Nelson Mandela: a great and beautiful light is no longer in our midst

Nelson MandelaA great and beautiful light is no longer in our midst.

As I write this I feel genuinely moved by the death of Nelson Mandela. We’ve expected his passing for some time now with his health failing, but the moment of news still comes as a shock.

I grew up regularly watching South African apartheid on the news and Free Nelson Mandela was part of the soundtrack to my childhood. It was hard to make sense of the segregation and violent oppression we saw on our TV screens, but what was very clear was that apartheid was utterly wrong. At the centre of the struggle against segregation stood the almost mythical figure of Nelson Mandela, locked up in a damp concrete cell in the Robben Island prison. The white governing authorities’ resistance to international pressure to have him released only increased his fame further.

When Mandela was finally released in February 1990, I was watching along with millions of others. It was a time of great upheaval, but also incredible hope. Only three months earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union was collapsing. Authoritarian and brutal regimes were disintegrating before our eyes and Nelson Mandela was like a magnificent phoenix rising from the ashes of apartheid to take his place not long after as the president of a reborn South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” never felt more true.

What set Nelson Mandela apart from so many other leaders was his genuine generosity, humility and forgiveness. To me, he displayed so many of the qualities of Jesus. He understood what true freedom looked like, that to love our enemies is of more worth than to fight them and that each human is of equal value. As his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written:

‘Madiba’s own passion for equality and democracy as well as the enjoyment of inalienable rights for all must, to a very considerable extent, have been lit by the Biblical teaching of the infinite worth of everyone because of being created in the image of God.

‘It had nothing to do with extrinsic attributes or circumstances as ethnicity, skin colour or social standing. It was a universal phenomenon, and this dignity, freedom and equality of all were things that he was wanting to fight and live for, but if necessary, he would be prepared to die for. His opposition to injustice, racism and oppression were thus not just political and ideological but in a very real sense deeply religious as well.

‘He was tempered in the fire of adversity… The 27 years of incarceration, were important in the making of the man.

‘It gave him a new depth, helped him to be more understanding of the foibles of others, to be more generous, more tolerant, more magnanimous and it gave him an unassailable credibility and integrity, and so he could be as he was when he emerged from prison, willing to extend a hand of friendship to his former adversaries and be generous when they were vanquished.’

Nelson Mandela was not super-human in any way, but he taught me and countless others of what we are all capable of when we are willing to give our lives up for something we believe in with our whole hearts. He once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” His inspiration and example will be sorely missed.

It’s hard to sum up just how much of an impact Mandela has had on the world we now live in. I’ll leave Jim Wallis, the author of God’s Politics and president of Sojourners to have the final word:

‘Nelson Mandela was the most important political leader of the 20th century. While Roosevelt and Churchill helped protect the West and the world from Hitler’s Nazism, Mandela heroically exemplified the historic movement against colonialism and racism that oppressed the global south, depicted so dramatically in South Africa’s apartheid. And from a Christian point of view, Nelson Mandela combined justice and reconciliation like no other political leader of his time, shaped by the spiritual formation of 27 years in prison. Mandela’s life has blessed the world with courage and hope. For me, Nelson Mandela has been an ideal of what leaders can be. Being with him after his release from prison, and being present at his presidential inauguration, gave me a sense of a moral authority that I have never experienced with any other political leader.’

Categories: Integrity, International politics, Justice, Mercy

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14 replies

  1. Of course it’s good that God allowed Mandela’s terrorism to be used for ultimate good, and to unite black & white like never before. I don’t think it’s right to describe him as a light. I have no reason to suppose Mandela was a Christian, as I have never heard quotes from him where he said he was a Christian or gave glory to God. Nor have I heard of any repentance for his killing of innocent people. Yes, he mellowed in later life, but doesn’t everybody? A supposed quote reads “People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, FOR LOVE COMES MORE NATURALLY TO THE HUMAN HEART THAN IT’S OPPOSITE.” This suggests Mandela had no understanding of sin as portrayed in the bible. (Romans 3:10-18). I fear his good works of social and political reform will have been “Filthy Rags” in the eyes of God. I have read that Mandela supported the mass murder which is abortion on demand in his later years in power, so this suggests he, (like Obama), was not a Christian. (By their fruits you will know them, Matt. 7). Let’s hope Mandela underwent a deathbed conversion….

    • Judge not less ye be judged!

      Several commentators in the last few days, including his friend Desmond Tutu have said that “he did not wear his faith on his sleeve”.

      • I agree David. We can’t make assumptions either way. Just because someone does not talk about their faith in public does not mean it is not real.

