Sunday, 30 November 2014


What is it like for a person to be "selfless"?

Marya Sklodowska was born in Poland in 1867.  Like Nelson Mandela, she was born in one century, and died in the next - in a new and different era.  That change in their respective settings and centuries could be attributed largely to the influence each of them exerted in their sphere

Like Mandela, Marya came from a disadvantaged background.  She too was a single orphan, she lost her mother as a child, whereas Mandela lost his father.  But compared to Mandela - who enjoyed the limelight - Marya cherished privacy.  Later in life, when she won her second Nobel prize, her husband stated that the media attention that this attracted was the worst thing that had ever happened to them!

Mandela’s life took a turn when he moved to the big city of Johannesburg.  In Marya’s case, the sea change came when she got to Paris.  Both of them spent their first few years completing their studies and struggling to get established in their respective professions – he as a lawyer and she as a scientist.  In their cities, they each got married – Nelson to Evelyn and Marya to Pierre Curie.  So she became better known by her francophone name Marie and her married name Curie.  She has come to be known, in fact, as Madame Curie.  Yet I have never known of a person who was more selfless:

  • After finishing high school she put her own education on hold and worked to put her older sister through college.  After graduating from medical school, her sister reciprocated
  • She practiced an austerity that verged on self-denial.  She rented small rooms that were so sparsely furnished that she didn’t even hang pictures on the wall!
  • With a wedding gift she received, she bought two bicycles that she and her groom used for the honeymoon – pedaling through the countryside of France
  • She worked in abysmal conditions, far beyond the limits of normal working hours - all for the sake of her passion for scientific research
  • She declined to patent any of her discoveries or inventions, leaving them instead to posterity for the advancement of science
  • She shared much of her prize money with others in need, in part to establish two radium research institutes – in Paris and Warsaw
  • She worked behind the front lines of battle in World War I training 150 X-ray technicians to use this new diagnostic tool that she had developed to locate bullets and shrapnel for removal from wounded soldiers
  • She exposed herself to radioactivity levels that shortened her life.  She died of leukemia induced by overexposure, before her time

She was the first women ever to be awarded a PhD in France.  And the first woman ever to win a Nobel prize.  And the first person ever to win Nobel prizes in two different sciences – Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911).

In this respect, the parallel to Nelson Mandela refers.  At Marie Curie’s time in France, it was unthinkable for a woman to even be nominated for a Nobel laureate.  In fact, she wasn’t – her husband and another scientist (Henri Becquerel) were.  But in more liberal Sweden, the Nobel committee awarded her the prize nevertheless, realizing that she was being discriminated against.  Who could have dreamed that after 3 decades of incarceration, Mandela would become President?  Both scenarios were breathtaking – and rooted in selflessness.  Justice and “the beauty of science” were paramount to them.

One irony is that Alfred Nobel himself had made his personal fortune from discovering and patenting dynamite.  Upon his death, he bequeathed that fortune to fund the Nobel prizes.  Either one of Marie Curie’s discoveries could have been patented far beyond the value of dynamite – Xray and radioactivity.  (It was she, in fact, who coined that word “radioactivity” to describe what she had discovered.)  Yet she declined to register patents for the sake of “pure science” for its own sake.  Excellence is its own reward.

“True grit” is part of selflessness as well.  Mandela toughed it out in prison for 27 years for the cause he championed.  He did hard labour in the lime quarry on Robben Island.  Like Marie Curie, his own health was affected by his exposure – in his case, to the fine dust, that damaged his tear ducts.

As for Marie, it is almost inconceivable just how much physical work she did!  Processing uranium ore (pitchblende) to refine polonium and later radium is painstaking, time-consuming hard labour.  In this, she was her own prisoner.  The final product turned out to be one-millionth the volume that you start with (compared to one litre of maple syrup which is boiled down from 30 litres of tree sap!)  Imagine – one million to one… processed by one person working by herself for about 4 years.  It was back breaking work.  Marie’s resolve is epitomized in this quote… she said: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” 

She was also very loyal – for example, naming Polonium after her beloved homeland. 

Albert Einstein said: “Marie Curie is, of all celebrated beings, the only one whom fame has not corrupted.”  In this, her selflessness is also similar to Mandela’s – whose movement became horribly corrupt after his voluntary retirement.

Which makes me wonder…

Have we lost an appreciation for virtues like selflessness, zealous resolve, prudence, and tenacious loyalty?

Have these been corrupted into attitudes like self-preservation, cynicism, a preoccupation with credentials and track records, and fashion crazes?

At the root of Corruption are bad attitudes.  Let us adopt role-models that serve as mirrors.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Mandela Meditations

It's been quite a week.  Intriguing.  At times moving.  Quite remarkable.

