Nelson Mandela: A 20th Century Jesus?

After the world heard the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away at the age of 95, Peter Oborne ruffled some feathers. Last Friday, December 6th, Oborne wrote a blog titled, “Few human beings can be compared to Jesus Christ. Nelson Mandela was one.” Oborne exalts Mandela, saying, “There are very few human beings who can be compared to Jesus Christ. Nelson Mandela is one. This is because he was a spiritual leader as much as a statesman. His colossal moral strength enabled him to embark on new and unimaginable forms of action. He could lead through the strength of example alone.” The BBC’s Evan Davis joined Oborne, telling radio listeners “Mandela should be ranked alongside Jesus in ‘the pantheon of virtue'” (Stop Comparing Nelson Mandela To Jesus, Huffington Post).

Not everyone agrees with this comparison, as evidenced by the passionate retort of Dominic Lawson reminding us of Mandela’s striking humanity. As Lawson quotes Richard Stengel, who worked with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, we are reminded, “‘We’ve kind of made him into Santa Claus. He wasn’t. He had tremendous anger and bitterness in his heart,’ Stengel said. ‘What made him such a fantastic and astonishing politician was that he never let anyone see that'” (Mandela was a giant, Daily Mail). Lawson also reminds us that Mandela himself rejected “as ridiculous the description of him as a saint, and he said so.” Many of us have heard that while Mandela was a warm, compassionate, charming politician, he was a stern and seemingly unsympathetic father and husband. Lawson reminds us that this is simply the nature of being a political leader, men and women who devote “themselves to improving the lot of their nations: and that is the highest calling.” Sometimes families get neglected or lost, “but does not diminish their [political leaders’] greatness.” Great leaders are not saints, they are not perfect. They are human. In the midst of all Mandela did for South Africa and for the world, he was still just a man, a man who struggled himself as he inspired others.

While I’m still undecided which camp I fall into, I see the validity of both sides. Oborne and Davis are right when they see the links between Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela. Advocating for peace, not violence. Embracing all, not excluding any. Striving for reconciliation, not revenge.

And you could even say that Jesus wasn’t a great family man either. He did leave his biological family to serve others, and he did tell a whole crowd of people that his mother and brothers and sisters were those who did the will of God, not just his biological family (Mark 3:31-35). Yet it did not diminish his greatness. He came for the bigger family…the entire world.

On the other hand, Jesus did not sin. And we know, through his own admission, that Mandela never pretended he was not just as much of a sinner as every one else. Was Mandela Christ-like? Certainly. He was perhaps one of the most Christ-like, with Mother Teresa and Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Was Nelson Mandela a Jesus Christ of the 20th century? That is more complicated. What criteria does Mandela have to meet to claim that comparison? Do we really want to spend our time remember this great man by debating the parallels to Jesus Christ or any other sacred figure?

Let’s remember Nelson Mandela for the great political leader and activist he was, for his passion for peace, for the long life that touched so many people. Let’s celebrate, because Mandela’s life shows all of us that peaceful protest works, that we cannot give up even when the world seems to be doing everything to drag up down, that reconciliation is possible. Celebrate Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: activist, revolutionary, philanthropist, man.

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