NUVO has been asking a variety of religious and political leaders to weigh in on the legacy of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at the age of 95. Here's our conversation with the U.S. Representative for Indiana's 7th District, Andre Carson (D).
Carson: I think it's clear that Nelson Mandela will go down in history as one of our great moral and spiritual giants. Here's a man who spent 27 years in prison, and he was the first black South African to be elected president.Throughout [those] 27 years of incarceration, his spirit was never broken. I think with his death, the world has lost one of its most unwavering advocates for democracy and freedom. His administration — he was a one-termer, dismantled apartheid, he tackled institutional and systemic racism in South Africa and he really led the effort to start the process of healing racial issues, not only in South Africa but that effort resonated into the United States of America.
We saw his evolution, [going] from militant to prisoner to ... this global ambassador. From his example, I think we can really learn the science of forgiveness, what it means to withstand unjust treatment, deep levels of discrimination, deep levels of dehumanization, and still come out loving all of humanity.
NUVO: Did [Mandela] influence you at all when you were considering a career in politics?
Carson: Without question. I think the fact that he spent his early years as an activist certainly inspired [me when I was younger] ... he shows that no matter where you come from in life, you still have value as a human being and your talents can be utilized to improve the condition of not only a particular group but all of humanity.
NUVO: As you mentioned, he seemed to have no bitterness toward the people that imprisoned him, and I think that surprised those who had been radicalized in their approaches to social injustice.
Carson: I think that kind of experience could make even the most peaceful person become resentful. But he demonstrated a kind of Christ-like behavior, a kind of Buddha-like behavior, and he embodied what all of our religious traditions talk about in the way of forgiveness. I think most importantly he will inspire a new generation that [doesn't seem] to have the same kind of fervor we've seen in previous generations.We live in a [time] where social media is prominent ... I think it has taken away from the communal behavior that we had before when we would meet up at a religious house or a coffeehouse and bring awareness, [talk about] social justice through civil disobedience and those kinds of things. We have to get back to that.
NUVO: How do you think we alert a generation that might not be familiar with Mandela as to the kind of impact that he had?
Carson: I think it's important that we highlight his legacy beyond two weeks from now. Once the ceremony has gone away, I think we still have to talk him up when we talk about Dr. King, we have to talk him up when we talk about Jesus, when we talk about the example of Mohammed, the example of the Buddha, the example of Abraham and all of the greats; Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer — we have to talk up Mandela.
President Obama said it best: "He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages." Certainly he'll become mythologized like all of the greats, but ... [don't forget] he was labeled as a terrorist by the United States until 2008. He still managed to come out without any indication of bitterness, any indication of hatred toward those who oppressed him, urging all of us to come together as one human family. That is phenomenal.
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