Yesterday more than 100 world leaders attended the Mandela memorial along with 70 000 South Africans in a stadium that many associate with the 2010 soccer World Cup.  Madiba worked so hard and so long to bring that tournament to Africa.

I will just share a few highlights of my reflections during this grieving process...

I saw Bill Clinton being interviewed.  He and Mandela were concurrent presidents in their respective countries.  They remained good friends.  Both have strong Methodist roots.  Clinton said that he once got up the courage to ask Mandela if, as he famously walked out of those prison gates, he really didn't hate those people who kept him incarcerated for 27 years.  He answered Clinton: "Briefly.  But I knew that if I kept hating them, I would still be their prisoner.  And I wanted to be free. So I let it go."

This says a lot to me about the nature of forgiveness.  It is not only good for those we forgive.  It is good for us.  "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us."  At some stage, we need to let go of hate, and put the past behind us.

President Obama's eulogy yesterday was the best.  He included a Mandela quote that has fascinated me: "I am not a saint, unless by that you mean a sinner who keeps trying."  I resonate with this comment.  For far too long I somehow associated the word "missionary" with the saints.  But I myself am living proof that this is not so.  But I do keep trying to contribute.  At the end of my CV is my epitaph:  "I came.  I saw.  I contributed."  I am not a conqueror.  Or a saint.  But I am a missionary.

The third Mandela quote that has intrigued me is from the Treason Trials.  Obama reminded us that this speech was at the time of Kennedy and Kruschev!  "I have fought white domination and I have fought black domination."  Years later, no, decades later, he was still fighting both.  The main plot was of course ending white minority rule.  But there were those who wanted to replace white domination with black domination.  That was the sub-plot to the story, and we have to recognize Mandela's role on that front as well.  His parting with Winnie could be construed in this light.  He was President of all South Africans, and she had become embittered and radicalized.  Mamphela Ramphele calls it "woundedness" - generically, I don't mean that she said that of Winnie specifically.  Some people, no, many people, still can't get past "the past".  Mandela’s great spirituality stems from that one word in his reply to Clinton: "Briefly."  He felt it... then he let it go.

By the way, the movie Long Walk to Freedom does Winnie a big favour - by putting her militant attitudes in context.  She really suffered for the cause... in solitary confinement for over a year.  A mother parted from her children.  It's funny, many are quick to forgive her, who are slow to forgive and forget "the past".  Mandela somehow managed to get above it all.

My mind keeps asking: What is the difference between “black domination” and affirmative action that favours the large majority?

That brings me back to another favorite theme and person... I see that TIME magazine has voted Pope Francis I to be Person of the Year for 2013.  I second the emotion.  Here's why, from an article by Mike Kohen this week called Our country is still in white hands:

"The stability that Mandela engineered in those early days after apartheid never made South Africa an economic dynamo.  Economic growth has averaged 3.5% since 2004, compared with 10.5% in China.

"Moreover, the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic equality, has risen to 0.63 in 2009 from 0.59 in 1993, making South Africa one of the world's most unequal countries."

The risk to Mandela's legacy is that "inequality and exclusion" (to quote Pope Francis, again generically speaking) could drain the gains.  In any country, regardless of the colour bar, poor people can come to resent the rich.  Not always and not everywhere, depending to some extent on the local culture's comfort or discomfort with what Gerte Hofstede calls "power distance".  But where the disparities are acute and glaring, it will breed discontent.  Aristotle said that inequality is the mother of revolution.

Yes, there has to be redress, no question.  But when is the cut-off point for affirmative action?  Or will there ever be one, when the rich are getting richer and ranks of the poor are growing?  Also, as the ranks of the rich include more and more "successful" blacks, is not a class system being created?  Put another way, many poor people will not be in a forgiving mood, ready to forget "the past".  So it is double-jeopardy for South Africa to let the "wealth gap" increase.

If you are rich by your own standards, the question is: How much is enough?

If you are “historically disadvantaged” and thus deserve positive discrimination, the question is: How long should you have that advantage, before YOU end up with more than enough?

Thinking Locally, Acting Globally

For non-South Africans, the example of Nelson Mandela is also relevant.  For in his own rural poor context, he was also privileged – from the royal family, getting early exposure to leadership role models and an education.  After urbanizing, he became a professional, a lawyer, and co-owned a law firm with Oliver Tambo.  So he was (relatively) well off, although among the oppressed.  Even in prison, he was a political prisoner, not a criminal.

The point is, look what he did with the few advantages he enjoyed.  I was reduced to tears this week when Mac Maharaj, a co-prisoner at Robben island, described how Mandela would sometimes be served better food than the other prisoners because of the esteem that even his jailers had for him.  Like bread, when everyone else got only pap.  He would call over other  prisoners, especially the younger ones, and share it with them, recognizing the deprivation that they faced because of a shared cause.

