These last couple weeks have been a month of reflection for the world as we think about Nelson Mandela’s life. There has been a plethora of coverage on Mandela’s passing. You cannot seem to turn somewhere whether on television or social media and not run into some biography, video montage or reflection. Many Black pastors are chiming in during their worship services to say their peace in ad nauseam about Mandela. Understandably, this has made some Christians anxious and uneasy. There are some sincere Christians who may be saying “Aren’t we idolizing Nelson Mandela? Why are we talking about him in a church setting? I came to church to hear Jesus not a man!” Questions like these require pastors to demonstrate that their speech and action is grounded in Scriptures. They must prove their rhetoric coheres with the narrative and teachings of Christ and the Apostles. What does the Bible have to say about this concern? If Pastors are not familiar enough with Scripture to give a sound reason, then what else should sincere Christians do – but worry. I hope to allay some of those fears with this short thought for you to build on.
When dealing with these kinds of issues of respect versus reverence, we always run the risk of going from one extreme to another: idolizing Mandela on one hand to ignoring Mandela on the other. Is there a middle ground? I will suggest there is: interpreting Mandela. More accurately – rightly interpreting in light of Scriptures… The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 4:8, has given us something to consider when dealing with these issues. “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” The key terms are honorable and worthy of praise. Both terms in the original Greek of the New Testament carry the similar sense of esteemed, noble and well-respected. St. Paul has encouraged the Philippian church during the 1st Century to think and reflect on these things. Notice that Paul has not qualified his statement by saying the admirable thing, action or person has to come from a Christian. It just has to be right and good. Christians can agree with non-Christians when something is esteemed, noble and well respected. Christians can celebrate non-religiously with non-Christians with the understanding that God has orchestrated this achievement. Whatever that achievement is, if it is honorable and worthy of praise, we can celebrate it. However, to balance our praise, the Apostle Peter reminds us as well to “Respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters. Fear God, and respect the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Considering that fear or better said reverence is a stronger word than respect for esteeming someone, it is clear from St. Peter on whom we should concentrate our praise on – the Lord Jesus. Whether Nelson Mandela was a Follower of Christ or not is not the issue. We can praise the actions of someone if it reflects the Kingdom – the way that God intended society to be fair and just. The Scriptures in Romans 13:1-5 and 1st Timothy 2:1-3 tells us that God appoints leaders (i.e. presidents, prime ministers, kings etc.) to help bring order and peace in the society we live in. This order includes the removal of apartheid and the commencement of reconciliation between Black South Africans and White South Africans. Therefore, we should have no problem saying that God used Nelson Mandela to that providential end. We can rejoice not just for Mandela but the God of justice, peace and reconciliation who made this happen ultimately.
God shows us the embodiment and standard of these virtues through Jesus Christ whom Mandela patterned. By celebrating the work of Mandela, we uphold the Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4:8. This means we do not ignore. By thanking God for Mandela’s work, we equally uphold Scripture’s teachings. “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior…” (1st Timothy 2:1-3 NLT) This means we do not idolize. Now we are just left to interpret rightly and appropriately.
I encourage us as Followers of Christ to use Nelson Mandela’s actions toward justice, peace and reconciliation as a springboard to the Good News. An opportunity to share our faith! If one man can bring powerful leaders, friends and enemies alike into one palace, in unity with guns and weaponry laid at the altar so to speak, how much more Christ? How much more should we long the day when Christ will be the centre of the world’s attention like Mandela’s memorial service? The day Jesus brings men and women, rich and poor, rulers and commoners, Black and White alike to worship him in speech and song forever within the new world! Let’s use Nelson Mandela’s life as a reminder to us and especially others that Jesus, the Messiah will create a world of justice, peace and reconciliation. The way the world ought to be. So let’s do our part as Mandela did his.
~Denley W. McIntosh