Historical echoes and Mandela

The recent death of Nelson Mandela has prompted a flood of postings. Many of these are just adulatory, many of those are from people who, 40 years ago, wouldn’t have had any time for Mandela at all.

Some put another slant on things. As this piece by Mark Steel comments, Mandela was originally a terrorist (aka freedom fighter – the terms are usually interchangeable depending only on whether you approve of them) and we would not be remembering his massive achievements in forgiveness and non-violent action had the movement he was a leader of and a symbol for not succeeded. Mr. Steel thinks this would not have happened without an armed struggle, which Mandela originally supported (and was thus not entirely unreasonably imprisoned); I note that the success came when non-violent routes became predominant and prefer to recall the post-Robben Island Mandela’s attitude as having avoided a bloodbath, which was what I had personally expected for some years. However, as Gandhi (the most famous exponent of non-violent protest) noted, non-violence can only be properly practiced by those who have proved themselves capable of violent action and have resolved to renounce it, it is not a route for the cowardly. Mandela was therefore authentic in his non-violence. His greatness lies in him having continued to follow non-violence and reconciliation once he achieved power.

Some have noted, accurately, that Mandela was cordially detested by many conservatives (and that goes for UK conservatives as well as US ones) because of his stance against a number of well-recognised favorite conservative policies (such as the wars in Iran) and his links with the USSR as the main bankrollers of the ANC and with the South African Communist party as major allies. Cosying up with Castro also cannot have won him many American conservative friends, nor can an enthusiasm for such communist concepts as the eradication of poverty, racial equality, anti-imperialism and labour unions.

The greatest among those, I suspect, was the communist and USSR links. The world I grew up in was dominated by the fear of the USSR and communism, and in conservative circles that was absolute. In the UK, while the fear of the Russian military rolling west over Europe (and not stopping at the Channel) was strong in the majority, there was not quite the same level of visceral revulsion for communism which seems to have gripped the USA from the 50s onwards, it seems to me.

Possibly this was in part due to the British Communist party splitting in the 50s, possibly it was due to the fact that the Communist party here never really got enough support to challenge Labour for the left wing of British politics. Ironically, although in the States very few Democrats could legitimately have been described as closet communists, in Britain a lot of communists found themselves able to join the Labour party, and in my teens there were many Labour MPs who were communists (and even more who visited the “workers’ paradise” of the USSR and came back with glowing reports. Labour was preserved from outright takeover by the fact that it had a much broader base, and owed much to the cooperative movement and to the nonconformist (i.e. anything but Anglican) churches, which were not communist. The sterotype of “You’re Welsh, so you’re Methodist and vote Labour” had enough statistics behind it to not be completely laughable, for instance. However, the States had McCarthy and we didn’t, and we had what was not unreasonably seen by the right in our country as a USSR-loving mass movement, and the States didn’t.

The root problem there was the presence of an ideology which was supra-national and which looked to it’s establishment as the ruling ideology, coupled with the presence of a centre outside the country. The fear was that allegiance was to a foreign power before it was to the country itself, and that was not too unreasonable given the attachment of the British Communist party to all things USSR and Stalin, though that took a major knock after the Russian tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 to suppress a popular mass movement.

I’m reminded there of another facet of my childhood, which was a certain reserve about Catholics, which was coupled in the more right wing with a suggestion that Catholics were governed by the Pope, not by the government of the country. This was a view much pressed by Ian Paisley, the Northern Irish Unionist. Historically, of course, the feeling against Catholics was very deep rooted, and went back to the situation after Henry VIII declared the English church independent of Rome in 1533 (and himself the head of it, as the monarch in England has been almost all the time since then). The Pope of the day naturally took exception to this, and save for a period under Mary (a Catholic) there remained a real threat of invasion by one or more of the continental Catholic powers at the behest of the Pope for well over 100 years; one result was active persecution, of Catholics under almost all the monarchs except Mary and of Protestants under Mary, for 200 years. Perhaps the last gasp of the active form was the Gordon Riots of 1780. Catholics remained debarred from many things until much later (largely 1829), however, and are still debarred from the monarchy today (which survival will probably last until the Anglican church is disestablished and is no longer the established religion).

The Northern Ireland troubles, of course, cast a shadow well into my adult life, and led to part of the anti-Catholic feeling; here again was an ideological group operating within the country and owing allegiance to a foreign power, in this case the Republic of Ireland. In truth, it was anti-Irish Catholic feeling, but many could not distinguish between Irish Catholics (who were the majority of Catholics in most English Churches) and Catholics more generally. Even so it was misplaced, as not all Irish Catholics were in favour of an united Ireland (some of them had the good sense to realise that incorporating territory with a majority population of Ulster Protestant Unionists was a recipe for disaster!).

I can, therefore, understand the problems for someone attached to their own nation state (i.e. a “patriot”) in accepting someone whose ideological stance involves adherence to a supra-national organisation as being truly “one of them”, particularly if that ideology is closely linked with one or more foreign states, and even more so if those states have credible military force. I can understand this reaction, for instance, to Islam. Though, in conscience, I don’t consider the military force of Islamic states (even combined) to be a really serious threat to the UK, far less the USA. There’s terrorism, of course, but even 9/11 was, in conscience, a pinprick compared with the might of the USA (or the USA’s or our reaction to it).

A word about terrorism. It’s scary, not knowing if you’re going to suddenly be a civilian target where you’ve thought you were safe. However, there’s been a present terrorist threat here since I was about 10, and I’ve consistently been in far more danger crossing the road than I have of being blown up by a terrorist. You can get used to a certain level of unpredictable threat, and I would argue that getting used to it would have been a better solution than moving ourselves several steps toward being a police state. Indeed, I’m slightly amused to consider that I attend (inter alia) the church where Guy Fawkes was baptised in 1570. He, of course, became a very early (and Catholic) home grown terrorist, and a part of the threat perception which skewed English attitudes to Catholics for the next two hundred years.

I do hope we can get over our current panic quicker than that…

However, continuing my historical musings, I go further back and can understand the feelings of Roman Emperors faced with the early Christians, who denied the god-like authority of Caesar (i.e. the Roman state) in favour of allegiance to Christ the King. The early Christians weren’t, of course, the first; the Jews had already been treading that path for years and the first Christians (who initially weren’t certain they weren’t Jews of a new variety, and neither were the Jews of the day) merely learned from them. The Jews had honed their skills in this direction under the Seleucids, and indeed the Maccabees for a while achieved independence, Judas Maccabeus being a sort of Nelson Mandela of his day.

And yes, I can understand the Seleucid’s feelings as well. All these examples are of a group of people who answer the call of a different drum, who are dedicated to an ideology at odds with the nation state in question. What I condemn is, of course, the methods, whether of the oppressor states or of terrorists/freedom fighters, particularly where they involve targeting civilians.

The early Christians did remarkably well during the period of Roman persecution, which lasted from the mid first century until 312, when Constantine the Great decided to espouse Christianity as a result, it is said, of a vision. In that, they were probably still following the example of their Jewish precursors. Within a few years, Christianity had not just ceased to be persecuted, but became the national religion of the Roman state. Judaism did not have that kind of safety anywhere for nearly 2000 years.

And, entirely unlike Nelson Mandela and the ANC, but very like Mary I of England and (to a lesser extent) her immediate protestant successors in the other direction, immediately started to persecute pagans and the less orthodox members of its own community.

Mandela was no saint, he was a reformed terrorist, but he was a great man, because he renounced violence and revenge. The early Christian Church fathers? No Mandelas there, mores’ the pity.

No compliments on complementarianism