Bill Keller of The New York Times says it’s important that we recognize that yes, Mandela was a Communist, and friend of villains. This needs qualification:

But Mandela’s Communist affiliation is not just a bit of history’s flotsam. It doesn’t justify the gleeful red baiting, and it certainly does not diminish a heroic legacy, but it is significant in a few respects.

More:

In one of his several trials, Mandela was asked if he was a Communist. “If by Communist you mean a member of the Communist Party and a person who believes in the theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, and who adheres strictly to the discipline of the party, I did not become a Communist,” he replied. The answer was both evasive and perfectly accurate.

Keller’s point is that the Communists, both in South Africa and abroad, were willing to help Mandela and his struggle when many others were not. Theirs was an alliance of convenience, though one that has had mixed results, as Keller, who used to cover South Africa, explains.

Here at TAC, Jim Antle draws the point out in a much more explicit way, addressing conservatives. Antle praises a statement Newt Gingrich released, chastising fellow conservatives for criticizing Mandela on this point. Newt asks, basically, “If you had been Mandela, what would you have done?” Antle, quoting Gingrich:

“Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country,” he argued. “After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.”

“As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny,” Gingrich continued. “We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.”

Newt didn’t flinch from the c-word, noting that Mandela “turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.”

“In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government,” Gingrich observed, “you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.”

He might as well have mentioned the help received from Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union in defeating Hitler.

Antle points out that:

[S]ome liberals display this sort of myopia when discussing the Founding Fathers. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, full stop. Nothing else to see here. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are irredeemably tainted, and that is where the conversation should end.

The broader point in the Mandela discussion, and discussions like it, is that it is foolish to judge historical figures outside of the context of their times. The other day, a galley copy of the Dante scholar Prue Shaw’s forthcoming book on the poet and The Divine Comedy arrived. I’ve been reading it this weekend, and it really is a sterling introduction to Dante and the time and place that made the Commedia. Reading it is to reflect on how incredibly vicious 13th and 14th-century Italy was, and how difficult it was to be a good man then. Some of the most scorching passages in the Commedia come when Dante (the character) confronts popes that Dante (the author of the poem) has consigned to Hell. Shaw explains why Dante felt this way about these particular popes. Given their corruption, and the violence and suffering the popes of Dante’s era wrought on the people under their authority, Dante’s judgment on these pontiffs was entirely just. Dante made those judgments not in spite of his Catholicism, but because of it. He despised these particular popes because his Catholic Christianity was at the center of his life.

Their spectacular abuses of power informed Dante’s convictions about the necessity of separating Church and State. I learned from reading Shaw that the popes of that era, as secular and spiritual rulers both, wielded their spiritual power to material and secular advantage. I knew this as a general matter, but confronting the particulars is bracing. For example, popes had the power of imposing an “interdict” — forbidding the sacraments — against entire cities and regions. They used it frequently, Shaw said, against Florence, because Florence was a political and economic rival to the Papal States. When Florence was under interdict, no other cities could do business with them. It was, Shaw said, like imposing UN sanctions on a city-state.

Now, think about this: the popes manipulated the Holy Sacraments to their political and economic advantage, on a grand scale. No wonder Dante, the faithful Catholic, despised them. Most self-respecting faithful Catholics of that time and place would have done the same. And yet, without that historical context, it is deeply shocking to come to the Commedia and read of the tortures Dante the poet has invented for the corrupt Vicars of Christ.

See what I’m getting at with Mandela? Staying with the Church for a while, some of the men revered as saints today would shock us today by their behavior. St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached the Second Crusade, telling Europeans that their sins would be forgiven if they went off to wage holy war. St. John Chrysostom was ragingly anti-Semitic. And on and on. Their sanctity does not excuse their failings, but we have to judge them in context of their times, and the challenges they faced.

It is the same with secular figures like the communist-of-convenience Nelson Mandela … or the slave-holding Thomas Jefferson, or the arguably traitorous-on-behalf-of-a-slave-society Gen. Robert E. Lee, or the philandering and plagiarizing Martin Luther King Jr., or … you get the picture. Very few of the great men (and women) of history are saints. Hell, very few of the saints of history are “saints,” in the crude sense of being without flaw. For Christians, at least, Scripture gives us the negative example of the Pharisees, who were excruciatingly correct in their adherence to the Law, but were, as God Himself said, whitewashed tombs, perfect on the outside, but full of corruption within.

Would God look more favorably on a man who kept himself scrupulously unstained by moral compromise, yet in so doing lifted not a finger to relieve the suffering and oppression of his fellows, or upon the man who dirtied himself somewhat in the attempt to stand up to great cruelty and injustice, or to fight for the Good, however imperfectly conceived and realized? The final judgment is up to God and God alone, of course, but for the rest of us, when we evaluate the legacies of our fellow human beings, we have to ask the question, and ask it with seriousness and diligence.

Some of the finest men and women I have known in my life believe in and have defended foul things — a statement that others could surely make of me. I think such critics of me would be wrong, but then, I could be wrong. We see through a glass darkly. The older I get, the more I realize the limits of our own moral understanding and capability, and the more I grasp the importance of mercy.