As we move forward to a new creation, there’s a movie I think will help in our reflections: Invictus. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, it is the story of how Nelson Mandela was able to bring post-Apartheid South Africa together through a rugby team. I showed it as part of the retreat I gave at St. Charles, Carthagena in January 2020, and I think it would be good for all of us to watch now. It is a profound lesson in making reconciliation and unity real.
The movie begins by setting the scene: Mandela is released from prison, and a white rugby coach tells his team to remember this day when their country went to pot. Violence erupts and threatens the peace process, and Mandela (who once advocated violence) tells his audience to throw their weapons into the sea. Reconciliation seems hopeless amidst the prejudice, radical differences in outlook, small mutually hostile forces wanting to fight each other, and painful memory of the past.
For me, the first great sequence of the movie is when Mandela first takes office. The white civil servants are packing, assuming they’re going to be fired. Mandela gathers them together and tells them that although they have a right to leave if they wish, if they feel they can stay and work with the new government, their country needs them to stay, challenging to do their best. Then, while his bodyguards bemoan not having enough men, four white Secret Branch men report for duty, with orders signed by the President. The chief sees Mandela immediately, indignant. Mandela says he wants to be seen with white guards, and when the chief protests that men like them were hunting them not too long ago, Mandela says “forgiveness begins now as well.” He also says: “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”
The national sports commission votes unanimously to disband the Springboks, an Afrikaner rugby team popular with the whites (but not the blacks), but Mandela comes to their meeting late, challenging them to change their minds:
On Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison, all of my jailers were Afrikaners. For 27 years, I studied them. I learned their language, read their books, their poetry. I had to know my enemy before I could prevail against him. And we DID prevail, did we not? All of us here…we prevailed. Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy. And they treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint and generosity. I know all of the things they denied us. But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us, even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold.
Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks, is amazed at the new president’s support for his team, and the personal friendship Mandela cultivates with him. The Springboks host the Rugby World Cup in 1995, and they are longshots. With hard work, civic involvement, and determination they make it to the finals. The day before the game they take a trip to Robben Island. Pienaar sits in the cell Mandela once occupied, imagining him read the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. Later, the night before the big match, Pienaar says to his girlfriend that he didn’t understand how someone could spend 27 years in that small space and come out ready to forgive the people who put him there.
It is an exciting sports movie, better than most because it tells a true story. There are so many touches—especially how Mandela relates to everyone around him—that offer lessons in ordinary humanity and peacemaking. Mandela was baptized and raised a Methodist; their schools gave him his primary and secondary education. The rugby team was one part of his agenda—along with the Truth and Reconciliation commissions headed by Archbishop Tutu—and his predecessor DeKlerk said: “Mandela won the hearts of millions of white rugby fans.”
We have a great challenge today: helping reconcile our polarized country. Polarized societies do not last. At some point in time the energy loss brings the combatants to seek peace out of exhaustion, if nothing else. This past year for us has been toxic in more ways than one: the pandemic has symbolized in some ways the spiritual isolation we feel from one another, and deepened pre-existing wounds, both real and perceived. Giving in to the desire for retribution and punishment will only keep wounds festering and toxic. Our spirituality and charism offer much to our country and our world needs. We must not shy away from the call of Blood to be peacemakers and reconcilers. Christ gives us the model of the Kingdom and calls us to proclaim redemption and healing for the world.
We are the masters of our fate; we are the captains of our soul. Our new creation will have this mission of healing when this world is ready to lay hostile sound bites, ugly tweets, and fake news aside. We can learn much from Nelson Mandela and Francios Pienaar’s quest of 1995, even though we may not see now what the unifying force will be. The Blood of Christ runs through the veins of the world, and we are witnesses of its hope.
Invictus by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,/ Black as the pit from pole to pole/, I thank 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 tear/s 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 punishments the scroll/, I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.
This article appeared in the New Wine Press, February 2020. Fr. Branson has updated it to reflect recent US events.