One of my heroes, Nelson Mandela, celebrated his 90th birthday on July 17. Most of you know that Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected President of South Africa in 1994. You may know that Mandela served 27 years in Robben Island Prison near Cape Town for organizing resistance to the apartheid regime. You might even know that Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Here’s what you might not know.
Nelson Mandela was heavily influenced by the Methodist Church, or, as it was then called in South Africa, the Wesleyan Church. When Nelson was a little boy, his mother became a Methodist, and he was baptized. At age 9, after Nelson’s father died, he was sent to live with the regent of the Thembu people. The town was a Methodist mission outpost, and Nelson saw as a young boy that many achievements of the Africans came about through the mission activity of the church.
From an early age, Nelson Mandela committed his life to racial reconciliation and the dismantling of apartheid. Mandela was born into a country ruled by a white minority, a country which, for much of Mandela’s life, was an outcast in the international community because of its constitutionally entrenched system of racism. But, through the influence of friends and his education in a Methodist boarding school and Wesleyan secondary school, Nelson also learned that black people did not have to endure the dozens of petty indignities directed at them every day by whites.
Although Mandela felt God calling him to devote his life to politics, his views were clearly influenced by his Christian upbringing. Mandela believed that in Christ all human beings are free to become the people God created them to be.
Mandela’s many years in prison were a time of refining and maturing. In prison Mandela fought for more humane working conditions, better food, more visits and letters, the ability to study, more exercise and less hard labor. Protesting prison conditions was simply an extension of the apartheid struggle.
After years of stating that only free men can bargain, Mandela launched negotiations with the apartheid government while in prison. Friends protested, but Mandela was thinking way ahead of others, knowing that freedom was still years away, and slowly bringing others on board. When Mandela finally emerged from prison, he was not bitter. According to Richard Stengel, who worked with Mandela on his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said, “I came out mature.”
When Mandela became the president of South Africa in 1994, he devoted the rest of his life to healing the wounds of apartheid. He began to ask the question, “How could South Africa possibly move forward after the unspeakable atrocities of apartheid? How could the country hold accountable those who committed these terrible crimes? From where would healing come?” Some people said, “Take them to court, try them and execute them, or at least send them to prison.” Others said, “Let’s forget all about it and make a fresh start as a country.” But there was a third way – to hold accountable those who had participated in the evil of apartheid by granting them amnesty in exchange for a full disclosure of their crimes. They would be forgiven if they told the truth.
President Mandela formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu as chairperson. The purpose of the commission was to facilitate healing by recognizing the horrors that people inflicted on one another but also to present the possibility of reconciliation. This was an unprecedented solution to healing not only for South Africa, but for the entire world.
Nelson Mandela believed in leading from in front but also from behind. Mandela knew that he needed to set the example for healthy relationships between whites and blacks. Therefore, he invited his white jailers to his 1994 inauguration, openly forgiving and extending God’s grace to them. He even put some of the leaders who kept him in prison in his Cabinet.
On the other hand, Mandela also knew the importance of empowering others to lead, drawing upon his boyhood observations of the regent, who held open meetings where all people could speak up and were considered equal in their opinions. Nelson learned to listen to everyone before venturing his own views. He also learned that a leader is a shepherd who stays behind the flock. By the shepherd staying behind, the sheep do not even realize that they are being led.
Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and freedom. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism but always sought forgiveness and reconciliation.
I am convinced that what we need today more than anything else in our world is reconciliation. As leaders:
- Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
- In a world where hatred and bitterness prevail, will you be an advocate for reconciliation?
- Among Christian denominations, where “right doctrine” often becomes more important than offering Christ’s love to all, no strings attached, will you claim a faith that looks into the faces of all people and sees only the eyes of God?
- In cities and towns where people are still oppressed because of the color of their skin, will you lead from the front by proclaiming that we are one in Christ Jesus?
- In churches where factions pit themselves against each other by seeking their own good rather than the good of the body of Christ, will you be a bridge-builder?
- In families where petty disputes take on a life of their own and result in permanent rifts, will you model healthy ways of communication?
- In a country where the bottom line becomes an excuse for personal ruthlessness and professional brutality, will you mentor, coach and shepherd others as they live out their faith in the workplace?
- When bonds of love are torn in your own life, will you allow God to change your heart so that you can forgive and start anew?
Happy birthday, Nelson! Your witness and courage has forever changed my life and our world. You have led us from in front and behind through your witness to God’s inclusive love. May we go and do likewise.
P.S. Nelson Mandela was on the cover of the July 21 issue of Time magazine. Check out his 8 secrets of leadership.