In 2013 we lost the one world statesman who could be guaranteed to have all its leaders scrambling to get a place (and a 'selfie') at the memorial service. Nelson Mandela. Acres of print and pixels have already been written about him and I don't really have anything to add to them. But I am interested in the various reactions to his death, especially from within the Christian Church. They tell us a great deal about the state of the church and culture today. Let's look at some examples.
Such are the joys of the internet that within hours of Mandela dying, not only had the prepared hagiographies been published, but also the conspiracy theorists and heresy hunters had already gone to work. I received a number of e-mails and social media posts questioning my own theological soundness because I mourned Mandela's passing. "Don't you know that Mandela was a Terrorist who was not a Christian and never repented?"
What puzzled me about these posts was the lack of logic and the lack of compassion as well as the poor theology, ironically all done in the name of pure theology. Nelson Mandela did many things wrong. He was human. He was a sinner. To attempt to write him off, either because of actions done in the past, or because of views that we might consider to be wrong, is indicative of a theology that does not grasp either forgiveness or the possibility of change. It is also simplistic beyond belief not to recognise that all great men are flawed.
That simplistic narrative was seen at the other end of the spectrum; those who wanted him to be sanitised as St Mandela, before his body grew cold. There were politicians who wanted to hang on to his coat tails of glory (Private Eye as always, hilariously satirised the somewhat desperate attempts to get 'Mandela and Me' mentioned in the same breath), towns and cities that wanted to stress their somewhat tenuous connections with Mandela (we have a Mandela Avenue don't you know?); and there were Church leaders who were very keen to pronounce what some saw as at best, fairly meaningless platitudes.
But some went beyond that. Probably the most admired churchman amongst Western liberal secularists, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, went so far as to say Mandela was 'flawless'. It was an absurd statement and one which Mandela himself would have been appalled at. Anyone who has read Long Walk to Freedom, will recognise a very flawed human being – which only goes to make his role in defeating apartheid and preventing South Africa descending into a bloody civil war, even more impressive. His current wife, Graca Machel, summed him up beautifully "I want him as a human being," she explained. "He is a symbol, but not a saint" (Cited in The Independent 6th December).
So if Nelson Mandela was neither a Communist terrorist nor a flawless secular/religious saint, what was he? The Saviour of South Africa? No. Watching the memorial service before the funeral should have disabused anyone of that notion. South Africa is still a mess, the dissatisfaction with the current government was seen with the extraordinary booing of the President Jacob Zuma, whose tendency towards corruption and nepotism reminds me of the Who's bitter 'Won't get Fooled Again". South Africa is still one of the most violent countries in the world and there is still a desperate and some would say growing, disparity between the rich and the poor. South Africa, like every country, still needs THE Saviour.
Surely if we have a good grasp of biblical teaching about humanity, and some awareness of the history and current situation in South Africa we can at least agree on this; that God raised up Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk as leaders in their respective communities for 'such a time as this'. They were both educated in the Christian faith and both professed to be Christians. As such they both sought a way out of the potential bloodbath facing South Africa, and with a remarkable degree of courage, forgiveness and compassion, they both were used to end the evils of apartheid and point South Africa in a better direction. We don't need to eulogise or demonise Mandela. We just need to give thanks for him and pray for all our current 'kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Timothy 2:2).
I suppose I should finish with some pithy story about the time I met Mandela. But I didn't and even if I did, who cares?! Instead I leave you with the wise words from one of the best commentators on the whole subject – Albert Mohler (his whole article can be read here - http://www.albertmohler.com/2013/12/07/nelson-mandela-and-the-ironies-of-history/
"Everything we do is tainted by human sin, and the huge characters who change world events often demonstrate grave moral faults, even as they achieve great moral change. Nelson Mandela was one of those men. He was essential—even indispensable—to his nation and to the eradication of apartheid. But no man's life is heroic in every respect, and no human hero can save."