On Sunday Nelson Mandela was laid to rest at Qunu, his ancestral home, ten days after he passed away. In the interim between his death and burial, South Africa was not so much a nation in mourning as it was a nation in celebration and thanksgiving—celebration of and thanksgiving for the life of Nelson Mandela.

This was true even for the great majority of South African Christians. White South African, Michael Cassidy, founder of the evangelistic organization, African Enterprise, and regarded by many to be the Billy Graham of continental Africa, marked Mandela’s passing with these words:

The moment South Africa has in many ways been dreading has come upon us and our Madiba [Madela’s tribal name] has ended his long earthly walk to freedom. Nelson Mandela has died and South Africa is bereft. The country will never have a greater son nor one who left a greater legacy. We need to pray that the values he sought to bequeath to us of forgiveness, reconciliation, large heartedness, non racialism and true democracy benefiting all should not be in any way compromised or abandoned but re-embraced with renewed commitment and deep resolve. . . . If as a nation we can do this it will constitute the best expression of gratitude possible to this great man who has left our midst.

Stephen Mbogo, evangelist and current director of African Enterprise, voiced similar sentiments. And in a joyful tribute, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu tried to explain his own conflicted thoughts this way:

We have come here—no, and we are mourning a little bit. But mostly we’re saying, "God, for goodness’ sake, we think you are not a bad God. And you gave us—you gave us an incredible gift!”

These were not reactions of the moment. A week later Cassidy offered this sober assessment (December 13, 2013 Partnership Report Letter):

We are very conscious that we are in the immediate aftermath of the passing of our beloved Madiba. Never before has there been such a universal outpouring of affection and admiration for a single man. We thank God that He gave us Nelson Mandela and that he was enabled to highlight, epitomize and personalize the commitments to forgiveness, reconciliation, large heartedness and a new day for South Africa. May we receive the baton from him. May we seek to live out the legacy he left. But even as we praise Mandela, we keep perspective and remember that he was a man, finite and passing. But our God is not finite, or passing. . . . Seeing God afresh puts perspective in everything, even the passing of such a great man and such an awesome icon as our Madiba. I felt privileged to have known him a bit, and connected along the way on several exploits.

These men are quick to admit that Mandela was no saint, but they insist he was a good man, a gift from God to be celebrated.

For the most part, American evangelicals have not been able to join in the same unrestrained celebration. For example, at the news of his death on December 6, American Family Association radio host Sandy Rios offered this assessment:

Nelson Mandela was placed in prison because of the violence that he did in the country of South Africa. Now you can argue, I guess, you can say it was worth it because we overthrew apartheid, I don’t know, is that really the way a victory should be won? Is this really a righteous cause? Is he really a saint for doing this? They talk about him being in solitary confinement, well, criminals are placed in solitary confinement; if you murder other people you lose your rights.

She went on to lament the plight of white South Africans in the post-Mandela era:

I don’t think the picture of South Africa as it stands now is what the [common media] narrative is, certainly to be a white person in South Africa is not a very fun thing right now. . . . I think that they have now obtained suppressing the white population with the black population holding the superior vantage point.

For Rios and her constituency, Mandela was a criminal, a murderer, who has left a sad and tragic legacy.

But a much more positive—and balanced—assessment is offered by American pastor Rich Perrin:

Mandela was a Marxist. And revolution ran in his veins. Marxism has brought the death of millions and the suppression of the human soul whenever it has been in power. So how do you square that, even in the name of justice?

But when Mandela walked out of prison he soon led his African National Party to a peaceful overthrow of the white minority—through the ballot box. Nelson Mandela became president. And South Africa changed. . . . A lesser man would have ruled with lingering bitterness and imposed retribution. But Mandela surprised everyone. He compromised. He produced changes without recrimination. . . .

Mandela is not a saint. He was not even a great president if one rates presidents according to able administration and efficient government. But he transformed South Africa in peace. And that was a greater accomplishment.

The contrast with Rios is glaring. Yet in comparison with Cassidy and Tutu, the evaluation is measured and mixed: Mandela’s final accomplishment was indeed great, yet it was also a great surprise. That a man, whose life story could accurately fit under the rubric “Marxist” with its implied commitment to death and suppression, should turn out in his final years to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy is a serendipitous wonder.

Like Perrin, the better half of American Evangelicalism is more than willing to thank God for the miracle of the South African transition brokered in part by Mandela, but it can’t muster up a hearty thanksgiving for Mandela’s life. Mandela was not a saint and not necessarily a good man either. The contrast with the celebratory attitude of Cassidy, Mbogo, and Tutu is subtle but real. Why the contrast?

Well, it certainly can’t be that American Evangelicals know something about Mandela that Cassidy and Tutu don’t. These are men who worked with him and who experienced both the struggle against Apartheid and the transfer to majority rule. (As a white man, Cassidy had navigated the vicious cross currents of inter-racial innuendo and suspicion.) Nor, unfortunately, can we claim that we understand the Bible and the demands of the gospel better. Readers flirting with explanation should read any of Michael Cassidy’s many books, Anne Coomes’s account of the 50-year ministry of African Enterprise (African Harvest, Monarch Books, 2002), and Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness (Image, 2000).

It is far more likely that our negative, tepid or conflicted evaluations stem from our uniquely American evangelical context comprised, as it is, by its own checkered history with the race issue and the traumatic struggle against communism. In our context and from our distance, Mandela’s cause does rise to the level of urgency and clarity that allows for forceful action. And the allies Mandela made common cause with paint the bulk of his struggle in shades of grey.

In a follow-up post I will explore more directly the charges that Mandela was a Marxist committed to violence. But for now, if Mandela was not a saint, is it possible for you to regard him as a good man? Can you join with Cassidy, Mbogo, and Tutu and thank God for him?

About the Author

Stephen Taylor

Stephen Taylor

Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture, faith and biblical understanding. Steve is married to Terri who is also intimately involved in cultural and global issues; and together they have five fantastic kids and a dog that sheds profusely. Click here to view Steve's faculty profile.

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