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Died: Nelson Mandela, South African Leader Who Stood Against Apartheid
Image: Theana Calitz / AP

Many readers will remember the apprehension and delight with which the world watched South Africa in the early 1990s as the racial oppression of apartheid came to an end and the beloved country achieved a peaceful transition to a non-racial constitutional democracy.

The most widely recognized symbol of the struggle against apartheid, and of South Africa in the aftermath of that struggle, was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (July 18, 1918 to December 5, 2013), known to the millions who loved him as Tata Madiba ("Tata" is "daddy" in Xhosa, and "Madiba" is Mandela's clan name; in the usage of his Xhosa ethnic community is a form of address that shows respect). He died today at 95.

I share the deep affection many feel for Tata Madiba—as a participant, in a small way, in the struggle against apartheid; as a witness to its consequences as an interpreter for the testimony of both victims and perpetrators of gross human rights abuses before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and as a citizen of South Africa. I am deeply grateful for his leadership both in resistance and as president. I pray that we will see him enjoying resurrection in Christ, come God's new earth.

And yet, and yet.

In the late 1980s we would sing along with Johnny Clegg's band Savuka in their song for the imprisoned Mandela, "Asimbonanga":

Asimbonang' umandela thina (We have not seen Mandela)

Laph'ehleli khona (in the place where he is kept)

Hey wena nawe (hey you and you as well)

Siyofika nini la' siyakhona (when will we arrive at our destination)?

For all of the great work of Mandela and his generation, the people of South Africa continue to suffer much violence at one another's hands, and deep poverty continues to imprison millions. Even as we bring tribute to one of the great leaders in human history, and even as we work for justice and against poverty, like the poet of Psalm 40 we pray, God, do not delay.

As many mourn his passing, Christians worldwide can learn from Mandela about the necessity, the difficulty, and the limits of politics.

The biblical Scriptures are clear in their insistence that justice is not optional, and that working for justice is a necessary part of a life well lived. The message of the prophet in Isaiah 58 to the people of God hit me like a hammer blow to the forehead in my earliest years as a follower of Jesus: no justice, no worship. The proper gratitude of people to whom God has shown grace cannot other than include working for justice.

I am not enough of a student of Mandela's life to know from what sources he drew strength in the midst of the complexity and difficulty of a political vocation. Other political activists, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have given an account of the importance of a life of prayer, and in particular the importance of the psalms as a school of prayer, for developing a robust spirituality for political activism. But however Mandela understood God and his relationship with God, and whatever sustenance he might have drawn from the biblical Scriptures or the Christian tradition, his life bears testimony to the necessity of politics in the struggle for justice.

And at the same time Mandela's life demonstrates the complexity and difficulty of working for justice. Political activism is neither easy nor simple. Political activism requires great love, deep commitment, careful discernment, tremendous resilience, and extreme endurance. Working for justice can wreak havoc in the life of a family (as evidenced by Mandela being married three times). Working for justice demands heartbreaking choices (as evidenced by Mandela's renunciation of nonviolent resistance and commitment to an armed struggle). And working for justice can have very serious consequences (as evidenced by Mandela's 27 years in prison).

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