I have just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. What a great read! I met so many people, black and white, in South Africa this summer that spoke of Mandela with deep admiration and respect for how he helped liberate South Africa from racial oppression. He spent 27 years away from home and family as a political prisoner, and came out of that incarceration with the language of reconciliation not vengeance. I wanted to read his story and see what made him tick.
It is a marvelous story of someone’s passion for freedom and the price he was willing to pay to help his entire nation get there. Many times he could have chosen a simpler course for himself that would have just made the best of the status quo, and instead he continued to risk his own personal well-being for a larger freedom. How could he do it? Perhaps this quote from the last few pages of his book give you some clue:
It was the desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk. I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another manâ€™s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone elseâ€™s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and he oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off oneâ€™s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.
I have walked the long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
I realize Mandela’s view of freedom is somewhat different from my own and I realize the price he paid has been far greater than I have ever been asked to pay. But I also find that we have a similar heartbeat. On my journey I have continued to hear the whisper of the Spirit, “Set my people free.” That has carried me through so many seasons, and as I stand at the bring of 2006, I second Mandela’s words, “my walk is not yet ended…”