It was a great day for a new country: its first popularly elected President was taking office. Many people were celebrating, and a few weren’t: they saw it as the beginning of the End of their dreams. When Nelson Mandela walked down the hallways, he saw white civil servants packing their belongings. So the first thing he did was call them together, and he told them that if they didn’t think they could work with the new administration, then they should go, but if they thought they COULD work with the new leadership, it was important for them to stay for the sake of the country. This wasn’t going to be story of other countries where a new Black Majority kicked out the Whites who used to rule as Colonials, who turned the power systems upside down. He didn’t care who they used to work for, or what party they belonged to, if they were willing to work for the common good, they were needed. They were going to work together for a new nation. Some of them stayed.
It wasn’t long before this move toward reconciliation was put to test: four threatening white men walked into the security office and presented their credentials to serve as Presidential bodyguards. The Chief of Security was shocked: not very long ago these kind of men were seeking them out to arrest them, or worse. He went to Mandela to complain. Mandela said they were good at their jobs, had great training, wanted to work with the new government. and he wanted to be seen with them as his protectors.
Perhaps the most stunning part of history portrayed in the movie Invictus was the rugby team’s trip to the Robben Island. The fact the mostly white team was still together and representing South Africa was due to Mandela’s personal intervention and patronage. When they got back, the team captain said: “What I can’t understand is how he could spend 30 years in a place like that and come out ready to forgive the people who put him there.”
Paul has something challenging to say to us: “All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.” In his time, the new Church was having growing pains, people coming to very different conclusions about what Jesus said and getting very aggravated with those they disagreed with. It’s only human bitter arguments broke out: in early Church councils, it wasn’t unusual for a discussion to end up in a fist fight. Paul recognized the danger of letting emotions get out of control, and letting emotions take over. Anger and bitterness can give us license to devalue the humanity of another person: if someone is wrong and won’t come to their senses, then we have the right to put aside charitable treatment and treat them as an enemy to be conquered.
But Christianity didn’t conquer the Roman Empire, at least, it didn’t conquer it through the means of anger, vengeance, combat, or sabotage. Early Christians prayer for the health of the Emperor and well being of the Empire on a regular basis for two centuries before Constantine legalized Christianity. Christians started out as a persecuted minority, reviled as being idiots, and in the end it CONVERTED the Empire. Christians persevered because they faced their persecution calmly and extended their generosity without conditions. The popular acceptance of Christianity was well underway by the time it was legalized, and eighty plus years after that, it became the official religion of the Empire.
There is a lot to be angry about right now: we live in a culture that considers vengeance a basic right. We don’t seem to do in our thinking or our speaking is recognize the cost of anger, how it warps our perspective, how it poisons what’s good in our lives, how it points us inward to a spiral of self-destruction. Anger can bring a community together, but it can bring it together as a mob ready to tear down, a mob out of control.
Paul calls us to let go of anger. Doing that isn’t about letting go of our witness to injustice, isn’t about calling for wrongs to be set right. Letting go of anger isn’t about making the sins of the past acceptable or saying they don’t matter. Letting go of anger means we can still honor all people with the human dignity they were born with, a dignity that cannot be given away or removed as punishment for a crime.
Letting go of anger means seeing people as God sees them, seeing the people God loves unconditionally. Sharing the Eucharist is about letting go of anger: that’s why we have a Sign of Peace. Peace must be at the center of everything we do, even moving on from an ugly past, because that’s the only way the Peaceable Kingdom of God comes about.