This weekend I came across an article by Al Mohler entitled, Nelson Mandela and the Ironies of History. It gave a brief description of Mandela’s positive contribution to South Africa in the 20th century, and balanced it with providing some information on his “morally conflicted and inherently complex” character. The closing of the article speaks to the responsibility of the Christian in light of the ironies of history. I could not help but feel that it might at best leave most readers confused in the area of historical progress, not to mention what they ought to be feeling about the late Mandela. Perhaps more significant is that it represents a reformed commentary on Mandela that clearly lacks a comprehensive covenant perspective.
Mohler begins by noting,
The death of Nelson Mandela represents a landmark in terms of history. But it is also, in terms of the Christian worldview, a cause for our deepest thinking about the intersection of history and destiny, of human rights and human dignity, and of character and leadership.
Indeed it is. The public stage associated with Mandela and his death makes this event a prime opportunity to instruct the Christian on their responsibility in history. It is also a time to understand better the Church’s impact on the future as result of Christian’s taking their responsibility.
When you think of Nelson Mandela and reflect on his life, and now on his death, there are many worldview issues that are immediately implicated. One of them has to do with the fact that Nelson Mandela was, by any honest analysis, a terrorist. That immediately raises a deep moral issue. How can someone be so honored who had at any point resorted to terrorism in order to achieve a political objective?
Mohler is too soft here. Mandela was certainly a terrorist. If you have not read Joel McDurmon’s article and watched the videos, you should. As to how such a man can be honored, that is a good question. Perhaps a better question is how such a man can be honored among Christians.
That honest assessment recognizes that when you look at the process of political change, the kind of change on a scale necessary to overthrow something as powerful as apartheid, it looks in a fallen world as if force, more often than not, becomes necessary. That is lamentable; but we ought to note it honestly. This is a crucial moral factor in our consideration of the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela became known as the father of his nation, but he was also known as a serial adulterer. He was a man who was deeply, morally conflicted and inherently complex. His early political philosophy was a variant of Marxism and, unlike King, Mandela renounced nonviolence as a political strategy. Much of this is deeply troubling to the Christian conscience.
Open and unapologetic idolatry, murder, adultery, stealing, envy – yes, it should be deeply troubling. Nevertheless, he says of F. W. de Klerk and Mandela,
De Klerk shared that Nobel Prize with Nelson Mandela precisely because it took a cooperative effort by the last white president of South Africa and the first black president of South Africa to put together a system that would not lead to national collapse, but would create a national future…
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in its obituary on Nelson Mandela, South Africa is the economic powerhouse of Africa: it stands out economically from every other African nation. And much of that is due to the transition that took place in the 1990′s away from apartheid and toward a new future for South Africa, that very process that was negotiated by F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.
So, are we to believe that stable political systems and economic success result from communist regimes, forceful takeovers, mass murder and liberal agendas such as the killing of unborn children? Does the end justify the means? I think Mohler makes it clear that this is not the case. Still, we seem to be left with the question, are the rise of stable political systems and economic success unpredictable in history?
It is true, God does use sin to bring about his purpose in history. Certainly, in his sovereignty he uses Satan’s actions through men to his advantage. That said, we need to be clear on a few things.
First, South Africa is far from politically and economically successful.
Since Mandela took over, South Africa has become a Third World country. It went from being the safest country in Africa, to being the rape and murder capital of the world. In Johannesburg, 5,000 people are murdered every year. Unemployment went from 5% in 1994 to 50% today.
South Africa also has the largest number of people infected with HIV/AIDS in the world. In 2007, over 18% of adults, or 5,700,000 people had AIDS. In 2010, an estimated 280,000 died of AIDS.1
Second, any system that does not “lead to national collapse, but would create a national future” is one built on the law of God. Any leader that does not actively confess Christ as Lord over all the earth must act inconsistent with his or her own religious presuppositions in order to achieve any level of success in history. A nation le
ad by a consistent humanist, much less communist would necessarily collapse over time. Its only future would involve national extinction.
We don’t have to be perplexed by history. History is not inexplicable. History is predictable. Long-term success is achieved through submission to the Word of God. Pagan nations might achieve some level of success but they only do so through suppressing their own religious presuppositions and borrowing from Scripture.
Third, there is no neutral sphere. To treat all men equally regardless of race or class, or to fight against injustice is not an expression of some natural law that pagans and Christians can both claim as their own. As Mohler says,
“We are separate and distinct from other creatures precisely because we alone as a species—as human beings, as Homo sapiens—we alone bear God’s image. And we bear God’s image equally, male and female, regardless of any racial or ethnic consideration…”
This is not neutral ground. This comes from the Word of God. Mandela borrowed any idea of true equality that he possessed, if indeed he possessed any at all. If he was consistent with his worldview he would kill everyone regardless of ethnicity, including himself. In light of this as well his historically heinous acts, we should not laud him as Mohler does in the following statement.
When it comes to human rights and human dignity, Nelson Mandela has to be put on the side of the heroes, not only of the 20th century, but of any recent century.
As for me, this is dealing a bit loosely with the “hero” category.
Near the closing of his article, Dr. Mohler touches on the Christian’s responsibility amidst the “ironies of history”.
That’s why a look at the span of human history causes us to recognize that our Christian responsibility is to look at this morally complicated picture with courageous honesty, to take it all as evidence, not only of why human history is important, but why our ultimate redemption can come only from Christ.
It is true, our ultimate redemption only comes from Christ. But this is where I believe the message of the article leaves us hanging. Our responsibility moves far beyond honest historical appraisals and acknowledging Christ as our only redeemer. We are responsible for believing what scripture says about the basis for truly successful political programs. The basis is not force as Mandela might have us believe. Revolution may result in some improvements, but in the end it merely breaks the back of one tyranny and replaces it with another.
Long-term authority and success come from the bottom-up. They result from individuals who govern themselves according to Biblical law. “These individuals over time become representatives. They become representatives in their households, churches, and communities (as civil magistrates).”2 These institutions then begin to govern according to God’s Word. This brings about blessings in history. The process begins with evangelism. “What we need is high-powered evangelism that takes the whole gospel to the world.”3 The whole gospel involves a comprehensive understanding of Covenant.
Nelson Mandela was baptized in a Trinitarian church as Mohler points out in his article. We should look at this with “courageous honesty” and ask ourselves what this meant. More importantly we should understand the future in light of covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers in history. This would clear up some of the ironies.