It’s been a sad couple of days as we’ve mourned the passing of one of the greatest gifts God has given us as a nation – Nelson Mandela – a man who exemplified Christ-likeness in his servant-hearted leadership, his unprecedented forgiveness and his humility. But as we pay tribute to these rare qualities, we may be at risk of forgetting the revolutionary, the rebel, the man who shook things up.
In so many ways Mandela resisted the status quo, holding up a different vision of the future – a future he wasn’t afraid to overturn a few proverbial tables to fight for. This version of Mandela is maybe one we’re not so comfortable with. We’re much more at ease with the image of him gently swaying side-to-side in a Springbok jersey, just as we often prefer a view of Jesus as the ‘meek and mild’ shepherd, as opposed to the revolutionary who went up against an evil system to fight for our eternal freedom.
The aim of this post isn’t to compare Madiba with Jesus – how could we even try to do that? – but rather to show that the man we’re honouring today and the Saviour we serve as Christ-followers were both ultimately committed to justice and were even willing to suffer and die for it.
Yes, Madiba was a champion for peace, yes, he was a great leader, yes, he showed immense forgiveness – all of these are important things to remember about him, but we should never forget that his goal was not peace and harmony for its own sake. No, his goal was always justice.
One story which sticks out as an example of this is when, in 1985, P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela if he ‘unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon’. Mandela responded in a statement saying, “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. I cannot, and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.” He wasn’t willing to negotiate conditions for a freedom which should be his (and all South Africans’) as a matter of justice, even if those conditions would guarantee his immediate release.
The justice Mandela stood for was a big picture justice. It was bigger than political freedom. It resembled a biblical view of justice, which includes not only the righting of wrongs, but also “generosity and social concern, especially toward the poor and vulnerable.” (Timothy Keller, Generous Justice)
After gaining the things he’d fought so hard for, and becoming South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, you would’ve almost excused Madiba if, after 27 years in prison, he’d decided to live out the rest of his days comfortably afloat this legacy. After all, hadn’t he earned some time out? No, Madiba’s life’s mission was big picture justice – and on that score, there was so much more to be done. His view of justice was small enough to show compassion to an orphaned child, but big enough to change policies to ensure effective treatment for all with HIV/Aids.
In Mark Gevisser’s obituary for Mandela in the Mail & Guardian, he tells the story of when, as heritage curator at Constitution Hill, he was responsible for showing Mandela the Old Fort prison cell in which he was held. He describes how Mandela looked a bit bored – and that he only lit up and started asking questions when someone mentioned that there was a new treatment and research centre for Aids across the road. Big picture justice.
On Sunday, 15 December, Madiba’s body will finally be laid to rest after 10 days of public mourning. And in the days, weeks, and months that follow the media tributes, the TV shows and the adoring Facebook updates dedicated to our Tata will start to turn to other world events and news of other public figures. We will forget – even while he was alive we forgot – exactly what it was he fought so hard to see realised in his lifetime.
We will forget that justice was his mission. Big picture justice. And that big picture justice should be part of our life’s mission too – not because Madiba cared about it, but because Christ does. We give thanks for Madiba, but we need not look beyond ourselves to see what God has entrusted to us and the many ways we can bring His kind of big picture justice to the people around us.
It might mean paying generous wages or building friendships across comfort zones. It could be as small as a visit to someone in need or as big as a campaign for a cause you care about. Our opportunities to bring God’s justice into the world come in all shapes and sizes. The only constant is that they rely on us.
Our country still has a long way to go on its path towards justice for all, social reconciliation and equality. The work is not yet done. Jesus wants to use us, as he used Madiba, to be part of restoring the world. So are we prepared to shake things up, in honour of Madiba, in the name of justice and, ultimately, in the name of Jesus?
Rest in peace Tata. Thank you for your example. We are so incredibly grateful.