Friday, October 1, 2010

Invictus -- reconciliation and forgiveness start here

Director: Clint Eastwood, 2009. (PG-13)

Morgan Freeman has played numerous roles, from Red in The Shawshank Redemption to God in Evan Almighty. But he seems born to play Nelson Mandela, that charismatic inspiring figure who spent three decades in prison before being released. This is Mandela's story but Freeman's film.

No movie can capture a man's life story completely, and this is no exception. Instead, Eastwood's film focuses on the true story of events surrounding the South African Rugby Team and the World Cup of 1995. This team encapsulated the hopes of the whites, the fears of the blacks and the inspirational motivation of the President. Their achievement somehow miraculously birthed national reconciliation and forgiveness. This is the tale of inspirational leadership that comes along so rarely.

The movie opens with a stark contrast. On one side of the street white boys are playing rugby kitted out perfectly. On the other, the poor blacks are kicking a makeshift soccer ball behind a broken fence. When a motorcade passes by, the white high school rugby coach comments to his kids, "It's the terrorist Mandela, they let him out. Remember this day boys, this is the day our country went to the dogs." From the white's perspective, this was a sad day. From the black's perspective it was a day of hope. Between the two was a chasm never bridged, and a hatred that threatened to plunge the country into violence and possibly civil war.

Into this context Mandela was elected President, in the country's first fully democratic election, an election where blacks for the first time could enter their vote. Another crucial scene to set context appears the day that Mandela takes office. The whites from the prior administration have boxed their belongings and are moving out. Mandela sees this and realizes there will be a void with their absence. He calls them all together into a room to address them. They think he is gloating over his win. Nothing could be further from the truth. Speaking impromptu and from the heart, he calls them to set aside their differences: "The Rainbow Nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here."

Mandela realizes the nation has been torn apart by apartheid. Division has damaged and almost destroyed his nation. It must be brought back together as this rainbow nation. That requires reconciliation at a national level. But any reconciliation starts at the personal level. And he will be the role model.

Reconciliation is a biblical concept. It speaks to a breach of relationship. In particular, it points to the broken relationship between a person and his God. Through our sinful nature and our sinful choices, we have become separated from the God who formed us in the womb (Jer. 1:5). No longer are we friends, as he was with Adam in the garden (Gen. 2:15). Now we have become enemies, alienated from him (Col. 1:21). Reconciliation was needed and was provided in the person of Jesus. Now we have been "reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20). Reconciliation is personal, and starts with our own choice to set aside our enmity and turn back to face our enemy. Mandela did that, despite their initial hatred.

Reconciliation is not cheap or easy. It comes with a cost: forgiveness. Mandela goes on, "Forgiveness starts here, too." Forgiveness is the fuel that allows us to let go of past wounds and hurts.Mandela understands this. Having spent most of his adult years behind bars for "political crimes", he has every reason to bear a grudge and use his new position of power to take revenge. But instead he says, "Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon." Mandela understood that forgiveness mandated him to give up the right to get even and instead to respond to the evil with good (Rom. 5:19-21).

Like reconciliation, forgiveness cuts to the core of the message of Jesus. God has every right to hold us accountable for our sins. We have become his enemies and he could punish us. Instead, he provided for our forgiveness (Eph. 1:7). He took our penalty on himself in the person of Jesus on the cross (Rom. 3:25). Now the offer of forgiveness is held out for us to appropriate. Will we do so?

All this is the introduction to the main story.

The Springboks, the national rugby team, is a pitiful team of white players with one nominal black. Despised by the blacks as symbolic of former white rule, the black South Africans want to change the team colors and the team itself. But this will cut away the heart of the white supporters, creating more disgruntlement. Instead, Mandela sees the opportunity for something better. He will respond with good. He challenges the team to win the World Cup being played in South Africa and he challenges the nation to come together in support of their national team.

When Mandela invites the team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to tea, Pienaar has no idea why. He thinks they will have nothing in common. But Mandela questions him about leadership: "How do you inspire your team?" Pienaar responds, "By example. I've always thought to lead by example, sir." This is, of course, a good answer. But Mandela wanted more than good. He needed to unite a nation and good would not do that. He replied:
Well, that is right/ That is exactly right. But how do we get them to be better than they think they can be? That is very difficult I find. Inspiration, perhaps. How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us? I sometimes think it is by using the work of others.
It is Mandela's inspirational leadership that motivates Pienaar and then his team to go above and beyond themselves.

When Eastwood focuses on the characters and the story of the rugby team's success that is a metaphor for the birth of this rainbow nation, the film soars. When he turns the camera on the rugby action on the field the film sags. Indeed, the closing sequence of the final game takes way too long and diffuses the film. The acting of the two leads carries the film; the sports action adds little and hinders more than it helps. Not the best Eastwood film, it is still better than most made and is inspiring and entertaining. He returns to themes of forgiveness but in softer and more positive ways than in his better and Oscar-winning film, Unforgiven.

There are some standout scenes. The way Mandela brings four white policemen into his all-black security team, despite their resistance underscores the value he places on walking his beliefs. He cannot afford to be seen behind a black-only security wall. That message will be clearly seen by the white constituents in his country. The mutual animosity between these two groups of men melts over the movie beneath the warmth evoked by the winning national team until the final match shows two of these, one black one white, grinning and hugging each other. Sports can unify a people.

Another inspiring scene has the rugby team going out to the rural villages. Sitting inside the luxury coach, the players look out on the shanty towns and, for the first time, realize there is another part of South Africa. They are still opposed to this "waste of their time" as they are supposed to be offering clinics to poor kids. But when they start their clinic, the passion of their sport lifts them above their prejudice and their feeling. By the end of the clinic the kids have overcome their ignorance of rugby and the team have overcome some of their prejudices. Sports can inspire and improve a people.

This is Mandela's film, though. His character displays the charisma that has a team and a nation following him despite their earlier feelings. He moves people for the better. He has the "Madiba magic" that alone brought reconciliation. His was the inspirational leadership, a leadership that understood service and putting the country and others first.

Jesus was like that. He was both an inspirational figure and a servant leader. He challenged his followers and disciples to do things they had never done before, and to set aside their prejudices. He called them to love their enemies (Matt. 5:44), to reach out to the poor, to associate with sinners (Matt. 9:10), to minister to the sick not the healthy (Matt. 9:12). Like Mandela, he walked and lived the message he preached.

That brings us back to Mandela's message and encouragement to Pienaar to use others' works. Mandela used the poem "Invictus" as his source of encouragement and hope during his imprisonment, and he shared this with Pienaar. Written by William Ernest Henley, the British poet in 1875 when he was about to have his foot amputated, invictus comes from the Latin, meaning "unconquered". Mandela recites this poem: 
Out of the night that covers me.
Black as the pit from pole to pole.
I thanks whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears,
Looms but the horror of the shade.
And yet, the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate.
How charged with punishment the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
We can look to the works of others, in poetry or prose, to inspire and motivate us. Best of all, perhaps, is the work of Jesus. He offers true hope through his act of sacrifice. More than that, he is the master of my fate. If I choose to follow him, I can let him be the captain of my soul. And he will not disappoint (Isa. 49:23).

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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