Reflecting on the Life & Death of Nelson Mandela Part 1

Nelson Mandela has been an inspiration to many for decades now. It should not be a surprise that his name will fill headlines for weeks and months to come. Social media will forever quote him and the soon to be widely released movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom will be talked about throughout 2014. It’s been a few weeks since he’s passed away and my advice is to lean into it all because there is much to gain from Nelson Mandela has an inspiring “though flawed like the rest of us”  figure. More on that later.

Some will be too quick to dismiss the attention on Mandela because its fashionable to talk about him and thus, they will distance themselves from anything to be gained in fear of appearing to be influenced by anything trendy. Opportunities will be missed to grow. Some of these lessons will come back around but only some and why wait?

I’m actually old enough to remember the news of Mandela being released from prison. And because of the weird way memory works, his release is forever tied in my mind to Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson. Looking back on it, what stuck me about Mandela was I had never seen anyone released from prison with such celebration and media coverage. Others have been released in controversy but I still can’t think of anyone who has received such celebration. He was among the few global figures I knew and frankly, It was a short list: Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Princess Diana, and Mikhail Gorbachev. My world felt very small then. I also remember my thoughts after he was elected to be president of South Africa years later – “Wow, released from prison and now president??” I may not have known much of the way the world works then but I knew they usually don’t elect that guy. I tuned in.

For me, I am most inspired by Mandela’s resolve to pursue peace, fight apartheid, refrain from personal retaliation and encourage others to do the same. Clearly I’m not alone in here. As for Xers and Millennials, we are not old enough to have lived through the Civil Rights era and thus have only heard the stories of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi. And to reiterate, it’s incredible that this same figure of justice and peace would then hold the highest office in South Africa. He was similar and different than King and Ghandi – similar in pursuing peace and avoiding retaliation, different in political platform.


Like you, I’ve heard countless illustrations and quotes of Mandela over the years. Frankly, there are very few non-religious figures who talk of peace the way Mandela did. I get that South Africa is not a super-power and has its own set of unique challenges but as a barely informed student of the world, I recognized him as a peaceful figure. Since then, can I admit that movie Invictus helped recapture my attention? If you saw Invictus and you watched SportsCenter in the 90’s (and therefore know the outcome) the Mandela character is the most interesting piece of the entire movie. (There is also a SportsCenter 30-30 documentary entitled the “16th Man” from 2012 which is very well produced).

Throughout the late 90’s, I remember hearing criticism about Mandela, the frustrations he had with some Western leaders, the controversial sound-bytes, the term “Marxist” was often used and the back and forth dynamic between being known as a hero and politician and the alleged inconsistencies of being a peaceful family man. It’s here that everyone has a choice. One is to dismiss someone because thoughtful critique has been raised and interesting dirt has been uncovered. He’s not a god, he’s human. The second is to take the him for who he is – he’s not a god, he’s human.

If we did this for everyone under scrutiny, we’d not only dismiss fewer people, we would find more to gain (not excuse, mind you), more to restore and I suspect that we might find ourselves not as quickly dismissed either.

All of this matters, nothing should be swept under any rug, and nothing should be thrown out. It takes prayerful wisdom to discern what and how much attention and influence to offer another but it’s a worthy pursuit and I think Nelson Mandela demonstrates much of the what and why.

Part 2 will look at some of the criticism and distraction of the Mandela funeral. Too much unnecessary criticism during a time of grief and celebration and way too much drama, Presidential selfies, a controversial sign-language interpreter and a bit more.

Thanks for reading/sharing.

Further Reading:

Why Christians Should Care about Nelson Mandela, Justice and Gospel Proclamation by Michael Oh via Christianity Today online.

Nelson Mandela’s Impact on the World Through Sports from


  1. This is a helpful and insightful piece. It verbalizes some of what I’ve been thinking about with regard to Mandela’s life and death. I haven’t quite been able to do that yet.

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