Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring justice to the nations. Isaiah 42: 1

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy”.
But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Matthew 5: 43,44

An unprecedented number of Heads of State and political leaders are gathering today in Johannesburg, South Africa, to honor Nelson Mandela. President and Mrs. Obama, George W. and Laura Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, are among them. Everyone, it seems, understands that what Nelson Mandela accomplished was a miracle. When he died last week at the age of 95 the world lost one of the most extraordinary individuals of our generation.

At the height of the movement to oppose and dismantle the deeply entrenched structures of apartheid, growing threats of violence by the African National Congress, continuing brutality by the South African military and police, a robust conflict in our country about economic boycott and divestment, I remember reading a report by Martin Marty who had recently visited South Africa. One day he passed a large military convoy on the highway and noted the modern weaponry and well-trained troops. South Africa had, and has, one of the largest and best trained militaries in the world. Marty warned that if the anti-apartheid movement erupted into civil war which seemed, at the time, entirely plausible, it would be unbelievably bloody and a great historic tragedy. Nelson Mandela accomplished what almost no one thought could be done – the end of apartheid and the emergence of a democratic government based on the radical notion that all people are equal and have the God-given right to freedom. He was not perfect and the South African regime is not perfect. Nevertheless what Nelson Mandela did is one of the supreme accomplishments of our age and a great gift to the world.

It required moral strength, self-discipline and a clear-eyed commitment to political realism. Mandela was imprisoned by the apartheid government at the age of 44 and held on Robben Island for 27 years. When he was released at the age of 71, he stunned the world by his utter lack of hatred and vengeance and retaliation against his persecutors. When asked about it Mandela said, “Hatred clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.” When he finally became President of South Africa he stunned everyone again by inviting one his white prison guards to his inauguration.

He was educated in Methodist Mission schools. We can’t be sure but perhaps that is where he first encountered the peculiar Christian dichotomy of commitment to justice and at the same time the practice of love for neighbor and enemy.

Wherever he learned it, it resulted in the saving of countless lives and produced an unlikely but shining example of political hope.

Thanks be to God for the life of Nelson Mandela .


  1. So very well said, John. His life and ability to avoid the almost-but-not-quite inevitable bloodshed was indeed a miracle.

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