Forgiveness One of the Great Gifts We Can Give

They say that there are more than 7 billion people on the Earth. I personally believe that only God knows the exact count. It probably changes every second.

We don’t even know who lives in our own neighborhoods. There is no way for us to know who all is living on the Earth. There are good people, bad people, and down right ugly people, not necessary ugly in outward appearance, but in actions and attitudes. There are also beautiful people not just in outward appearance but also in actions and attitudes. Last week we put to rest a man who may have done some ugly things in his past, but turned it around and for the overwhelming majority of his life did some beautiful things. It was said and it is true that it is an honor to have been on the planet at the same time as Nelson Mandela.

Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in the tiny village of Mvezo, South Africa. “Rolihlahla” in the Xhosa language is said to mean “troublemaker.” He was the first in his family to attend school. A British teacher encouraged him to change his first name to Nelson.

His first political office of record was at the University College of Fort Hare, the only college for blacks to attend in South Africa at the time. There, Nelson Mandela was elected as what we would call the student council president. While there he helped change the food menu in the cafeteria. It was considered a big issue to the students. He did this by organizing student protests and boycotts and finally resigning from his position as an act of defiance, no longer wanting to work with the college authority. He was eventually expelled from school because of this action.

He then ran away from home and settled in Johannesburg, where he completed his bachelor’s degree via correspondence classes. He then enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study law.

During that time he joined the anti-apartheid movement by getting involved in the African National Congress, better known as the ANC, in 1942. At the same time he founded the law firm Mandela and Tambo, partnering with Oliver Tambo. The firm provided free and low-cost legal counsel to unrepresented blacks. In 1956, Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason for their political advocacy. In 1961, he changed from doing nonviolent protest and began to believe armed struggle was the only way to achieve change.

That same year, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers’ strike. In 1963, he was brought to trial. He and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses. He was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison. He contracted tuberculosis while in prison, but he also earned a bachelor of law degree through the University of London correspondence school.

In 1981, he became a symbol of black resistance that caused an international campaign for his release. In 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison. In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela’s release in exchange for renouncing the struggle. It wasn’t until Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by F.W. de Klerk that Mandela’s release was finally announced on Feb. 11, 1990.

In 1991, he was elected president of the African National Congress. In 1993, Mandela and President de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for working toward ending apartheid. On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic election. Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first black president at the age of 77, making former President de Klerk his first deputy.

From 1994 to June 1999, he worked to bring about the transition from minority rule and apartheid to majority rule. In 1995, he helped South Africa come to the world stage by hosting the Rugby World Cup. In 1996, he signed into law a new constitution for the nation, establishing government rule and at the same time guaranteeing the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression for all. That same year he retired from active politics. He fought against AIDS, a disease that killed his son in 2005. His last public appearance was at the final match of the World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

On December 5, at the age of 95 Mandela died at home in Johannesburg.

All of these are a bunch of facts that lead to one conclusion: He believed in forgiveness and new beginnings.

Someone has said that if forgiveness was easy everybody would do it.

Louis Smedes, a famous author, said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Someone else said, “Forgiveness is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.”

Each generation gets a chance to show forgiveness in a unique way. Over 60 years ago, Germany surrendered to end World War II in Europe. To honor the occasion in the mid-1980s, President Reagan decided to visit Bitburg, a military cemetery in Germany, for the stated purpose to “bring to people an awareness of the great reconciliation that had taken place” between the U.S. and West Germany, now a major ally.

Here was Reagan, trying to be a man of peace, celebrating reconciliation along with Helmut Kohl, former chancellor of Germany, who supported him on controversial missile deployment. But the plan backfired. The cemetery included graves of 49 S.S. troops, responsible during the war for numerous atrocities, especially against Jews. Many Americans were deeply offended that the president would honor the memory of these war criminals. Almost like President Obama shaking the hand of Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

Maybe it was like when Pope John Paul II said his prison meeting with Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca, in which the pontiff shook hands with and forgave his would-be assassin, was a “historic day in my life.” Agca, a Moslem who once said he shot the pope because he was a symbol of Christianity, bent one knee and kissed John Paul’s hand on December 27, 1983 at the end of the 21-minute meeting in Agca’s cell in the Rebibbia maximum security prison.

No wonder Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” I like what Oscar Wilde said: “Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.”

No matter how you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, know that we are most like God when we choose to forgive. It’s one of the best gifts of all.

Guest columnist Cummings is pastor of Bethlehem Apostolic Temple in Wheeling and Shiloh Apostolic Temple in Weirton.