I’ve been reading all of the tributes to Nelson Mandela with different eyes today. My perspective is being shaped by two interpretive lenses; the Old Testament book of Esther (a story that never once mentions God but has God moving powerfully throughout it) and a quote by historian Modris Eksteins saying, “Individuals and events achieve symbolic power not just because of their own inherent features, but because they intersect with broader historical forces.”1.
In the biblical account of Esther, Esther faces a life and death decision; both personally and in relation to her enslaved people. Her cousin Mordecai, believing in God’s history holding hand, asks her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”2. Esther got to royal standing because of her God-given beauty. She was born for that time in the history of Israel and after she made the right decision, an entire nation was freed.
As I’m reading the synopses of Nelson Mandela’s life, I’m trying to see if I can see where God’s hand is at work in this chapter of human history. Surely Mandela was born a native South African, in that mud-floored hut in the Eastern Cape, in 1918, for such a time as this. Who else but God could give him his remarkable, “ability to learn from experience, to mask his uncertainty and to inspire others to become better human beings.”3. Who but God has the power to raise anybody up in the eyes of the people?
Could Mandela ever have known that his expulsion from university was a good thing, leading him into the mentoring arms of Walter Sisulu, who then connected him to a lawyer friend, who then hired him as a law clerk, which then led to him become a lawyer? Did Mandela know that he and Sisulu would be cellmates one day?
Who was it that arranged for Mandela to meet and then marry Sisulu’s cousin (Mandela’s first wife) and then later in life, to drive by that particular bus stop where a beautiful girl named Winnie stood? Was there a plan that allowed Mandela to be captured so early on in the insurgency and then be imprisoned on Robben Island for 28 years? Was 28 years of wrongful imprisonment the exact amount of time it would take for a nation and a world to wake up to the injustices of apartheid?
Who gave Mandela the wisdom to see a way forward that would bring about the least amount of bloodshed (and the most amount of reconciliation)? Who gave him that self-sacrificial love for all people; a love that would bring peace to his fellow revolutionaries and both soften and assure the hearts of so many of his oppressors?
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”4.
Who quickened Mandela’s resolve and broke off all of his sharp edges as he mined chalk in a Robben Island quarry? Who brought all of South Africa to a psychological and economic standstill, paralyzed by Apartheid’s refusal to let go? Who’s Spirit was moving throughout both South Africa and the world at the time of Mandela’s astonishing unconditional release? How was it that the entire world was changed by an imprisoned man who could do nothing to effect that change?
Upon release from Robben Island, Mandela shared these words with his supporters, “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life into your hands.”4.
Whose image was Mandela’s servant heart reflecting here as he was released from prison? Could he ever have imagined being elected President of South Africa? When he opened that ANC office in London 50 years ago and vowed (in jest) that one day there would be a bronze statue honoring their movement next to those of Churchill and Lincoln, next to the British Parliament, did he have any idea that his words were prophetic, that 45 years later he’d be dedicating that monument?
Who is this God who takes mere men and women and puts them in times and places to accomplish his will? Who else but God can move in so many hearts in so many ways to set prisoners free?
God unchained the people of South Africa – black and white – and he used a man made after his own gracious, humble and loving heart to be his voice, to be his presence; for such a time as this.
- J’accuse encore, The Globe and Mail, October 10th 2009, Why the Drefus Affair Matters, by Louis Begley
- Esther 4:14, NIV
- The Captive Freedom Fighter who became a global role model, Sandra Martin, Globe and Mail, 12/06/2013, page A4
- Ibid, Mandela’s words upon release from prison.
- Mandela image via Wiki commons