With the funeral over and dignitaries headed home, perhaps a more realistic and accurate assessment of the man and the leader can emerge from all the hype surrounding the death of former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. His life and death would be noteworthy simply because he was the head of state for South Africa, but the dignified way he handled imprisonment and his unswerving dedication and courage in ending apartheid gave him gravitas and at least a patina of greatness. It remains to be seen whether the realities of his political life warrant his standing among the great leaders in history.
As Wesley Pruden noted, “Anyone who observes politicians up close and personal rarely finds a saint among them.” Certainly, Mr. Mandela was no saint, in spite of the adulation, public tributes and the massive gathering of world leaders assembled to honor him at his memorial service.
After his 1964 trial for terrorism and mass murder through the African National Congress that he organized — a trial and sentence, it must not be forgotten, that historians adjudge to have been fair and just — he served 27 years of his life sentence and reported that he was never tortured or (aside from being denied sun glasses) treated poorly while in prison. His words at the trial are a measure of the man: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
To state it very simply: Mr. Mandela’s approach to ending apartheid in South Africa was based on an “ends justify the means” ideology that condoned any action that would hasten the achievement of the laudatory goal of ending the oppression of Blacks in South Africa; Mr. Mandela flatly rejected the non-violent ideology that characterized Dr. Martin Luther King’s efforts to end racism in the United States.
I am concerned that all the laurels and glowing tribute to Mr. Mandela will put wind in the sails of Mr. Obama who already believes that his mission is the “transformation of America” and who has repeatedly shown a willingness to adopt disreputable means to achieve his ends. When we lionize the end result and gloss over the injustices and terrorism that were used to achieve that end, we risk saying to leaders that this model works; therefore, it is permissible, even desirable. Obviously, while we are all made in God’s image, we are all also deeply flawed and prone to sin with none of us perfect — as the song goes, “No not one!”
The death of Mr. Mandela — as noted very aptly and with deep Christian insights by Dr. Albert Mohler — “is cause for our deepest thinking about the intersection of history and destiny, of human rights and human dignity, and of character and leadership.”
We could argue that his years as a prisoner were apt penance for his crimes and that his life after age 72, when he was set free, are what counts most. He certainly modeled dignity and grace, as well as courage, as he ran for and was elected President of South Africa. He presided over an era of political stability in that nation and undoubtedly earned the heaped-up praise for leading South Africa into an era of democratic governance, international stature and world-wide respect despite his support of many of the world’s most vicious tyrants.
I disagree, though, with Dr. Mohler who said that in a fallen world, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” I also disagree with his equating all revolutions as being essentially treasonous or that force is necessary in a fallen world to achieve some goals. It is one thing to recognize the fallen nature of human beings; it is quite another to justify as “historically necessary” immoral means when the end is laudatory. It is also misleading to declare that history demands a “necessary man” with feet of clay in certain circumstances. We all know that such figures have, indeed, been part of history — as witness both Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and numerous others — and, yes, human history is “tainted by human sin, and the huge characters who change world events often demonstrate grave moral faults, even as they achieve great moral change.” But recognizing that fact does not mean we have to claim such men are “essential — even indispensable.” While God does, indeed, use fallible human beings to achieve His ends, is it not possible that it is because His people lack the courage and determination to accept such challenges.
While I agree with Dr. Mohler that “no man’s life is heroic in every respect and no human hero can save,” as well as his other concluding remarks about the capacity of God alone to save us, I am convinced that we must walk a very, very fine line in accepting or excusing the “tainted” aspects of our heroes, lest we hold up too low a standard of leadership and accept less than full accountability from those in leadership.