      • Desmond Tutu is not generally considered a Christian either, by people who understand these things!! (More of a very liberal churchman!) I am NOT judging Mandela, only God can do that! What I WAS doing was giving an opinion based on evidence of his fruit; “By their fruit shall you know them..” (Matt 7) Mandela’s quote, if true shows he did NOT know the bible teaching about the wickedness of the human heart “The heart is deceitful above all things.” (Jer.17:9) If Mandela wrongly thought man in his natural state is basically good, then he could not have understood why Jesus needed to die to pay the penalty every one of us deserves. And the fact that even at the END of his life he supported the genocide of abortion is worrying, as no Christian would support abortion. Let’s hope he DID repent and turn to Christ after he retired from politics, and is now safe with Christ in heaven.

        I have read a lot of discussion from Christian ministers who said he never gave reason to suppose he was a Christian… Regarding ” Judge not…”; that is the most misused verse in the bible, especially by those who do not understand Christianity. In its context, Jesus was speaking about hypocritical judging, not passing opinion based on evaluation of evidence. I do not claim to know Mandela’s spiritual/eternal state, but I do know from the bible that no amount of “good works” can make a person right with God, and that only trust in Christ’s redeeming work on the Cross can save us.

  2. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist seminary has today published a very balanced article, which praises Mandela for what he achieved, whilst warning against uncritical hero-worship:

  3. I am ashamed that in all the press coverage about the death of Nelson Mandela, I have not heard a single christian leader, including bishop Butler on “thought for the day” and Ex Archbishop Runcie, take the opportunity to point out that is was Jesus’ revolutionary teaching on forgiveness, including forgiveness of enemies, which was the inspiration behind Mandela’s amazing power to transform apartheid riddled South Africa without major retaliation and bloodshed.

  4. I would be interested to know what people think of this 7 mins youtube clip where Dr Peter Hammond, a South African missionary is talking to Todd Friel about Nelson Mandela’s 156 alleged atrocities.

      • Thanks for this article. Nelson Mandela was indeed a beautiful LIGHT.

        Every now and again we should stop reading favored preachers and read the Bible – it can stir up the thinking of the lazy and shake us out of our sublime comfort. It is a revolutionary document about revolutionary love in the work of a revolutionary.
        And LOVE does come to a normal human heart more naturally than it’s opposite. e.g – Black & white kids play well together till abnormal human hearts tell them that it is wrong!

        It is instructive that Helen has nothing to say about the GOLIATH of the South African apartheid system or the animals who enforced it and murdered for decades. She has made NO statement about God’s people – the fearfully and wonderfully created men, women and children of South Africa against whom these atrocities were perpetrated for decades. That speaks about Helen.
        And if she did it might be safe to say that she would opine that “2 wrongs don’t make a right”.
        God forged the character of Nelson Mandela in a prison built by EVIL – (the evil Helen says nothing about), just as surely as He forged David (Jesse’s son) by his lived circumstances to FIGHT IN BATTLE and KILL and CUT OFF THE HEAD of the great GOLIATH with HIS OWN SWORD. Then God CROWNED David KING.

        Nelson Mandela from all accounts, was born and raised to know God, while living in and victim of some of the worst evil and atrocities perpetrated by other “humans”, as a “free” child, teenager and adult in Sth Africa before being imprisoned in other hell holes created by the “system”. He did not sit in some distant land, misinterpret God’s Word and “opine” about it. He fought with and for his people and I daresay, would have died with them had EVIL held sway.

        Even had He not been Christian, why would anyone, including Helen, think that during the 27 years isolated in prisons, our great and wonderful God, would not have further developed the inner strength and integrity that is a product of the GRACE for which our Lord was known? Why would Helen think Mr. Mandela did not pray or speak with God and God with him … is it because Helen says so?

        I think Helen should stop judging people by her own obviously exceedingly narrow standards. But you know, our Lord was judged harshly by the critics (the church people, “Sthern Baptists”, the Pharisees, the Helens and those who “knew” the Bible), when he came to proclaim the “acceptable year of the Lord” and the overturning of “business-as-usual”. In fact, He was almost thrown over a cliff by THOSE-WHO-KNEW, who “LOVED” God & who “WORSHIPPED” at the altar of their own egos; and that was predictable – “for so persecuted they the Prophets which came before”!

        As Our Lord, our pattern for Christian behavior, did, I think Mr. Mandela grew and developed as he watched the suffering of his family and People, and his concerns were the same as Jesus’ – Preaching Hope to THE POOR; Proclaiming RELEASE to CAPTIVES, RECOVERY of SIGHT to the BLIND; SETTING FREE those who arE OPPRESSED, PROCLAIMING the promise of the ACCEPTABLE YEAR OF THE LORD to victims of the powerful and of business-as-usual”.

        God blessed us to have this prophet amongst us. God has taken Him home. God has continued to bless us with Bishop Tutu, a Christian who tries to live like our Lord Jesus Christ.
        Helen – you are going to have to get over Mr. Mandela, Bishop Tutu and our President – Mr. Obama. Pray about it. If you sincerely open your heart, God will come in. I can testify to that.

  5. Nelson Mandela
    You fulfill your duties for the people sake of God name,


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