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Seeking unity, Biden should look to Nelson Mandela

The new president should craft a strategy that welcomes the willing from the other side back into the circle of decency.

In this, May 9, 2009, file photo, South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela attends the inauguration ceremony of President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria, South Africa. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, File)

(RNS) — Encountering Nelson Mandela in person for the first time, I remember thinking he looked more daunting and noble in person than he did in photographs. 

It was December 1999, and I had gone to South Africa to help organize the youth program of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Mandela was the keynote for the event. After the thunderous applause died down, and after a chant from the Xhosa tribe washed over the crowd, Mandela began to speak. He related how proud he was that people from a range of religions, races, ethnicities and tribes were working together to build a “rainbow nation.”

The apartheid past, he emphasized, was a foreign country. South Africa needed to forge ahead, focusing on reconciliation and cooperation. He advised this as the way forward for all the peoples of the world. 

It is easy to forget how justified Mandela would have been in choosing a different path, the path of retribution. The apartheid regime not only oppressed entire racial and ethnic groups in South Africa, it sought to destroy Mandela specifically, imprisoning him for 27 years on Robben Island. 

But as his close friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu was fond of saying, there is no future without forgiveness. And Mandela was all about the future. 

Together, Mandela and Tutu organized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which invited both the perpetrators of racist evils and the victims of those evils to give public testimony. In this way, the brutality of the apartheid system was laid bare for all to see. The victims could begin healing, and the perpetrators would be allowed to apply for amnesty. 

Putting the brutality of evil regimes on public display has long been a strategy of social justice movements. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that peaceful marches would be met with violent police truncheons, vicious dogs and punishing fire hoses. The images would unstick people from the status quo, and move their sympathy squarely to the side of social change. 

The ugliness of the Trump era has always been visible to those with eyes to see, from the racist “birther” campaign against President Barack Obama, to the racist Muslim ban, to referring to COVID-19 with the racist phrase “China virus.” 

But on Jan. 6, reality was undeniable, even for those who did their best to ignore the brutality and bigotry that went before. A crowd, fired up and sent forth by President Donald Trump, chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” swarmed into the Capitol building with weapons and attacked police officers, killing one.

The rioters were roundly condemned, and even their family members reported them to authorities. The public placed the responsibility squarely on Trump, sending his approval rating plummeting. Liz Cheney and nine other House Republicans voted for impeachment. Major companies pulled their support from elected representatives who continued to embrace the debunked conspiracy theory that Trump had actually won the election.  

As more details emerge of the nature of the insurrection, the level of premeditation and coordination, I suspect that the number of people willing to follow the so-called Q Shaman deep into crazyville will dwindle further and further. Yes, we will see a rise in recruits for right-wing militias, but a significant number of the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump in 2020 will be looking for an off-ramp.

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts, as Jill Biden holds the Bible, during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

That is the group President Joe Biden should have top of mind. He should craft a strategy that welcomes the willing from the other side back into the circle of decency. He should look to rebuild the American big tent, the civic center, that every president from Ronald Reagan to Obama has extolled.  

I am not proposing some kind of truth-and-amnesty for Trump or for his political allies and enablers. I am certainly not advocating for the insurrectionists to get off without appropriate time in prison. 

I am simply suggesting that Biden keep the Oval Office and the bully pulpit focused elsewhere. 

Let the American majority get to work stitching the fabric of our nation back together, led by Biden following the model of Mandela.  

There are many examples of Mandela reaching out to those who worked in the apartheid regime, from forming friendships with his guards at Robben Island to speaking to the white staff holdovers in the South African government in their native Afrikaans and requesting that they remain in their posts. 

But perhaps the most dramatic example of Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation and cooperation was his very public embrace of the Springboks rugby team, the subject of the film “Invictus.” Long a favorite symbol of white Afrikaner pride, the Springboks were generally hated by Black South Africans. Mandela made it clear that the Springboks were his team, and should indeed be viewed as the team of all South Africans as they competed in the World Cup.

His message was clear: For the future to have a chance at all, parts of the past had to be left behind, and all of us have to convene around common symbols.  

Along the way, Mandela found a powerful partner in team captain Francois Pienaar, a white South African of Afrikaans ancestry who welcomed Mandela’s embrace of the Springboks and insisted that his teammates learn the Black liberation song “Nkosi Sikelele.”  

To move the nation forward, Biden must fully embrace this template. He must choose to embrace a symbol that is generally associated with red America and find partners in that world willing to convene around a common symbol and meet on common ground.   

My suggestion: decent policing, the sort that is needed in both Black communities and on Capitol Hill. The sort that would have kept Black people like George Floyd and Laquan McDonald alive, and the kind that would have properly prepared to protect Congress from a white mob. 

Biden has knelt with Black Lives Matter protesters, an act of reverence for the lives that have been lost to violent and racist policing. What if he stood now with police chiefs committed to positive reform, perhaps at an interfaith prayer service, an act of commitment to a more perfect union?  

Eboo Patel. Photo by Popio Stumpf Photography

Following the example of Nelson Mandela, Joe Biden can be a commander in chief of cooperation and unity. 

Following Biden, we can all play a role in uniting our nation. 

(Eboo Patel is founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and author of “Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)