Those words were spoken by Nelson Mandela, who departed this earth yesterday. There are many who are trying to christen him a saint, try to remove him from his context of political and humanitarian struggle, and as Delaware native David Weigel points out in his regular blog on Slate, that would be a mistake.
I remember when Mandela was freed. More than that, I remember when Apartheid, like the issue of Soviet Jews and peace in Ireland, was a cause celebre, something the so-called apolitical/entertainment class as well as social justice activists alike rallied to oppose (and too many supported under the guise of fighting Communism). Seriously, I remember mediocre sitcoms like 227 and forgotten hip-hop artists like The Jungle Brothers, to say nothing of folks like Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, addressing Apartheid alongside student activists at universities nationwide. Could you imagine Big Bang Theory or Pitbull raising issues of consequence like that?
I make the comparison because I imagine that, for many younger than me, Apartheid is as distant a memory as the issue of Refusniks, The Troubles, or even the fall of the Soviet Bloc. That was another epoch, a time of great darkness giving way to profound hope.
How could someone who has grown up in the last twenty years understand that time period, when the Berlin Wall fell, when peace seemed possible, when Communist China looked on the edge, and when Mandela emerged from his prison, and as the poet wrote, returned to his battle, handsome as a lion in the noonday sun?
Mandela is an icon, and taken out of context, we forget his real impact. We live in an era of profound cynicism, where Orange Revolutions and Arab Springs have seemingly turned to dust, when the words of Jeremiah seem to ring most true: "They offer healing offhand for the wounds of my people, saying 'peace! Peace!' But there is no peace." (6:14). We live in an era where everything seems impossible. So to it must have been for Mandela as a prisoner in Robbin Prison. It always seems impossible until it is done--may his words and memory give us the courage and the strength to continue until the work truly is done.