was from a prison cell that Mandela had his greatest impact as he became a symbol of an oppressed people. I do not know enough South African history to have much insight into Mandela’s full impact, but I do know how difficult it is to effect that kind of change.
When we get entrenched in a way of doing things, even if it is a terribly dysfunctional way, (such as apartheid), we can justify almost anything to avoid the painful necessity of change. Thinking about the current landscape of US politics highlights this point dramatically. Somewhere deep in our national conscience we know we can’t go on accumulating these kinds of debts for our grandchildren to bear, yet we do. We know Social Security is in terrible long term trouble, but we do nothing. We know massive numbers of poor children are continuing to languish without fathers in the home and without decent education, yet we keep peddling on the same cycle of insanity. We know the culture will languish as people turn their back on marriage and traditional family values, but instead of embracing such values, we mock their “value.”
But before we get too critical of our government, or our culture, it occurs to me that the faith community is no different. We also resist needed change. We spend a good deal of the time in denial. We face this now in the SBC. After impressive growth throughout its existence, the Southern Baptist Convention plateaued a decade ago and has since begun a steady decline. In the face of shrinking congregations, lessening influence, and diminishing baptisms, what do we do? We fuss with one another over music and soteriology and strategy. We hold on to our past securities, and our personal preferences hardly realizing these are not flotation devices, they are anchors. We can’t figure out how to truly engage our culture so we wash our hands of the culture and barricade ourselves behind our past glories. If not careful, soon we will become as obsolete as, well…. a balanced government budget.
The truth shall set you free