Nelson Mandela’s good work continues

Nelson Mandela launches The Elders
Nelson Mandela launches The Elders
Photo courtesy Creative Commons

Nelson Mandela is being remembered as a beacon for democracy, peace and decency in political life. But he also used his retirement well. In 2007, Mandela and a group of distinguished individuals created a group called, The Elders. They included Mozambican humanitarian and politician Graca Machel, who is also Mandela’s widow; former Ireland President Mary Robinson; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan; former Norway Prime Minister Gro Brundtland and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.  At the time, Mandela said that former leaders could “speak freely and boldly” to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. 

One of their initiatives champions human rights for women and girls and expresses their concern about the role that religions of all descriptions too often play in their oppression. “Religion and tradition are a great force for peace and progress around the world,” the group said in a 2009 statement. “However, as elders, we believe that the justification of discrimination against women and girls on the grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a higher authority, is unacceptable. . . .”

On one level, The Elders referred to the most virulent forms of oppression (often in traditional societies) driven by religious convictions — everything from genital mutilation to stoning for adultery. But they also talked about the historical insistence in some religions that God has ordained certain forms of leadership, such as being a priest, pastor or elder, as exclusive to men.

The Catholic Church, for example, insists that there can never be female priests for various reasons. In a church whose decision-making is dominated by clerics, that means women are forever excluded from leadership. Of course, Catholics aren’t alone. Too often, the unhappiness of disaffected, traditionalist Anglican priests is based on their opposition to the ordination of women.

In Canada, the United Church of Canada had its debate about women’s ordination in 1936. Yet, as recently as 2006, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren spent much of its national conference discussing whether member churches should be free to call women to serve as ministers and pastoral leaders. The resolution was finally carried with 77 percent voting in favour. Nonetheless, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, of which Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a member, still does not ordain women.

The message from religious leaders that women must be subservient and that they cannot lead could have a dire consequence in the secular world, particularly in traditional countries. Such opinions send a strong signal to all of society’s institutions, from home to school, to boardroom and legislature.

But The Elders will have none of it. They are committed to the realization of equality and empowerment for all women and girls. They call upon all leaders — religious and secular — to promote and protect those inalienable rights. Theirs is a powerful message. How good to hear now that the group plans to continue with its work, despite the death of Nelson Mandela.

This article appeared on the United Church Observer blog on December 12, 2013.

One thought on “Nelson Mandela’s good work continues

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  1. Let me first declare myself: I am a loyal Catholic by choice, and I have never regretted making my choice.

    As the brilliant Catholic theologian Hans Kung has noted, a Church cannot credibly proclaim justice to the world while systematically discriminating against half the population in its own operations. One of the greatest tragedies to befall my Church was its decision to disregard the radically egalitarian example set by Jesus in his ministry and, instead, proclaim what might be called a Gospel of Patriarchy as part and parcel of the ‘good news’ proclaimed by Jesus. The result, where ordination policy is concerned, is an embarrassing farce. This ‘substitution’ of patriarchal prejudice for the teaching and example of Jesus means my Church has to engage in some incredible mental gymnastics that throw cogency to the winds in order to justify its own policy on ordination. Thus, certain popes have insisted that man-made precepts, like an ethic of unquestioning obedience to human authority, are part and parcel of the ethic of love and service Jesus set as the standard for his disciples. This lack of a scriptural or theological or even logical justification for its discrimination against women has created tension in my Church and is, perhaps, the greatest stumbling block to its efforts to evangelize the world. What a bitter irony that is.

    This discrimination against women at the heart of my Church leads to some incredible absurdities. For example, the Church that reveres Mary, proclaims her the Mother of God, and teaches she was without sin, also says Mary would be turned away from every Catholic seminary in the world … simply because she was, obviously, a woman. So the woman chosen by God to give birth to His Son the Messiah – the woman Gabriel said had found favor with God – would be turned away by ‘Mother Church’ if she had the temerity to imagine she could actually be priest. ‘Mother Church’ does not allow women to be priests …

    But, we are all flawed creatures and so it’s no surprise our that all churches are also flawed. At long last, however, it seems to again to be spring in the Catholic Church. After more than 30 years of a Papacy focused on re-creating itself as a medieval-style monarchy sustained by unquestioning obedience to human authority, not to mention rolling back and scuttling the reforms of Vatican II, Francis seems to realize that the Son of Man really did come to serve, not to be served, and really did desire mercy, not sacrifice. That’s the quintessential difference between Francis and his two immediate predecessors who were both brilliant men, but men unable to break through the patriarchal hermeneutic so long imposed on the gospel those who came after Jesus.


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