The news headlines were simple: South African icon Nelson Mandela dies; Why Mandela was so beloved. He was one of those bigger-than-life figures around which legends are born.
In the religious sphere, Mandela could easily qualify for sainthood. After being imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid, Mandela became the first black president of South Africa – while demolishing racial segregation and persecution in the process.
His imprisonment alone is the stuff of martyrs. And yet, in a Christlike manner, he managed to put aside any resentment he had over those years in prison and picked up where he left off, working with others to bring about peaceful change. “Turning the other cheek,” as Christ advised, was an understatement when it comes to Mandela’s actual experiences.
It’s curious that Mandela is being pictured as an “icon.” In Christian circles, an icon is a painting of a saint or Christ, often done in a symbolic or highly stylized fashion, so that the humanity is subordinated to the artist’s abstract rendering. In a way, it’s taking the figure of a human being, and turning it into something “other-worldly” or divine.
Mandela was certainly more heroic, more extraordinary, than the average person. But one of the reasons he was so beloved was the fact that after all the history-making achievements, he was still a human being….an ordinary father, husband, and parent who had his own share of personal difficulties, like the rest of us.
Barrymore Bogues, a professor of Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I., called Mandela “a very warm figure – somebody who listens very carefully to what you’re saying.”
No doubt, as the years pass, the Mandela story will take on the appearance of a “holy” scripture, recording his remarkable accomplishments in fighting oppression…no less impressive than some Biblical figures who stood up to Roman emperors, went into the lion’s den, or brought a people to freedom.
The true test of his legacy
After all is said and done, however, there remains the question of the delicate state of the South African democracy. Some fear that without Mandela in the background as a “patron saint” and mediator, things will degenerate into violence and chaos.
But a little bit of wisdom often shared among pastors who find themselves turning over the reins of a congregation to a successor puts this situation in perspective: the best test of how successful a ministry has been under any single pastor is how well the congregation transitions to new leadership. If everything falls apart without the previous pastor around, then the seeming success was a false one, resting primarily on an overworked minister’s ability to claim personal feats as congregational achievements.
If, however, the congregation moves on and prospers beautifully under a new leader, then the previous pastor has done good work in recruiting, teaching, grooming, and delegating in ways that empower a church rather than make it dependent on one or two people.
One can only hope that South Africa experiences a similar, peaceful and productive transition – one that would make Nelson Mandela proud!