Free Nelson Mandela

tribute with every five gallons of the other tripe I spew forth each week.

Thought I’d join in with the tributes to this great statesman and leader, but let me begin not in Johannesburg but in Belfast. A couple of years ago my son visited the city for the first time, and was amazed to see what a great place it was, with so much going for it. He later confessed to me that he remembered growing up in the church where I was vicar and hearing week in week out in the intercessions ‘We pray for Northern Ireland’, and thinking ‘What’s the point? We go through the same old prayers every week, but nothing ever changes.’ But seeing the place as it is now, he came to realise that tremendous change is possible. It’s not perfect, but so much has been achieved, and who is to say how much the faithful prayers of Christians for decades aided that process?

File:Nelson Mandela-2008 (edit).jpg

There’s a lot of Nelson Mandela hagiography going on at the moment, and rightly so. As far as I can tell no-one is making great claims about a Christian faith, but he does appear to have achieved near-sainthood, if you use the word in its ‘secular’ sense to mean a very good person, rather than its New Testament sense. However, whatever his own personal faith he has set the rest of us a stunning example of Christlikeness which puts many believing Christians to shame.

First there is his ability to forgive. In his excellent obituary of his friend, Desmond Tutu ( claims that

The 27 years [in prison] were absolutely crucial in his spiritual development. The suffering was the crucible that removed considerable dross, giving him empathy for his opponents. It helped to ennoble him, imbuing him with magnanimity difficult to gain in other ways. It gave him an authority and credibility that otherwise would have been difficult to attain. No one could challenge his credentials. He had proved his commitment and selflessness through what he had undergone. He had the authority and attractiveness that accompany vicarious suffering on behalf of others.

I can’t begin to imagine that degree of forgiveness, which he has since shown to many of those who helped make his life hell. But that is exactly the kind of forgiveness to which Christ calls his followers.

But even more significant is his ability to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that things can change. Last Sunday in a stunningly good sermon in Canterbury Cathedral Nick Papodopulos used the picture of the root of Jesse causing damage to the well-established structures of society just as tree roots can damage even the strongest buildings today. I’m pretty sure Isaiah didn’t have this picture in mind when he wrote, but it is a striking image. Whether you were a Jewish peasant in exile, or a privileged Pharisee at the time of Jesus, it must have seemed that the way society was was a given, just as apartheid seemed so deeply entrenched in South Africa. Love it or hate it, it was there to stay, both for privileged whites and downtrodden blacks. Yet through patience, forgiveness and work towards reconciliation that bastion fell, and again, who knows how much the faithful, enduring prayers of God’s people world-wide helped in that process?

I note three things from this. I promised you a blog on ‘What is church for?’, and although it felt right to interrupt my plans to pay tribute to Madiba, actually I do have one answer: the church is there to pray. It is there to pray, to go on praying, to keep praying, to carry on praying, even when the systems it is praying against seem to be built so solidly that any hope of change is futile.

Secondly, from great pain can come great strength, which is something I’ve been trying to say in my #godingrimtimes thread. It’s not easy to see our suffering as the crucible in which God is refining us. And of course we always have a choice: just imagine how 27 years of imprisonment could have gone the other way, and produced an angry and bitter old man. Something in Mandela must have been receptive to God’s transforming grace, or he would have gone down in history as just another forgotten victim of a corrupt system.  Like the forgiveness theme, this really challenges me in my little tribulations.

The third thing is very simple: God takes his time. Both Northern Ireland and South Africa show us that change is possible, but that it rarely happens overnight. I don’t know how many times whilst on Robben Island Madiba felt like just giving up. But he hung on in there. That’s our calling too.

Nelson Mandela – I hope you’re resting in peace. btw – loved your shirts!

One thought on “Free Nelson Mandela

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