Nelson Mandela and the Mantle of Greatness

The father of modern South Africa had been gravely ill and the world had been praying for him in his last hours.

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Guideposts editor-in-chief Edward Grinnan

I can’t imagine anyone was really surprised to learn of the death of Nelson Mandela yesterday at age 95. The father of modern South Africa had been gravely ill and the world had been praying for him in his last hours. But it is always a shock when the world loses someone who wore the mantle of true greatness. It’s as if the earth itself wobbles a bit, as if there has been a tear in the collective fabric of humanity.

He was a complex and heroic figure, the clearest, most consistent and passionate moral voice against the white apartheid government that came to power after WWII. And he paid dearly for it. He spent 27 years in prison on charges of sedition, often under the harshest conditions imaginable. Yet his spirit was unbroken, his will to see good triumph over evil unbent. By the time he was released in1994 he was a worldwide hero for his unyielding stance against oppression and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was South Africa’s first democratically elected president and led the country through a painful but cleansing period of reconciliation without which the nation would never have held together. On his shoulders South Africa was lifted above its dark history to join the community of nations.

True, in his youth he underwent a period of frustration and radicalism and was prepared to abandon nonviolence if the minority South African government refused to rescind its racist, often murderous policies. Yet at university he was a member of the Student Christian Association and taught Bible classes in surrounding villages. He saw himself as following in the path of Christ and his disciples, radicals in their own era.  

The miracle of Mandela was that he emerged from nearly three decades in prison a man of peace, seemingly devoid of bitterness or vengeance, dedicated to healing the savage wounds borne by a country that had been ruled for decades by a morally indefensible system. Along with other twentieth-century giants like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, he was willing to sacrifice whatever was necessary to right the wrongs of man.

In a speech shortly after he assumed the presidency he said, "The Good News was borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!"

For now Nelson Mandela will be mourned. But by history he will be revered.

Tags: Prayer
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