Have you noticed how so many claim Nelson Mandela as theirs? The Methodist church that I serve through has done this more than most. The church’s statement in response to Madiba’s death recounts and shows off every single Methodist aspect of Madiba’s life. It is proud to be associated with this great person and even prouder to have possibly contributed to his greatness. But sadly the statement reads more like a sales pitch for the Methodist Church than a celebration of the Mandela-gift to the world.
The truth is Mandela belonged to all and to none at the same time. A prisoner for years but he was never held captive for a second. He was not a captive of the colour of his skin or clan or culture. He broke free from the bonds of language, nationality, religion and political affiliation. The roots of his humanity went deeper than these accidents of birth. He was more than all these social constructs. And he reminds us that we too are more than these. You are more. I am more. We are more.
I want to mention just two aspects of Mandela’s living that constantly challenge, convict and comfort me. To fight and to forgive. To fight oppression and to forgive oppressors. To do both and to do them over and over again.
Mandela the Fighter of Oppression
Madiba fought oppression. Madiba fought against the dehumanization of people.
Madiba’s fight for justice never died. Prison did not subdue his fighting spirit. He reserved it for his opponents, his followers, his elders and those beyond our shores. As it was with Jesus whenever he witnessed people being excluded and exploited.
As we hear him address FW de Klerk in 1992:
You are going to give in. Because if you don’t we are going to humiliate you. And I will see to it that that happens.
Or to the people of Khatlehong in the same year:
I am your leader. You want me to remain your leader? Yes? Well as long as I am your leader I will tell you always when you are wrong.
Or to Matanzima in 1995
I respect custom but I am not a tribalist. I fought as an African nationalist and I have no commitment to the custom of any tribe.
Or to George W Bush in 2003
It is a tragedy – what is happening. What Bush is doing. Bush is now undermining the UN. Why is the USA behaving so arrogantly? All that Mr Bush wants is Iraqi oil. A president who has no foresight – who cannot think – will plunge the world into a holocaust.
Mandela the Forgiver of Oppressors
Mandela forgave not only his enemies but he forgave our enemies. To shake the hand of Mandela you knew that that same hand had previously held the hand of our enemy.
It was one of the difficult things to accept about Mandela as it was with Jesus. That he refused to allow anyone to determine who he should associate with and who he should ignore. There are photos of Mandela hugging children – the elderly – the poor – the rich – Castro and Clinton and Gaddafi and FW – the Queen and Mugabe – Granny Verwoerd and communists and springboks and super-models. While everyone wanted to be his favourite, he seemed to have no favourites – except maybe the children.
Mandela to be followed not worshiped
I am convinced that while Madiba was still alive he would not want anyone to bow down before him. Rather he would say: “If you really want to make me happy then stop kissing my feet and rather make sure the children of this land have shoes on their feet. Tend to the poor and the homeless. Work for the day that all have houses to live in and lands to cultivate and schools and hospitals to attend.”
I am equally convinced that Jesus would say the same. “You have made me into an idol. You have allowed your worship of me to replace following me. You think you are pleasing me by singing my praises but all it shows is that you have failed to understand me. To love me is to love those who I loved – all people everywhere. I have no favourites except I do have a special place in my heart for the poor and vulnerable of society. To care for me is to care about that which I cared about – namely justice and fairness for all. If you really want to worship me – then follow my example like Mandela did (whether he did consciously or unconsciously matters less) and fight oppression and forgive oppressors.”
Mandela Memories – Service at Central Methodist Mission on 6 December 2013