Much has been written and said in recent days about one of the greatest leaders of our time: Nelson Mandela.
We have been told of his royal roots in an obscure South African village, his frustrating years as a human rights lawyer, his clandestine activities as a young revolutionary, his unspeakable suffering in prison, and his astonishing emergence as a forgiving and unifying leader who belatedly attained the presidency of his divided country.
Accolades have poured in from dictators, democrats, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and atheists alike, lauding his conciliatory leadership and self-effacing dynamism. One effusive fan even gushed, “Mandela: the Black Jesus has died.”
Hearing all of these tributes, one would think he was super-human, but he offered no pretensions.
What motivated him and made him a humble servant of the people? The media have been strangely quiet about that.
In the Dec. 9, 2013, edition of World, there is an article entitled Nelson Mandela and his faith. With regard to Mandela’s motivation, we read that “… most believe he was a Methodist. He attended a Methodist church school growing up, and was baptized in a small Methodist stone church in the eastern Cape village of Qunu.” Wikipedia confirms his religion as Methodist. The article continues, “In his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, he talked of his early experiences with Christianity, praising its engagements with the society around him. ‘The church was as concerned with this world as the next. I saw that virtually all the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about as a result of the missionary work of the church.’ ”
At university, he joined the Students Christian Association and taught Bible classes on Sundays in nearby villages, according to the article. “Among other factors, it was Mandela’s Christianity that steered him away from communism and the class struggle that was spreading into South Africa in the 1940s.”
He famously declared that “until I changed myself, I could not change others.” Upon his release, he built on this by remarking, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Later, he proved he was serious about it by initiating, with the help of Bishop Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which probably averted a bloodbath in South Africa.
At the Zionist Christian Church’s Easter Conference in 1994, Mandela stated: “Each Easter marks the rebirth of our faith. It marks the victory of our Risen Saviour over the torture of the cross and the grave.” And racial injustice, too, we might add. If there were any doubt about his motivation, this declaration surely would have dispelled it.
I am reminded of the fourth-century admission of Emperor Julian: “Galilean, thou hast conquered!” For through Mandela, He has done so once again.
Jacob M. Van Vliet
Red Deer County