Monday, August 23, 2010

The Heaven of Statesmanship

Thomas Friedman had a thought provoking piece in the New York Times yesterday about the need for more leaders like Nelson Mandela in the world. Here's a taste of it:

I just saw the movie “Invictus” — the story of how Nelson Mandela, in his first term as president of South Africa, enlists the country’s famed rugby team, the Springboks, on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup and, through that, to start the healing of that apartheid-torn land. The almost all-white Springboks had been a symbol of white domination, and blacks routinely rooted against them. When the post-apartheid, black-led South African sports committee moved to change the team’s name and colors, President Mandela stopped them. He explained that part of making whites feel at home in a black-led South Africa was not uprooting all their cherished symbols. “That is selfish thinking,” Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, says in the movie. “It does not serve the nation.” Then speaking of South Africa’s whites, Mandela adds, “We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity.”

I love that line: “We have to surprise them.” I was watching the movie on an airplane and scribbled that line down on my napkin because it summarizes what is missing today in so many places: leaders who surprise us by rising above their histories, their constituencies, their pollsters, their circumstances — and just do the right things for their countries. (Read the whole thing here)

Friedman's thesis is that the need for Mandela-style leadership, leadership that surprises, is particularly urgent in the Middle East. As I read his column, I found myself thinking that we could use the same kind of leadership right here at home. It also got me thinking about some commentary regarding statesmanship from Baha'u'llah:

"The Great Being saith: The heaven of statesmanship is made luminous and resplendent by the brightness of the light of these blessed words which hath dawned from the dayspring of the Will of God: It behoveth every ruler to weigh his own being every day in the balance of equity and justice and then to judge between men and counsel them to do that which would direct their steps unto the path of wisdom and understanding. This is the cornerstone of statesmanship and the essence thereof. From these words every enlightened man of wisdom will readily perceive that which will foster such aims as the welfare, security and protection of mankind and the safety of human lives." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 166)

The "welfare, security and protection of mankind and the safety of human lives" are among the things that the men and women competing for my vote claim they are most concerned with. And yet, too often what I witness instead is something like a "Politicians Gone Wild" video. This is particularly true right now during an "election year", which the chattering classes point out daily is the rationale for all kinds of partisan-political shenanigans. It is hardly what I'd describe as leadership that surprises. Baha'u'llah put it this way:

"O ye the elected representatives of the people in every land! Take ye counsel together, and let your concern be only for that which profiteth mankind, and bettereth the condition thereof, if ye be of them that scan heedfully. Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did it gain ease, nay its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires, and have erred grievously. And if, at one time, through the care of an able physician, a member of that body was healed, the rest remained afflicted as before. Thus informeth you the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. We behold it, in this day, at the mercy of rulers so drunk with pride that they cannot discern clearly their own best advantage, much less recognize a Revelation so bewildering and challenging as this. And whenever any one of them hath striven to improve its condition, his motive hath been his own gain, whether confessedly so or not; and the unworthiness of this motive hath limited his power to heal or cure." (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 254)

I'd like to witness an election year that surprises me, that brings out the best in those who want the privilege of public service, a year that inspires with the deeds of able physicians and heavenly statesmen. Our nation needs healing. Who will answer the call, who will heed the counsel of Baha'u'llah?