The faith of Nelson Mandela
By Jim Denison — Originally published in the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture
Nelson Mandela was one of the world’s most revered figures. Imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years, he rose from prisoner to president, leading his nation from 1994 to 1999. It is believed that he suffered lung damage while working in a prison quarry; he also contracted tuberculosis in the 1980′s while being held at windswept Robben Island. After retiring from public life in 2004, he has been rarely seen in public.
We know about his fight against apartheid and triumphant election as South Africa’s first black president. But what about his personal faith?
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela tells the story of his early engagement with Christianity: “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church.” As a result, Mandela became a member of the Students Christian Association and taught Bible classes on Sundays in nearby villages.
A few weeks before he was elected South Africa’s president, he gave a speech at a Christian church’s Easter conference. After reading the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), he began by praising God for “the Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!” He consistently proclaimed his commitment to Christ as his Lord throughout his adult life.
As his health has declined, Mandela’s daughter told an interviewer, “All we do every day is take one day at a time and pray to the good Lord.” Makaziwe Mandela said that her father was at peace, and that the family hoped for a peaceful transition: “All I pray for as a daughter is that the transition is smooth. . . . He is at peace with himself. He has given so much to the world. I believe he is at peace.”
So do I. In his Easter conference speech, Mandela proclaimed, “Each Easter marks the rebirth of our faith. It marks the victory of our risen Savior over the torture of the cross and the grave.” Soon that victory over the grave will come to Nelson Mandela. God’s promise will come true for him: “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).
The same God delights in you as well. Whether you are a president or a prisoner, what matters is not where you are but whose you are. Is your identity today based on earth’s opinion or heaven’s promise?
- James C. Denison, Ph.D., is a subject matter expert on cultural and contemporary issues. He founded the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, a nonsectarian “think tank” designed to engage contemporary issues with biblical truth in 2009.
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