It has been fascinating and moving to listen to the testimonies and tributes about the life of Nelson Mandela last night and this morning. By all accounts his death marks the passing of a truly great man.
But whenever I hear tributes to a great contemporary figure, I am also struck by how hard we find it to imagine saying these things of Jesus. The gospel accounts are so terse, and so laden with theological significance, and we read them through lenses which are covered with layer upon layer of history, spirituality, and experience that I think most of us find it very hard to imagine the human Jesus and what it must have been like to have encountered him. What was it that made people feel Nelson Mandela was such a great man, and does that help us in reflecting on the humanity of Jesus?
As I’ve listened to the tributes, several things are highlighted again and again.
1. A persistent vision of a better future.
This was something that permeated Mandela’s life, and something he was prepared to die for. He first came to international attention as a result of the speech he gave at the opening of his defence at the Rivonia Trial in 1962, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment. The speech (which you can read in full) ends:
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
It is fascinating to hear how he continued to inspire others with the articulation of this vision. It was this he spoke about to the South African Rugby team before they won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, their first year playing after the sporting isolation of the Apartheid years.
On the Today programme this morning, Rowan Williams commented on what set Mandela apart from other politicians:
Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.
2. Iron personal discipline
The former bishop of Southward, Tom Butler, in his Thought for the Day, mentioned a quality that I suspect was largely hidden by Mandela’s media profile—the fact that he worked hard. Butler recalls an occasion when he travelled to South Africa to gain Mandela’s support for a cause. He first met with him at 8 am, and his secretary informed Butler that Mandela has already been working for two hours. He visited again at the end of the day, around 10 pm, and Mandela was still at his desk.
When people say that Mandela worked ‘tirelessly’ for his country, I don’t think I had appreciated before that they meant he actually worked very hard, long hours. No doubt this discipline was formed in him in his time in Robben Island, where prisoners were chained in rows of four, and worked at the rock quarry for 8 to 10 hours a day, five days a week. Mandela was not allowed to wear sunglasses, and the glare of the sun from the white rock caused permanent damage to his eyesight. He wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom:
I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete on the other side.
This was the place he spent 27 years of his life.
3. Enormous capacity for forgiveness
This, of course, was the most striking thing about Mandela’s personal and political agenda, and without his personal example there is no doubt that there would have been much greater loss of life in the transition from Apartheid to democratic majority rule in South Africa. During his time in Robben Island, he treated his captors with courtesy and kindness, even becoming a ‘father’ to them:
“He was always friendly, polite and helpful,” Christo Brand, a prison warder who was with Mandela from 1978 until his release in 1990, told Reuters during a recent visit to the island.
“He became like a father to me. If I needed some help and assistance with something, he was always there for me,” said Brand, who now helps at the Robben Island museum.
When he became President, Mandela invited one of his jailers from Robben Island, James Gregory, to be present at his inauguration, even though Gregory had exploited his knowledge of Mandela (gained through censoring his personal letters) to his own advantage.
4. His attention to and respect for individuals
A consistent comment from people from all walks of life was that Mandela treated then with respect and attention. This was equally true of his jailers, of children, and of world leaders. One person who met him as a child remembers his question ‘Do you remember me? Do you remember who I am?’
John Simpson recounts the effect of this in a most vivid way.
The first time I met Nelson Mandela I was late for my meeting with him…I was worried he would be irritable with me, and that I would see a nastier, darker side of him. Not a bit of it. All the time I was apologising, he was thanking me for coming, in that charmingly normal, humble way he never lost till the end.
But there was more than that. He was one of those people who treat you as though, for the time you are with him, you are the most important person there. And in the years that followed, I always had the feeling that he was seeing you not so much as the far less than perfect person you really were, but as the person you would ideally like to be.
Former US President Bill Clinton said something remarkably similar on Newsnight:
When you were around Mandela, you wanted to be a bigger person, you knew you could be better than you were, you knew that you had to concentrate on the big things and let the little things go, and you had to overcome your own resentments.
He says other fascinating things about Mandela; you can watch it here:
What a remarkable quality to emulate—to see people not as they are, but the best that they could be. Worth cultivating.
5. Personal humility
An early comment quoted on the BBC News last night: ‘He was not a saint, but he was good.’ Mandela himself commented ‘I am not a saint, unless a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.’ But there was a characteristic sense of self-forgetfulness and selfless commitment to a greater cause which marked him. When he was released after 27 years in prison, he said to the waiting crowds:
I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.
It seems so long ago when Apartheid was in the headlines; South Africa is far from perfect, and yet it was almost impossible to imagine then the transformation that took place. So I will be joining with many others remembering this life with gratitude—and reflecting on the challenge to my own life and leadership of his example.
But I will also go back and reflect on another human life, someone who came proclaiming a transforming vision of a new way of life, of a community that was yet to come into existence, someone who woke early and worked late, who put up with hardship and isolation, who treated people from all walks of life with respect and dignity, and saw what they could become, who gave his life in service to others, and who was marked above all by humility.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt 11.28–30)
There is an interesting article about Mandela’s Christian faith at Christian Today