“Knowing your place” reeks of paternalism, of social control, of political, economic, or religious domination. Yet it may also speak of recognizing your rightful place, your context, your own calling in the scheme of things—not above another, not below another, but next to one another in the march, the dance, the race toward freedom, justice, and peace.
I write these words while watching the memorial service for Nelson Mandela—one who had the audacity and right to call the Queen of England by her Christian name, Elizabeth; one who knew how to disarm an opponent by serving tea, by refusing to humiliate those with whom he struggled, by realizing that the end of apartheid would not bring dignity to black South Africans (whose dignity was inherent) but to the shamed ruling white South Africans. Repeatedly Mandela is recognized as one of an elite circle of African liberators, but one who knew when to step down, when to let others lead, and when, as President Obama has been characterized, to be seen as “leading from behind.”
According to The New York Times:
In his autobiography, Mr. Mandela recalled eavesdropping on the endless consensus-seeking deliberations of the tribal council and noticing that the chief worked “like a shepherd.”“He stays behind the flock,” he continued, “letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”That would often be his own style as leader and president.
Noting a memorial service speaker visibly angry at the crowd singing as she tried to speak, a news commentator got it right when observing that Mandela’s approach would’ve been to start swaying and dancing to their music before attempting to address the gathering.
In an interview this week as a Kennedy Center honoree, the performer Santana declared that truly great musicians “remind you of a song you already know.” I think that’s also true of truly great leaders, political or spiritual.
Those of us watching surely feel humility in this celebration of Mandela’s greatness. Our own roles on life’s stage may feel like bit parts, walk-ons, stagehands, or audience. “Knowing our place” means appropriate humility. But, as Mandela’s royal tribal lineage might have helped his confidence addressing “the powers that be,” our own lineage, made in the image of God and fellow citizens with the saints in God’s commonwealth, may give us similar confidence.
The words of the old Hasidic Rabbi Zusya both comfort and challenge: “In the life to come, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
And in his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen reminds, “The great saints of the past don’t ask for imitation. Their way was unique and cannot be repeated. But they invite us into their lives and offer a hospitable space for our own search.”
Some of you know my fondness for the metaphor of God as shepherd, one who persuades rather than coerces, one who “leads from behind,” one who “reminds us of a song we already know,” one who invites us into the divine life, offering “a hospitable space for our own search” in making our unique contributions to the world.
Mandela once said he was not a saint, “unless a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.” His life invites us to keep trying.
God Is Not a Control Freak
Post related to the first anniversary of the Newtown massacre:
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