The legacy of Nelson Mandela far transcends what will be written in the following weeks as the world prepares to celebrate his passing. His identity depends on what each of us saw in him. Was he a political revolutionary who led the A.N.C to take over South Africa? Was he a skillful politician who was able to avoid a civil war that seemed inevitable in South Africa until he sought a multi-racial society based on democracy, human rights and tolerance? Was he a profoundly moral man who was able to forgive his jailers and the whites who jailed him? Or was he a disappointment who couldn’t deliver enough to the blacks in South Africa? These are just four narratives that will capture our attention in the following months—and there are probably more.
Last week I wrote on my Facebook page that he was one of the most inspiring leaders of my lifetime. He captured my attention when I watched the television coverage of his release from prison on a Sunday morning in February, 1990. I was living in Los Angeles and working for the farm workers. Mandela was a political kinsman as the struggles of blacks in South Africa were somewhat similar to the struggles of farm workers in California.
The picture I had of Mandela at that moment was a political revolutionary. I remember the anti-Apartheid and divestment protests on campuses in the late 1980’s. My own college, Carleton college, had many of these protests.
But my view of him changed on that Sunday morning in February, 1990. From half a world away and watching through a small television I could see that Mandela was more than a political revolutionary. He was obviously free from jail, but his spirit was free too. It became apparent over time that he didn’t carry bitterness or hatred towards his own oppressors. How he could live with this freedom was remarkable—and certainly inspiring. He wasn’t a follower of Jesus, but he was living like Jesus. His own moral authority made him so great.
I had the opportunity to hear him speak in Los Angeles and later in New York City when I attended seminary. I wasn’t compelled by his speeches—it was his spirit that captured me.
At the end of the sermon I gave at Chain of Lakes yesterday I said that Mandela blessed the world in an extraordinary way. His dream for a world where people came together free from hatred or bitterness is a dream that should unite all people of faith. It’s a simple message and one that should inspire us to work even smarter and harder. I hope this legacy of Nelson Mandela will endure.