COLUMN: Ed Olfert — Dec. 12, 2013

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Ed Olfert
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Ed Olfert

The resource that our denomination has provided to take us through the Advent season is entitled, “O, the mystery of God’s Dwelling!”

I love the word, “mystery” used in the spiritual realm. It reminds me that there is much that is unknowable, which is far beyond us. As such, “mystery” is a call to humility.

Certainly, in these days when the death of Nelson Mandela is still fresh in our memory, we connect his example of how to live with “the mystery of God’s dwelling.” We can learn about God, and how and where God calls us to “dwell” by considering the life of this remarkable man.

The accolades pour in. One politician dubbed him “an icon of dignity.” Another pointed to his example as “the father of forgiveness.” A third, I believe our prime minister, used words something like “a moral leader of the world.”

These are not particularly over the top descriptors. They fairly describe aspects of Nelson Mandela.

Media has told some delightful stories of how Mandela touched ordinary Canadians. In one, his entourage was flying over the top of the world and landed in Iqaluit for refueling. As the dignitaries huddled in the cold, waiting for the call to re-board, Mandela noted a group of folks peering at him through a chain link fence some distance away. Mandela was told they were “Eskimos” and his curiosity immediately had him wander over to the fence for a conversation. He visited for as much time as he had, and the locals remember him as a delightful and curious fellow.

Another glimpse has him entering Parliament to address MPs. Outside, he encounters a group of Métis demonstrators, and impulsively engages them. One of them pulls off his colourful sash and hands it to Mandela. When Mandela appears in the House of Commons, he is wearing that sash.

The story that I find most astounding is that of Nelson Mandela, after 27 years of incarceration for opposing the apartheid system, walking out of prison to continue building a country that has room for the rights and the dignity of all people. It was during Mandela’s time in political power that the Truth And Reconciliation Commission began it’s work of radical healing, setting aside that which traditionally passed for justice in favour of a process that actually held up healing as its goal. The strength of character that allowed him to maintain and build his humanity, to hold bitterness and thoughts of revenge in check, are simply among the best of what we humans are capable. Truly, there’s a mystery there that points to the place of God’s dwelling.

As the tributes continue, a question forms. Could a Nelson Mandela emerge here, in our setting, emerge out of decades in our criminal justice system, emerge and step into a role that will lead us to a more just society? I wonder.

Though the prime minister labels Nelson Mandela a “moral leader,” the political will in Canada is currently moving determinedly in a more punitive direction. Colder, longer, tougher, are the influences that are felt from the towered places. Support and programs are being stripped away, leaving a bare existence with little hope or encouragement.

Incarcerated men and women are human beings. They are siblings and children and parents and grandparents. As such, they are, I suggest, our potential Nelson Mandelas.

No? Ed going off on his bleeding heart rant again? Ignoring the fact that these are criminals, losers, gang bangers and perverts? Ignoring the victims that have been created?

In almost 30 years of relating to offenders, I’ve noted a few things. First, offenders are also victims. That’s obvious. I won’t insist on 100 per cent because I don’t know 100 per cent, but no one else does either.

Second, offenders are human beings. Offer compassion and it will be offered, in some form, at some time, it will be offered back to you. I find that fascinating. I find that hopeful. I find that holy.

I also find within that observation a determination that we do justice differently. If we acknowledge that human beings will most probably offer of their best out of hope, out of positive experiences from other human beings, then the pendulum needs to swing back toward dignity, compassion, healing. Certainly the countries and jurisdictions that have moved in those directions have seen reasons to be hopeful.

Can we acknowledge that there is mystery in all aspects of Creation? Can we imagine a God who dwells in places we could never assume? Can we exchange the manger story with one a little more tactile? Can we imagine hope walking out of our prison doors?

Organizations: House of Commons, Truth And Reconciliation Commission

Geographic location: Iqaluit, Canada, Ed

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