As a young black lawyer in South Africa, Mandela became the leader in the movement to eliminate apartheid, the South African set of laws that discriminated against Blacks and Asians. When his influence became a threat to those in power, he was imprisoned for 27 years. Mandela emerged from prison unbroken, taking up his earlier mantra to live for freedom or to die for it. He was swept to power as President of South Africa four years after his release.
Mandela’s story would be remarkable simply because he was able to rise from rural obscurity to national and international prominence. It is more remarkable given his election as President of South Africa after spending 27 years in prison as an enemy of the government. But it is most remarkable because when he was bestowed with power as President, he chose forgiveness and reconciliation instead of retaliation.
How did he come to this position? How did he rise above the natural passions of vengeance, hatred and corruption that control most men, especially those who come to power?
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela states that he early became a member of the Methodist church, like his mother, and started his education in a Methodist school run by missionaries. Later, when he was a young man he “became a member of the Students Christian Association and taught Bible classes on Sundays in neighboring villages.” Perhaps in those early beginnings the seeds of his ultimate success were sown. In his autobiography, Mandela wrote, “ I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church."
But the record of Christian influence in South Africa, as elsewhere, has its issues. In South Africa as in the American pre-Civil War South, the systems of racial subjugation and prejudice found support in the churches. Speaking of Apartheid, Mandela wrote, “The policy was supported by the Dutch Reformed Church, which furnished apartheid with its religious underpinnings … In the Afrikaner’s worldview, apartheid and the church went hand in hand.”
Many who profess faith in Christ are prone to adopt the world’s systems with its prejudices and presumptions rather than follow the teachings of Christ. It is, in the end, the degree that we implement the teachings of Jesus, regardless of denomination or affiliation, that makes the greatest difference. Jesus set the example by which we are to forgive as we have been forgiven, to love our enemies and do good for them.
In 1994, Mandela addressed an Easter conference and spoke of "… the Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!”
Nelson Mandela is a reminder that when one man is willing to put into practice the radical teaching of Jesus, he can change the world. In our families, our jobs, our schools and our communities, we can, every one of us, practice forgiveness, acceptance, respect and faith that transforms the world.