Why does it take this slow world so long to learn the lessons taught by visionaries like Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela?
That lesson, briefly, is this: That violence begets violence and leads to misery; that peace when given a chance can have happy results for all.
You would think after all the wars, border conflicts, nationalist eruptions and savage killings in the past century, people everywhere would shout, “Enough!” But butchery continues. There is a grisly list of conflicts, post World War II, whose very names conjure up unimaginable horrors: China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Nigeria, Algeria, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bosnia-Serbia-Croatia, terrorist attacks, Darfur . . . well, there is virtually no end to this grim litany of slaughter.
South Africa could easily have turned into a major bloodbath. Apartheid, an evil form of segregation, had brought about vicious behavior from the white police goons who enforced that system of oppression. Apartheid, like many oppressive forms of governance in Africa, was a direct result of the years of colonial dictatorships imposed by European powers on that vast continent.
What is so amazing – even to the point of “miraculous” – is that three of the greatest leaders of all time emerged to save the day: Ghandi in British-dominated India, King in the Jim Crow racist American South and Mandela in South Africa. What they all had in common was a passionate, fearless commitment to non-violence in their finest hours.
All three were indeed visionaries, and yet they were not starry-eyed dreamers. On the contrary, they were rigorously practical, dealing with ever-changing social and political realities on a day-to-day basis. They didn’t willy-nilly wish peace into existence; they made it happen through negotiations based on sheer strength of character – namely, their courage, integrity and compassion.
Mandela said, “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.” He also said something about hatred being like someone drinking poison while hoping it will kill the enemy. What Ghandi, King and Mandela all had in common, most of all, was their deep understanding of how forms of oppression and violence harm both the victims and the perpetrators. They knew it’s the victims who suffer most directly, most hideously. But they also understood freedom can also “free” the perpetrators from their own system-imposed behaviors. People who commit violence against their fellow human beings turn into crippled, twisted, self-loathing people. There are exceptions, such as the lineup of notorious sociopathic monsters in history, who never feel any guilt or shame. However, in general, people understand on some level it’s not normal or acceptable to treat others with contempt and the use of violence just to maintain an imposed “system.”
How in the world could Mandela become such a serene and forgiving man after spending 27 cruel years in prison? He was also painfully aware of how many of his people had been persecuted, tortured and killed by the apartheid powers that be. How could he not have longed for the bloodiest of vengeance should he ever be freed from prison? But he didn’t. Instead, he somehow channeled those years of suffering into a force for good, knowing revenge would just cause more suffering and death for everyone involved in an eruptive conflict, most of all among the victims of apartheid.
Mandela often said the success of democracy in South Africa was the result of many people and many forces. That is true. World pressure on the apartheid regime had a salutary shaming effect on those in power. Two of the reasons for that shaming effect were the visions and realities brought into the world by those two other great pioneers for peace: Ghandi and King, and long before them, great American author-philosopher Henry David Thoreau – he of “Walden’s Pond” who advocated non-violence as a force for social and political change. Thoreau was a direct influence on Ghandi, King and Mandela.
One of the classic folk songs from the 1960s is “Where Have All the Flower Gone?” It’s so famous even now most people are aware of its haunting refrain. The singer asks where have all the flowers gone, girls gone, soldiers gone, graveyards gone? To which, after every question, is another persistent question: “Oh, when will they ever learn? Oh, when will they ever learn?”
As the great Nelson Mandela is laid to rest after 95 heroic years in this weary world, we should be actively seeking an answer to that urgent question, “Oh, when will we ever learn?”