We need to apply the biblical principles that are there in the Old Testament Poor Laws – sabbath, sabbatical, Jubilee… to keep leveling the playing field.  This has to be continuous.  Pope Francis is right that money can end up being a form of idolatry, like the Golden Calf. 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Feast of All Saints

For Christians in the West, November 1st is All Saints Day.  This is the origin of Halloween, for sometimes the feast is called All Hallows, venerating those who have reached Paradise.  It is a national holiday in many historically Catholic countries.  In the Catholic Church and Church of England, the next day (All Souls) specifically commemorates the departed faithful.  This of course relates to Purgatory.  At the base of this is a sense that there is a link between the living (militant) and the dead and for some, between those still in Purgatory (suffering) and those who already reached Paradise (triumphant).  The all-in-one term is “cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews.  This is a day to celebrate just that.

Oh when the saints
Go marchin in
Oh when the saints go marchin in
Lord, I wanna be in that number!
When the saints go marchin in

The festival was retained after the Reformation in the calendar of the Church of England and in many Lutheran churches.  In the Swedish calendar, the observance takes place on the Saturday between 31 October and 6 November. That would be this Saturday!  In many Lutheran Churches, it is moved to the first Sunday of November. In the Anglican church it may be celebrated either on 1 November or on the Sunday between 30 October and 5 November. That would be this Sunday!  It is also celebrated by other Protestants of the English tradition, such as the United Church of Canada, the Methodist churches, and the Wesleyan church.

The African “church triumphant”

Time for a commercial break!  Don’t forget to order your 2014 desktop calendar from C4L.  Its theme is speaking truth to power.  So it is a self-financing attempt to influence leaders. 

Original portraits were commissioned for this project by a local White River artist - of no less than a dozen departed African saints.  I have it on good authority that not one of these is stuck in Purgatory.  Plus you get three living legends – all African bishops.

The calendar is $12 plus freight which is unfortunately $11 into Canada.  We can drop the price per calendar to $8 if you order quantities, but the postage remains the same.  It makes a nice Christmas gift, or a year-end corporate gift.  It is designed to use for many years as the full colour portrait side of the display has no shelf life.

Order from

Only three of the 12 months are dedicated to women, which has more to say about Africa and church history than anything.  So to do my penance as editor of the calendar, for this lack of gender balance, allow me to salute a few more in the run-up to All Saints.

  • Eve – first African woman
  • Charlotte Maxeke – first African woman to get a university degree
  • “Ma” Albertina Sisulu – Walter’s wife

From Africa’s “church militant” - Africa’s Leading Women
First I have to register an apology.  In the last C4L Bulletin I mentioned that there had only been one woman President in Africa – ever.  Not so!  I stand corrected.  In fact there have been five, as follows:

Carmen Perreira
Guinea Bissau
2 days
Sylvie Kinigi
101 days
Ruth Perry
332 days
Ellen Sirleaf
8 years
Joyce Banda
1 year

Malawi President Joyce Banda deserves a medal for selling the presidential jet for $15 million and using the money to avert a food crisis. It was estimated that the proceeds of the sale could feed up to a million people.  She also dissolved her entire cabinet because of corruption.

Graca Machel deserves honourable mention for staying at Nelson Mandela’s side throughout his recent hospital stay.  She is an amazing role model who belies all the xenophobia and machismo that manifests itself in local cultures.  She certainly deserves to be among the Elders with the likes of Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu.

Leah Tutu is the proverbial great woman behind the great man.  She says that he proposed to her by saying, "My parents want me to get married." She calls it the most unromantic proposal ever made.  She responded, "I will help you to be obedient to your parents."

Most people do not know that she was, at first, the family activist, the co-founder of the South African Domestic Workers Association, which brought relief to many women working in that once unregulated space in which black maids were often left to the mercy of the white madams. The legacy of SADWA is celebrated to this day.
She felt the heat herself, during the Struggle.  Not to mention standing beside Father Desmond.  All through this, she raised a family.  All her children have been highly educated.
In a country where leaders are so often charged with corruption, where family love relationships dissolve in such spectacular public fashion, and where one-time activists fight shamelessly to acquire for themselves the spoils of war, we love Desmond and Leah because they represent so powerfully the kind of country we wish we had.

From Desmond Tutu’s collection of poems called AN AFRICAN PRAYER BOOK, comes this one from Bread for Tomorrow in Kenya - called DELIVER ME:

From the cowardice that dare not face new truths

From the laziness that is contented with half truths

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth

Good Lord deliver me