Nelson Mandela, who died in 2013, was an anti-apartheid, revolutionary leader in South Africa who was imprisoned for 27 years for his activism.
Upon his release in 1990, he rallied people to the cause of freedom to see apartheid’s end in 1994.
He then set his sights on advocating for the poorest of Africa’s inhabitants.
“Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free,” he said in 2005. “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade and it can be overcome … Sometimes, it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation.”
Mandela was a shining example of a caring leader. But he couldn’t cry for his people.
It was not the bitterness of a hardened heart that caused his lack of tears. As a prisoner, he was forced to work in a limestone mine.
Dust damage to his tear ducts rendered him unable to weep. Even in moments of great grief, he couldn’t produce tears.
There’s a lesson here for American leaders.
I wonder if many of our national, state and local leaders have lost the ability to cry for their people, to see human suffering and to be moved to action.
I have tuned only nominally into the impeachment hearings, but it has seemed like so much posturing from both sides.
Meanwhile, millions of Americans are suffering. We elect leaders to alleviate suffering, but the current proceedings, however justified some people may feel they are, are detracting from the tired and the poor and the jobless and the hungry.
Mandela’s condition was biological; ours is moral.
A study reported in the Nov. 26, 2019, Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that U.S. life expectancy has declined for the past three years as a result of increased mortality among middle-aged adults from what has been dramatically labeled “deaths of despair” – suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis.
People feel unmoored and powerless through economic hardship, represented by the widening gap of rich and poor as the top 1% double or triple their wealth while average wages stagnate.
This anxiety is aggravated by a lack of connection with historically strong institutions, such as churches or civic clubs. People cope through addictive behavior or may feel so helpless as to take their own lives.
A major element regarding understanding “deaths of despair” are terms like “loneliness” and “unhappiness.” These states of mind are difficult to quantify.
They don’t indicate a diagnosable illness but impact long-term health, nonetheless.
What would it take for our leaders to see the way people are held captive to addiction, loneliness, despair and poverty?
There’s a story in Matthew 20 about how two disciples wanted to have special places of honor in the kingdom to come. They wanted power to serve their own purposes and to be seen by others.
Jesus took a moment to set them right: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you.
“Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served – and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage” (Matthew 20:25-28).
Jesus wept for those he served. Then he exchanged his life for those he loved.
Four years after his release from prison, Mandela had surgery to repair his eyes.
Once again, he was able to weep – now tears of joy for apartheid’s end.
May our leaders learn to weep again.
Brent McDougal is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.