What do you and Booker T Washington, our recent talent show and Nelson Mandela, have in common?
Booker T Washington said that there are two ways of exerting strength, one is pushing down, and the other is pulling up.
Physics reminds us that it’s generally far easier to push down, because we are aided by gravity. There is a worldwide force to keep things, and people, down.
Part of what makes Holy Trinity unusual is that we spend more time overcoming gravity. We soar over hurdles, and not just at track. And we spend a little more time helping each other up, sometimes after we fall, and sometimes just lifting up a team or an individual who has accomplished good things. For many folks, raised in the Christian faith, it comes back to the golden rule, to do unto others as we would wish to have them do unto us.
And still, there is gravity. The temptation to miss an opportunity to be supportive, even to push down rather than to pull up.
That’s where the talent show comes in. Within this beautiful auditorium, there can be a feeling that, because it’s not a formal class, what you do may not matter as much. Sitting in the dark, there may be a feeling that, cloaked by anonymity, what you do may not matter as much, or that there’s even a chance to play for a cheap laugh at someone else’s expense. What you do when you think nobody else is looking, however, is the best judge of your character. And most of you pass that test with flying colors, time after time. In the midst of a stunning display of skills at last week’s talent show, and an even more stunning display of courage, for it does take great courage to stand alone in front of 500 of your peers and offer your best, most of the audience was politely, or even tremendously, appreciative. A few, however, got sucked into that whole gravity thing and pushed down rather than pulling up. And in that moment, they called out for help. By speaking negatively about the performers, they were actually asking us the rest of us for help, for our support to remind them to summon the strength to pull up.
There is a group called the Anti-Defamation League who work toward social justice, to preserve the dignity of each human, to recognize the divine spark, or the God-in-each-of-us if you will. They conduct something called the Names training in which they explore how most of us are in one of four categories each moment of each day. The two easy categories are the perpetrator – a person who does or says something to push another down, and the Victim, the person who is pushed down. The other two categories are a bit trickier. They are Bystander, someone who watches the unkind act and does nothing, and Ally, someone who witnesses the act and either aids the victim or reminds the perpetrator to shift energy from pushing down to lifting up. The truly beautiful gift is that we each have the power each moment of each day to decide which category we will put ourselves into.
If someone at your lunch table tells a sexist joke, you can choose whether to pause before sinking your teeth into a steaming chicken nugget and say something, or not.
So too, if the person sitting in front of you makes a derogatory comment about a performer, you are forced into a decision. Bystander? Or ally?
So, what on earth does this have to do with Nelson Mandela?
How many of you know who Nelson Mandela was?
He was a Perpetrator. While with the African National Congress, he used violence against other people, arguing that it was justified and necessary to combat greater injustice.
He was a Victim, incarcerated and abused for decades by the racist government of apartheid-era South Africa.
He was also an Ally, emerging from prison to risk his life by endorsing non-violence change in South Africa at a time when many forces, both black and white, felt that violence was the only solution.
And, even after he, a black man in South Africa, had unbelievably been elected President, Nelson Mandela resisted the temptation to become a Perpetrator, to visit retribution upon those who had tormented him, those who had used violence against black South Africans to repeatedly push them down, even kill them.
Instead, he chose to devote his remaining years to becoming an Ally. If you have seen the movie Invictus, you know that he chose to actively support the traditionally white South African rugby team as a visible symbol of reconciliation. More importantly, he instituted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, granting amnesty to people who, under apartheid, had committed crimes against humanity, if they simply acknowledged what they had done, if they simply took responsibility for their actions. That meant that the men who jailed and abused him could pass him on the street with complete freedom.
The world mourned Nelson Mandela’s passing last week not because he was a Perpetrator nor because he was a Victim. The world mourned his passing because he became such a powerful Ally, such an outspoken advocate for pulling up rather than pushing down. The remarkable thing is that Nelson Mandela’s actions were universally revered because they are relatively rare. The desire to make the transition from Perpetrator to Ally takes amazing courage and carries with it risk.
I hope that it is clearer what you and Booker T Washington have in common, the ability to pull up. And I also hope that it is clear how we can learn from Nelson Mandela’s example, to choose to the hard right of becoming Allies rather than the easy wrong of being Bystanders.
Head of School
Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy