Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela practiced patience in troublesome times.
Under duress, they taught it’s better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not. When abused, they didn’t strike back at detractors. King and Mandela pursued social justice, which didn’t win them popularity contests. It’s better to deserve honors and not have them, which they modeled in jail, than to acquire plaudits for what’s not deserved.
Their confidence in patience pulled them through harrowing times. South Africa’s apartheid government held Mandela captive for 27 years. He endured, anticipating the day when his unyielding determination to build a just society would be realized. King, also, experienced many short-lived incarcerations. Like fire put to kindling wood, patience tempered his persistence in using nonviolence against racism.
These leaders stirred enthusiasm. They protested the status quo, using persistence as wind in the sails of their cause. At the same time, King and Mandela learned when to be patient. It functioned like a ship’s ballast, which kept their quest for social justice afloat.
What is patience? Scripture teaches that we don’t invent it. We groom patience. We nurse it along. But its genesis lies beyond the human spirit. Patience is a divine gift. “The fruit of God’s Spirit is ... patience ... ” (Galatians 5:23).
King and Mandela put legs under patience by practicing self-restraint. They didn’t retaliate when enemies cursed and struck them. They developed mental tenacity to hold on, rather than lash out. Patience shows itself as grace under pressure. It doesn’t become bitter. It doesn’t violently reciprocate. It confidently handles setbacks with goodwill that ultimately repulses evil.
Patience is the power to see through a vision for social justice, no matter what barriers block its path. Biblical interpreter William Barclay in his book “Flesh and Spirit” notes an idiosyncrasy regarding how we speak about patience. We describe an indignant person as short-tempered. “We do not use what should be the corresponding phrase a long temper, nor do we speak about people being long-tempered,” writes Barclay. If we did, then our English language would capture the heart of biblical patience.
Martin Luther King Jr. personified a long-temper. Using nonviolence to prod Americans to reform a racial caste system in the South, King lost more campaigns than he won. When he broadened civil rights to include a military pull-out from Vietnam, he lost support from Northerners who scorned him as a communist agitator.
Even some African-Americans bailed on King. “We are marching to freedom!” MLK exclaimed in a baritone voice full of hope and courage. “Hell,” scoffed an NAACP cohort who lost patience, “they’re not marching to freedom. They’re marching to jail.” His impatience, given time, proved him wrong. MLK marched to freedom.
When the nation saw Bull Connor’s police dogs attack protesters and fire hoses knock down children, many citizens had enough. Connor’s impatience with justice for all helped deliver the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “Non-violent direct action,” King wrote from a Birmingham jail cell, “seeks to create such a crisis and ... tension that a community ... is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” MLK patiently pressed citizens to bridge social chasms.
Like MLK, Nelson Mandela valued patience. His friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu got carried away eulogizing Mandela who died from lung infection Dec. 5. Tutu exclaimed that Mandela acted “as a magician who had turned South Africa, a poisonous caterpillar, into a beautiful butterfly.” Magic didn’t bring down apartheid. It was patience delivered under the pressure of a 27-year captivity that eroded racism’s power.
As a young reformer in the 1940s, Mandela saw patience’s genius spelled out in bold letters on the signboard of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. It read: “The greatest glory in living is not in never failing, but in rising every time you fall.” Imprisoned, Mandela remembered how the message on the signboard “tended to steel a person against the host of traumas he was to experience in later years.”
After he no longer had to endure sadistic prison guards, Mandela patiently echoed MLK’s non-violent credo. He declared, “ ... these Afrikaners may be brutal, but they are human beings. We need to understand them and touch the human being inside them and win them.” Open-handed patience prevailed over clenched fists.
On this Martin Luther King holiday, our patience is again stretched. The Supreme Court this past year struck down portions of the 1960s Voting Rights Act, making it easier for Jim Crow laws to make a comeback. Politicians still gerrymander districts, which shove many African-Americans to the sidelines and undermine their vote.
In 1955, Martin Luther King didn’t equate patience with what is; it prepares us for what will be. “If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love,” taught MLK, “when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people — a black people — who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge and our over-whelming responsibility.”
Patience supplies a lens through which we see this promised land.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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Patience is the power to see through a vision for social justice, no matter what barriers block its path.