The week of Sunday, December 8, to Sunday, December 15, was dominated by two major events – the death and burial of Nelson Mandela and Time Magazine’s decision to choose Pope Francis as the 2013 Person of the Year. These events produced extensive writing in every media form available to us. Some of these writings were very factual and some were written by people who for one reason or another did not like these two people.
One of the realities that captivated my interest was the fact that both Mandela and Francis came from poor backgrounds. They experienced firsthand what it means to be hungry, what it means to be considered a secondary person, what it means to work for low wages, and what it means to have rights taken from you. Being poor should not cause one to be embarrassed, but it is not fun at all. Apostle Paul, writing in a different context, tells us that if you can change your station in life for the better, do it. (1 Corinthians 7:21)
Both men had a commitment to Christ – Mandela’s was less known, even though he neither hid his participation in church nor his demonstrated great appreciation for the help that he received from the church during his life time. Pope Francis’ commitment to Christ and the pursuit of this commitment through the Jesuit order up to today when he is the head of the Roman Catholic Church is more obvious. They demonstrated that sometimes people can accomplish much by being very open about their commitment to Christ, and some people can accomplish much by doing exactly what God wants them to do without talking about it.
Both men were accused of socialism or Marxism (and Mandela by some of being a terrorist). It seems that the term socialism is thrown around whenever there is social disagreement. I remember reading that the founders of Salvation Army were accused of socialism. No one would say that today about the Salvation Army, but they once bore that accusation as well. At the same time, the plight of the poor, powerless, marginalized, and dispossessed should be the concern of every human being. It is a misreading of the Gospel if one does not see that Jesus Christ did not only preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, but wanted that Kingdom to be implemented by His followers on this earth. The higher one’s position is from the poor, the more difficult it becomes to understand them and help them. (In one organization I worked in, the top leadership proposed that we receive half of the proposed increase that our lower paid brothers and sisters in the organization would receive. One of our trustees argued that if we do this, we would do an injustice to the top leadership. We could not convince him that on the percentage basis, we received more than what the people at the bottom received.)
Last year, I received a book on Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Douglas and Lincoln were very different in so many ways, yet, in a unique way, both were giants and both of them influenced for good the world in which they lived. Mandela and Pope Francis are so different from one another (in spite of the commonalities that I have lifted up), yet they are giants in their ways. One person eulogizing Mandela said that perhaps he was the greatest person in the 20th century, while another person said there is a good possibility that this pope will become one of the best popes that history has seen. Yet, both of them had a connection with Jesus Christ, who in the week that he was born, did not dominate any newspaper headlines, yet people willingly give their lives to Him, and in doing this, they create a better world.