Only One Life: Some theological reflections on the death of Nelson Mandela

I remember when I was a child reading on some placard or poster somewhere in the home of a relative the proverbial saying, ‘Only one Life; it will soon be past.  Only what’s done for Christ will Last’.  I haven’t thought of that placard for many years but was reminded of it today as my pastor mentioned the passing of Mr Mandela in his sermon.

He said that Mandela was, by all human measurements, a great man. This sentiment is one shared by most people.  His passing was noted, lamented, and mourned by people from various spots on the political spectrum – and rightfully so.  From his origins as a firebrand freedom fighter, jailed for his terrorist activities against the apartheid government of South Africa, Mandela emerged early three decades later as a man who would pursue peace with reconciliation.  The bloodbath that many thought to be inevitable upon the collapse of the apartheid regime was forestalled in large measure by Mandela’s efforts to work for reconciliation.

Some ten years after the end of apartheid, I travelled to South Africa, where I engaged with and learned from many of those who had served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been set up to deal with the demons of South Africans’ past.  I also learned about the history of the Boers – later and better known as the Afrikaners who were nearly themselves ethnically and culturally destroyed during the Boer War – one of the most brutal wars in modern history – and how the development of apartheid was at least partially in response to that tragedy as the Arikaners sought a ‘never again’ solution to the disaster that had nearly overtaken them.   I learned how the church in South Africa both fought against apartheid, and supported it, in either case overlooking either some critically important parts of scripture to justify their support or opposition.  In any case, the South Africa of 2004 was moving ahead – a rainbow nation seeking to build a national identity cognizant of the wounds of the past, yet not captive to them.

Mandela was key to that.

And yet… as my pastor so inconveniently reminded me this morning, even as he expressed his hope that perhaps Mandela had come to know Jesus, it is ultimately not the applause or commendation of men that matters.  However great Mandela may have been, and as men count greatness, he was indeed a great man, what matters is our heart towards God.

This tension lies at the heart of the evangelical, indeed the broader Christian dilemma.  For we see many people who wear the badge of Christ as an ornament; something that merely decorates their life and deflects criticism, but whose lives are much less honourable than that of the late Mr Mandela.  And there are many who know not Christ, and yet who publicly at least live in ways that are consonant with Christ – perhaps not following in measure, but rhyming at least with his ethics and his principles.

On the one hand the easy evangelical thing to do is to search out for some particular moment of conversion; a crisis event of decision wherein a man like Mandela ‘made his peace with God’, for such a moment would remove the shadow hanging over any celebration of the good things he was able to do.

On the other hand (and increasingly common) is the temptation to simply place the actions of the man in the balance and declare them not just good enough, but exceptional, and thereby to say of men like Mandela, ‘well done good and faithful servant’.

In both cases, the desire is to claim such good people for ourselves – to co-opt their good work and append them to our own theological systems in order to validate our own frames of thought concerning salvation; a desire rooted perhaps (at least partially) in the fear that maybe those in the other camp may be right and we might be wrong.

The tension is not however intrinsic to Christianity.  It is, I believe, a feature of Christianity that has been sieved through a long Western history of engagement with the Christian philosophical commitment, and more immediately, through a world wherein ‘Christianity’ is the frame in which everyone operates.  In such a world, ironically, the sense of the immediacy of God is usually lacking, and Divine Sovereignty, while acknowledged theoretically, is relegated practically to the far outskirts of the consciousness of most Christians.  Consequently God takes a back seat to our theologizing about governance and about the governors themselves.

The world of the Bible, and indeed of much of the contemporary world, is not such a world.  The Christians of the early church would find no such tension in the celebration or mourning of a leader like Mandela.  They were highly conscious of the immediacy of God and read every action through the lens of the unfolding of his sovereignty through history.  A leader, whether thoroughly pagan or God-fearing, was seen and interpreted and vetted, as it were, through that lens.  His righteousness or unrighteousness, or the consequences of his policies were seen in every case as tools through which and by which God himself was operating to effect his purposes in history, which purposes included always that purification and sanctification of his people.  While they did not pray for persecution, and understood the ills of it, they also well knew the history of the people of God, and prayed that they would be worthy to stand the testing of the Lord that was being manifest through the persecution.  When the leader was benevolent towards them, they saw it as a grace from God and an opportunity.  In every case, they viewed themselves as pilgrims, as aliens, as sojourners to earth whose real citizenship was heavenly.

