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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Embracing Death

Death is an unpopular topic in the blogosphere, in politics, and in church. We are as a society consumed with life and with youth. Death is only discussed as a bludgeon to frighten or to cajole others into action, as in politics (John McCain will die at any minute!!!) or in churches (if you die today do you know where you will spend eternity?). Other than that, we don’t think about death and we do all we can to push the reality of our own mortality out of our minds and away from our conversation. Death is something we whisper about, lie to our children about, and hedge about with euphemisms designed to “soften the blow” that that which is will no longer be.

This tendency to avoid death is obvious in how we go about church and about theological reflection; indeed it is obvious in everything we do, and for good reason. Death is singularly unpleasant, yet it is also universal. It is one of two universal human experiences: birth and death. Everything else is, well… everything else. And we spend most of our time on the everything else, pausing only when forced by the intrusion of death into our lives to deal with mortality. Otherwise we go on our way, and new emerging theologians go on about how the church has focused too much on the life to come and not enough on the here and now. Denominations split over questions of ordination, marriage and divorce but all agree that death is a bad thing and we shouldn’t talk about it too much less we drive people away.

It is a singularly modern thing that we can so easily avoid talking about or dealing with death, or that our theologians and pastors get away with unsatisfying answers and flat avoidance of the issue. Our children can easily be shielded from the reality of death. When I ask my age peers how many funerals they have attended in their lives, they can usually count them on one hand. I’ve lost track of how many funerals I’ve attended through the years. So few of us ever see death up close and personal. Death is something that happens to the old and to the distant — almost always away from home, in hospitals, in nursing homes, and in tragedies half the world away.

This is all new. For most of human history, death was something with which people, even children, were intimately familiar. Mothers died in childbirth, grandfathers keeled over while chopping wood, and playmates drowned in creeks and rivers with alarming regularity. No one was pleased to have death visit them, but we were better equipped to deal with it when it came. Not only that, but the closeness of death meant that we were better able to deal with life.

In a world where death was not invisible, age was more respected. The absence of grandfathers wisdom around the dinner table was felt as an actual loss, and the foolishness of the young is much more evident when the consequences of their foolishness was more immediate and less theoretical. Likewise the present theological (and political) obsession with youth and with changing the world NOW would be tempered by a more visceral understanding that NOW is not all there is; that death comes to us all and that in death there is a reckoning more final than any other. Death makes life more dear and precious, and makes choices more stark. Our forefathers didn’t have time for the navel gazing adulthood delaying indecision that marks the current generation.

And this last piece is really the point of this post. All of life really is a negotiation with death. The brevity of our life is belied by the expansiveness of our choices in a post modern world. My students, fifteen years my junior, do not realize that those fifteen years senior to me are staring down the last twenty five to thirty years of life. Nor do they recognize that every choice they now make is a decision to let some other option die. As much as the current “yes we can” mantra of preachers and politicians resounds to the contrary, the reality is “no we can’t.” No, we can’t be both fireman and lawyers, and doctors and astronauts as we imagined when we were in elementary school. No we can’t eliminate poverty and injustice as many in college and beyond believe. No we can’t defy without consequences the biological restraints that constrain the vocational and familial choices of men and women. No we can’t reverse the fundamental reality of human depravity by changing the social structures that surround us.

Growing to maturity in faith as in everything else is a process of embracing death; the death of foolish dreams and good dreams alike, the death of choices, the death of opportunity, the death of friendships, of careers, of ideas we have about ourselves, of hopes we have for our families, and the death of those most close to us. This embrace of death gives us a certain sobriety about life, and wisdom. It is the wisdom of those who know that they alone will not change the world, and that society will not be healed by virtue of voting for the right candidate or planting the right church or having the right ideas. It is an embrace of death that frees us from the tyranny of relevancy, because we know that what is most important is always relevant and that presentation is much less important than substance. In short, embracing death gives us the freedom to be human and delivers us from our pretensions of god-hood. It reminds us that being human is quite good enough, thank you very much, and is really all that is expected of us.