Nelson Mandela’s birthday was last week. I watched an excerpt from an interview done with him by Bill Moyer some years after he was released from his 27 years in prison. Moyer asked him if he personally was mistreated in prison. Mandela said he and others were subjected frequently cruelty and abuse. They were deprived of freedom in their most productive years of life. They were tortured, beaten and isolated.
Moyer asked if the prisoners felt hatred toward the people who guarded them and tortured them. Mandela was not a saint. He was a flawed human being who was in the middle of a violent and hate-filled struggle. His response to Moyer’s question, however, is worth pondering. He said that the wardens who worked in the prison were human beings. They had problems in their lives as well and, in many ways, were also exploited by apartheid. They, too, were victims of a system they could not control. Mandela said he and his fellow prisoners reached out to their guards and tried to help them with their problems, prayed for them and their families. As a result, they developed a relationship with the very people who imprisoned them. Because Mandela and his fellow prisoners saw their wardens’ humanity, they could not hate them.
It is hard to hate people, even those who hurt us, if we see them as fellow human beings and people like ourselves in some way. One of the techniques used in effective propaganda is to dehumanize the enemy, to make those who are on the opposite side of a problem seem unlike us. The conflict is depicted as one between us and them. “They” are not like us. They are aliens, liberals, conservatives, unpatriotic, anti-this, pro-that. We are, on the other hand, godly, patriotic, wise, thrifty, and brave. It is easy to hate those we understand to be evil, lazy and just plain bad. It is easy to buy into being told that those “others” are just not good like we are. The flattery of that can sway our thinking in dangerous ways to advocate for things that hurt us in the long run. Doing what Mandela did is much harder.
How would the debate on many of the issues we struggle with in the world be different if we did what Mandela did? Would the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, or any other conflict in the world, find a solution if each side tried to help solve the problems of the enemy instead of retaliating against them?
What would happen to the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing our borders from Central America if we saw them not as “illegals” but as some other mother’s children? How would we want our children treated in another country if the problem were reversed? How bad would things have to be at home for you or me to send our twelve year olds across Mexico and over one of the world’s best guarded borders?
If we see these children’s mothers as less caring and different from ourselves, it is easy to separate our lives and our experiences from theirs. The people I have met while on mission trips to Mexico and to Haiti have made me realize that parents love their children. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin or the language you speak or the culture in which you live. Parents love their children and want what is best for them. Poverty, hunger, and violence force even loving parents to do things we would not do.
What if, instead of defending ourselves and our own little piece of the world from those “others” we think are trying to take it from us, we prayed for them? What if we worked to make life better for others? What if we took Jesus’s advice to love our enemies and our neighbors?
Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota, whose birthday was also last week, said, “We all do better when we all do better.” Resisting the urge to see issues as us versus them and working, instead, for the common good makes life better for everyone. It is in our own best interests to question those Facebook posts, news releases, political advertisements and letters to the editor which depict those who disagree as less human than ourselves. Doing so makes it harder for others to manipulate our opinion and to persuade us to work for and vote for things that are detrimental to our own and others’ best interest.
I have some work to do to before I can follow either Mandela’s or Wellstone’s advice.
Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains