Nelson Mandela has died. He was 95.
This is a man who stood up to say that the law of the land was just plain wrong. In his remarkable autobiography called Long Walk to Freedom Mandela recounts how he stood at his own trial and said to the judge, “I submit that I am guilty of no crime.” He later addressed the court in what became a landmark speech, that included these words:
“The law as it is applied, the law as it has been developed over a long period of history, and especially the law as it is written and designed by the Nationalist government [the pro-apartheid party of South Africa] is a law which, in our views, is immoral, unjust and intolerable. Our consciences dictate that we must protest against it.”
The laws of the land supported a huge system of oppression and injustice by confining black Africans. It was called apartheid, which means separateness. In the words of Scot McKnight, no wall of separation was ever higher. Blacks lived on 13% and whites on 87% of the land though the population was less than 25% white. It was what Mandela called “a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach and overwhelming in its power.”
He did serious time for such a view. He spent 27 years of his life in prison, 18 of them on the famed Robben Island. Thirteen of those years were hard labor, breaking up rocks in a lime quarry.
“He negotiated with the powers of South Africa until he was released with the promise that he would not buckle under their compromised plea-bargains and neither would he change his message or his tactics until the powers were shaken and equality and freedom was established for all South Africans. Free from apartheid; freed unto justice and equality.”
There are so many life lessons and large ideas to learn from Mandela’s life:
Like the implications of this quote. A combination of his personal experience and his Methodist faith led him to say, “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” How do we treat our lowest citizens?
And the grim, shocking, and grieving reality is that many Christians fully supported apartheid. It was, after all, the law of the land. It was “the way things are.” The world-changing power of the good news of Jesus lay covered beneath a wet blanket of status quo, held there by the weights of fear, apathy, self-interest. Too few said, “This just isn’t right!” Are you visionary enough to recognize injustice? Are you disturbed enough by injustice to stand against it?
And the fact that the question Mandela was asked so often was, after white people had systematically humiliated him and his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for 27 years, how could he be apparently free of hate? He was asked how, after such barbarous torment, do you keep hatred in check? — his answer forces a gut check: “Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.” Are you wasting time, energy, and effectiveness on hate?
As president, from 1994 to 1999, he did much to calm the anger of bitter blacks, and to reassure whites who were afraid of revenge. And the fact that when this prisoner was freed and became the first black President of his country, he formed a government that was, in the words of the New York Times “an improbable fusion of races and beliefs, including many of his former oppressors. When he became president, he invited one of his former white wardens to the inauguration.” He knew the difference between compromise and conviction and used them both to create peace.
One final thought. When they put the cuffs on Mandela and put him on a nauseating ferry ride to Robben Island prison, he was 44 years old. When he was released he was 71. It was after that time that he became president and negotiated the peace-making arrangements that most impacted the world. He was not at his prime until his late 70s. The challenges of his mid-life paved the way for his true successes.
I wonder what challenges are ahead for you?
Mandela was not perfect. I am always chided by my South African friends who are quick to remind me of that. But he was a freedom fighter, a man of principle, leadership, stamina, and persistence who combined these traits to bring substantive change to the world. And I, for one, am grateful.