Which brings me back to Mandela and his death.  So far much of what I’ve seen and read even by Christians on his death, hark to what he did for South Africa and the example he set for the world.  These are not to be discounted.  But little that I’ve read has hearkened to the question of what did Mandela do for Christ for – whether personally Christian or not – the value of his life and the applause of it are measured ultimately by their utility to the service of the sovereign Lord.  The temporal and ephemeral nature of our world (and especially of the 24 hour news cycle) lends itself to a dismissal of the court of the heavenly king, before which we all must appear and receive from his hands the judgment due.    Mandela was great, as men count greatness, yet Mandela too is a servant – a clay pot in the hand of the eternal potter, and it is before that master that his determination as an object or mercy or of wrath is determined.  The accolades and applause of men are meaningless in that eternal trial and our works, whatsoever they be, will be tried by fire and if found wanting, they will be consumed.  We too, if found wanting, will likewise be consumed.  As my mother would say, there is no big ‘I’ and little ‘you’ before God.  Mandela will stand on the same ground to be judged as you and I, as the pope, and the president.

History is, academically speaking, my first love – a fact that gives me perhaps a melancholic view of life.  Seen through the long span of time, a thousand years hence, Mandela will probably not merit even a passing mention in any history book.  After all how many people aside professional historians know of King Pepin the Short or Gustavus Adolphus?   But what is done that merits the applause of Christ, that which passes his judgment, and receives his commendation, will last eternally.

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A Story About the Cost of Discipleship

There was a group of young minority men who were among the best and brightest in society.  Not only had they been top of their class, they were athletically fit, and good looking besides.  They represented the whole package and consequently were selected to be a part of an elite government internship that only the very best could hope to be admitted to.  Needless to say, they were very excited about the opportunity, but they were also somewhat nervous.  It was not a very common practice for minorities to rise into  such positions of influence, and they were concerned to make a good impression.  At the same time however, they felt a lot of pressure to not “sell out” their identity in order to secure a position.  It was  delicate balancing act, but being friends, they worked hard to keep each other accountable and to encourage each other.

For the most part, they did well, but one day the internship director informed them that in order to advance in the program, they would need to sign some documents and agree to participate in some things that normally would be against their religion. “It’s all just a formality,” they were assured, but these young friends were a bit nervous and didn’t want to sign.  The internship director told them that he’d give them a chance to think about it, but it really wasn’t an option — and he couldn’t figure what the big deal was anyway.  Talking about it later on in their room, the friends decided that they really couldn’t sign it, and certainly couldn’t participate, but they knew it would only make it hard on the internship director, whom they all liked.

Somehow  the next day they convinced him to let them continue the program on a trial basis, without signing, and promised him that if anything didn’t go right, they would go ahead with the full program.  The director reluctantly agreed, and at the end of the program, well everything worked out for them.  They were able to graduate and all of them got excellent government positions.  The internship director wrote the references himself, something he rarely did.

Fast forward a few years and our young men are all still friends, well paid, and enjoying the good life.  They spent their days in high level meetings and their nights out on the town enjoying the diverse and exciting night life befitting the capital of the most powerful country in the world.  The petty troubles of their internship years were far behind them.  They were still some of the few minorities working in such high levels of government to be sure, but they lived in enlightened times.  No one bothered them much about their odd customs, other than to make the occasional joke, or the puzzled look when their friends found out that they observed such quaint religious rituals.  “To each his own,” their friends would say, “as long as you don’t try to impose it on others, I think it’s fine.”  And it was fine, mostly.

