What makes one a good person? Additionally, what makes one a good Christian? I have been spending some time wondering about this as news of Mandela’s death has been making it’s way across the planet. Was he a good man? I think so, but how do we measure that? How do we know? And if, as some have claimed, his greatness stemmed from his willing embodiment of his Christian faith, I need to know if he was a good Christian.
Guy Sorman writes of Mandela:
“The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, founded by President Mandela and led by Bishop Tutu, is perhaps the most concrete example of Mandela’s Christian faith. Instead of the vengeance and reprisals that were expected and feared after years of interracial violence, the commission focused on confession and forgiveness. Most of those who admitted misdeeds and even crimes — whether committed in the name of or in opposition to apartheid — received amnesty. Many returned to civil life, exonerated by their admission of guilt.”
Mandela is exemplary not because he was perfect, always kind to everyone he met, an ideal husband and father, but because of these larger virtues that he also attempted to live out. He lived into these virtues — all of them, large and small, and all of them incompletely. But in the attempt, he showed many of us what is possible if we try to be a Good Christian. We sell ourselves short when we keep our call to goodness domesticated, living into "small" virtues. We sell ourselves short when we tell ourselves that our efforts in the larger things will not matter, that our humble place is unexceptional and unworthy of the attempt of such virtue.
"I'm a nice neighbor, kind to dogs and cats. That's enough for me," we may say. It's a good thing, to be certain, but that's not even close to what is asked of us as Christians — as human beings in general — in my not-so-humble opinion. It is not nearly enough. It just barely scratches the surface.
Mandela was in a prison cell. It became his monastery, writes Sorman. Mandela was cut off from the places of power, born an outcast in his own country and became its President. His story is not the story of a great man, but of a person who recognized that “smallness” and “greatness” are a false dichotomy. One is simply called to be good wherever one is, in all the ways that goodness could be offered. And that kind of goodness is often terrifying and even sacrificial. It may ask a great deal of anyone.
To avoid my own fear, I often put the act sacrifice before the virtue. This may also be a common mistake. I am afraid of what I might have to sacrifice, so I go ahead and sacrifice without embodying the good. It’s a false form of self-denial. It’s false humility. It’s a response to the imaginary fear rather than the real situation at hand. And it actually undoes any goodness that may have been needed in the moment. It’s an act of control and not sacrifice.
To be a good person, to be a good Christian, one must live fully in the world. One must respond to what is actually set before us — the real injustices and not the imagined ones and make the real sacrifices and not the veiled attempts at control.
It takes discernment.
On Sunday, my homily to the children and youth at FBC was about Mandela. We have been talking about Christian symbols and the Chrismon tree. So, I spoke about that pesky Jesus fish and then about people who can become symbols of God. Mandela might be such a symbol for people. I made a few ornaments for the Chrismon tree from photos I found of Mandela. I want the young people at my church to recognize how challenging goodness can actually be while instilling in them the hopefulness that must accompany such courage.
The courage to be good is founded upon hope.
I wish to be a good Christian. I wish to be a good person. Like many, I am afraid of what that may actually entail. I am afraid of the sacrifice that comes in the living.
Still, it is Advent. I am called to stand on hope.
Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif. You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at AngloBaptist.org. Follow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.