The world celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, and modern icon of human dignity and freedom. I want to suggest that his life truly merits our reflection especially in light of the larger biblical story from which we, as Jesus followers, derive our identity and by which we orient our walk with the Master of the story into the Kingdom that story announces and offers to the world.
Mandela’s life focuses attention on the fact that human beings are made in the image of God who created and loves one and all. Human dignity and respect cannot be limited by what we might call the “accidents of history,” such things as the place of one’s birth, the ethnicity one has, and the particular family or community into which one is born. That the world constantly does gauge and limit human beings in this way reflects the brokenness of the world, and the ongoing consequences of human rebellion against our creator and redeemer. And that the world is organized precisely to understand, “process” and limit human beings by such criteria points to the depth of depravity adhering to the whole human community.
It is right and righteous to challenge the way of the world and its systems in its views of human being and doing, as Mandela’s life did so consistently and painfully. The vocation of prophetic declaration of human identity, meaning, and purpose in the world is necessary and worthy. The Psalmist asks (see Psalm 8), “What is humanity that God should pay attention and cherish, and then factor such humanity into God’s plans for the world?” The life of Mandela offers a partial but profound answer to that question, an answer compatible with our Scripture’s revelation. We are created in the divine image. We are not accidental but have purpose and meaning. When we fall short and prey to bondage, we yearn and strive for the freedom which is our birthright. Such pursuit has a value that may fill up a lifetime or a generation or an era, but, however long they take, are godly and in sync with our Creator and Redeemer’s intent.
Prophetic declaration of the image of God in the human person and working out its implications for people everywhere constitutes a work of years, not moments. Nelson Mandela’s life bears eloquent testimony to this. Think about the decades of his life where it might have seemed that nothing was happening, and where the struggle for freedom and equality had stalled or simply failed. In fact, he was an older man when released from prison where he had been serving a life sentence. When elected the first black African president of his country he was 75 years old, past the age when most would retire. As we think about the long years “when nothing seemed to be happening,” we do well to recall the numerous times in the biblical story when there periods of time, whole lifetimes or generations in fact, when it seemed nothing was happening, when it surely felt as though the promises of God had been forgotten or had simply failed. Think about Joseph’s life, four hundred years during which the children of Israel lived in Egyptian exile, think of Moses’ life—forty years in exile in Midian, forty years leading a wayward and rebellious people after “delivering them,” and then only to see the promise from a distance, think about those people wandering in the wilderness so long that most of them died in their wandering and never entered in, think about the later exile of the nation or a remnant of the nation, and then the “waiting on God” once some of the people returned to the land of promise, think of the many lifetimes before their and our Messiah came, and then the long years of life as the community of Jesus’ followers in its various expressions and as it spread across the world, and the list goes on. Reflecting on the long course of President Mandela’s life and observing how so much of it was a matter of hidden waiting, behind the scenes preparation, “tardy” fulfillments can help us recall that the whole salvation story of our Scriptures, which one day will become the only story there is, is filled the same sort of waiting, wondering, and unlikely fulfillments. This kind of reflection will always prove sobering, but can also become the reality check we need to keep listening to our Story, following the Christ of that story, and expect that none of our effort will fail in the end.
President Mandela’s life that championed the dignity and freedom of all people walked a path of pain and suffering. Resisting the world’s way of defining and reducing the human person, and of dividing people up into haves and have-nots, and then pressing for another way will create conflict and draw opposition. Champions of freedom will pay a price. Of all people, followers of Jesus should know this and be “at peace” with this reality. We should understand that no one enters into God’s way of being and doing, participates in the right way God shows us in Jesus, without following Jesus all the way to a cross. Indeed, we should know that walking with Jesus seeking to bring the way of Jesus to full expression will require actual following. To experience freedom ourselves and to share the freedom for which Jesus dies and rose again, will require us to die to certain things, to be done with them, to cast them aside in order to go on following without hindrance, to experience the sense that we are throwing away our lives in pursuit of things that may never come to pass, to put to death in order to walk in newness of life. I am reminded that only those who entering into the suffering of Jesus may confidently expect to enter into the glory of Jesus.
Nelson Mandela was not perfect, of course. He was human. He learned by trial and error, as all people do. Over the long course of his life, he learned to sort out the means that were most appropriate for the worthy ends he embraced. He learned, sometimes the hardest way, that some means that promise easy and quick victory were not means at all, but deceptive diversions that would subvert the very goals he sought. Perhaps, most importantly, his life—flaws and all—demonstrates the ultimate futility of violence and worldly power. In his earlier years, he joined with those who sought to achieve human dignity and freedom by force and violence, even if it produced the harm or loss of some human life as “collateral damage.” In the end, it was non-violent protest and witness—the persuasive power of standing for the right whatever the cost, that brought a nation and its leaders at the time to see the light, or at least the handwriting on the wall, and cede power in favor of freedom and dignity. Yes, in the end, it was the power of love that won the day. No, the power of love created a new day that would never otherwise have seen the light.
All of this, on any merely human reckoning, was quite simply impossible. Not just improbable but truly impossible. When the sentence is life in prison there is no hope. When society itself is organized to divide people into human and subhuman, to deny some in order the benefit the others, and when that organization supports itself with seeming absolute power, what can be done? Indeed, when the One who embodies and promises freedom has died, or has been “effectively neutralized,” that’s the end of the story! No other outcome can be envisioned unless …
I did not know the late President of South Africa. I do not know anything about his personal spiritual experience and life. But his passing from this life surely provides an opportunity for all to note the remarkable way he championed the human dignity and freedom that our Creator-Redeemer-God meant for all people. And, not only the way he championed but also the way he pursued and realized them points us to the One whose life, death, and continuing LIFE beckon us to follow.