On Dec. 5, the world lost a visionary leader who had endured much, and who, with his message of forgiveness and non-violence, went on to achieve more than any thought was possible. Nelson Mandela, known affectionately as Tata (Father) was held in awe by his birth nation of South Africa, and in time his presence was coveted on the international stage by leaders of oppositional political parties and different religious persuasions.
He passed away quietly at his home during the première screening in London of a biographical movie of his life. One of his most poignant and heart-wrenching statements, “In my country we go to prison first and then become president,” concealed a painful history, when he spent the first 11 of his 27 long years of his imprisonment and isolation in deep resentment at his oppressors. Over time, he repented of this thinking and instead chose to embrace an attitude of forgiveness. Mandela realized the real enemy called apartheid (racial segregation) was not human, but in common with so many hollow philosophies and evil spiritual regimes, deceiving and using elements of mankind as its willing vessels of duress and oppression. Upon his eventual release and promotion to president, he determined to forgo retribution against his oppressors, though easily and appropriately within his power, but instead pursued a policy of reconciliation.
His actions echo two biblical giants of faith, one from each of the two testaments. Jacob’s favoured son, Joseph, was sold, enslaved, abandoned, falsely accused and imprisoned, only in the course of a day to be sprung from prison and declared prime minister of all of Egypt. His God-given gifts of prophetic dreaming, dream interpretation and political administration saved from certain destruction both the nation of Egypt, to which he was exiled, as well as his blood brothers who betrayed him, rescuing nascent Israel from a similar fate. Moreover, the book of Genesis reports how all the surrounding nations flocked to him to purchase grain (the bread of life) to sustain them. He thus became, as his Egyptian name may suggest, the Old Testament “Saviour of the World”.
After elevation to ultimate power, although revenge against both Jew and gentile alike was well within his grasp, Joseph recognized the hand of his God in the narrative in which he found himself as the main player. Instead, he became a father figure to Pharaoh and spoke kindly to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
In the New Testament, the divine man born Jesus would similarly be sold for the price of a slave, abandoned, falsely accused and imprisoned, to eventually be released from death and given a name that is above every name. He taught on a kingdom based on heaven’s system of government, one which, once inaugurated, would never end, whose qualification for entry was quintessentially “belief”. We await His return, the return of the king, to see the day when this Kingdom will operate in its fullness, a day when “he will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4) He will be the first man in human history to bring a lasting and permanent peace to worldwide ethnic conflict, disease, famine and despair. Glimpses of this life on Earth are given: the average human lifespan will extend to centuries as it was in the beginning, carnivorous animals will resume a vegetarian diet, a curious child will explore the den of a venomous snake and remain unharmed.
Jesus, like Joseph, in whose life he was prefigured, forgave those who crucified him and after resurrection did not seek retribution for his illegal trial, suffering and ignominious death, but instead though his blood initiated the ministry of reconciliation between God and mankind. Just like His body, the holy curtain was pulled apart as He both fulfilled and obliterated the many distinctions that had made temple worship so prohibitively exclusive. (Galatians 3:28) “But for the joy set before Him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame”; God intended it for good. The church, as His body on Earth, is soberly commissioned with the joyful dispensation of this ministry (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).
Nelson Mandela said, “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” His deep Christian faith, which grew during his time in prison, intensified and focused both his life vision and his modus operandi. Mandela’s principles to bring about transformation and prosperity in his nation were written millennia before, in the famous 23rd psalm of David through whom the spirit of Jesus spoke: “Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The source and power behind these world changing principles is the Creator Himself.
We can try and follow in this great man’s footsteps, or do much better and pursue a living relationship with the one whom he idolized above all others. In the words of Canadian singer Anne Murray, “Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee.”