Until one day when the large packet packet detailing all the requirements of recent passed legislation landed on the desk of one of the friends.  He almost didn’t see it at first, as he lazily scanned the pages and pages of arcane legal language that was the most dull part of his day.  But there it was, plain as day – “all employees shall…, failure to abide by this regulation…, this policy will be applied without exception….”  He stopped reading, speechless.  Usually regulations like this always contained some policy exemption, some language that provided a loophole here or there, but there was none.

Down the hall he ran, not bothering to knock but burst in on his friend.  The others were already there. “So you heard?” he asked, but no answer was needed.  They had.

Days and weeks went by; meeting after meeting was held.  Promises of conciliation and assurances of good faith were given, but no, the policy would not be changing.  “You don’t understand,” they pleaded at desk after desk, higher and higher up the chain of management.  Whose policy is this anyway? Surely they don’t mean to implement this.  The questions swirled faster and faster but the conclusion was always the same.

The city lights sparkled in the distance. Soft music played while the smell of exquisite food being prepared in the courtyard below wafted in.  The spacious apartment decorated in the latest style and filled with the finest decor was a far cry from the cramped dorm room.  But the luxurious surroundings and fine wine could not hide the heaviness in the room.  Their appeals were exhausted, and so it seemed were they.  “Maybe if we just…”  “No that wouldn’t work.”  “Do you think if we talked to…”  Sentences half finished and never answered.  They knew the answer already.  “We knew it might come to this some day.  We’ve had a good ride so far.  God’s been good to us, so we can’t really complain.”  Muffled sighs of agreement and resignation answered.  It was true.  They had known; they’d always known.  “Well,” he spoke, standing and lifting his glass as for a toast, “we cannot know if the LORD will save us from destruction tomorrow or not, but whether he does or not, we will not bow.”  The others lifted their glasses to the toast and drank the last in silence.

Here’s to the Ordinary Christian

This post is about ordinary Christians.

Not that there is any sort of person who is ever really ordinary.

But there are ordinary Christians who simply want to follow Jesus.  They are people like so many folks at my church who prayersimply want to faithfully follow Jesus.  They don’t know anything about blogging.  They aren’t riled up about questions of what Bible translation to use, or the proper English translation of some Greek phrase, or issues of “social justice” (whatever that means).

They go to church.  They pray.  They give. They sing in the choir. They try to honor God the best way they can.

So often as a “professional Christian worker” ministering in the university context and with access to all the latest and greatest theological, eschatological, and philosophical debates and questions, it becomes very easy to grow arrogant and dismissive of those who do not.  Why is this?  Quite honestly it is because we believe that greater knowledge equates to greater spiritual maturity or spirituality.  We believe this, despite all evidence to the contrary.   Yet, if this were true, one would find the most faithful, most mature, and most biblically literate Christians among those who have the most access.  The testimony of history and indeed of scripture tells us that this is not true.

Much is said about Jesus’ ministry to the poor.  I don’t know if it is so accurate to describe his ministry in that way.  There were, to be sure, poor among his followers.  But the bulk of his followers were what we might call working class or middle class (though such classes were functionally poor in Roman society, socially they fit the description).  They were people who were lectured to by the more learned among them about the hows and whys of following the covenant.  And they too were looking for the messiah to come.  It was among the most educated classes that the greatest disputes and arguments about theology broke out.

The arguments among the teachers of the Law are much like the arguments today among the blogosphere as people debate back and forth the fine points of the law.  We split hairs over exceedingly minor interpretive issues in the Greek text which make absolutely no difference to the maturity or discipleship of Christians for example.

I grew up in a church full of everyday, ordinary Christians.  I did not have the benefit of a seminary trained clerical staff, a full time paid youth minister, a library full of books on Christian doctrine.  I had rather, faithful Christians who loved the Lord, who cared deeply about seeing that we grew up in the fear of the Lord and had a reverence for scripture.  They wanted me to be filled with Holy Spirit and to live a life pleasing to God.  They laid the foundation for my faith.  They were serious believers.  They obeyed the Bible as best they could.

I tip my hat to them.  Ordinary spirit filled saints who prayed, preached, and taught me the way of salvation with little more than a KJV Bible, a United Gospel Press Sunday school book, and a decrepit totally useless blackboard.