It is rare for a leader of magnanimous character to emerge on the world’s stage but when one does, their example does not fade from sight quickly. After reading Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, I was reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who may be heralded as a leader equal in character. Nelson Mandela is known as a modern-day freedom fighter who spent 27 years in prison, seeking to destroy apartheid. Reading Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, I learned that during the early days of Nazi rule, Bonhoeffer served as a Lutheran pastor who believed that Christians must stand by persecuted Jews and was imprisoned and executed for conspiring to assassinate Hitler. Each of these men had conviction in their moral principles, championed their fellow man, and stood with courage despite dire circumstances.
A leader who takes a stand against injustice and who abides by the Golden Rule, with self-sacrificing measures, has undergone character building that is comparable to a metal worker at an anvil. Nelson Mandela’s character grew by a rite of passage to manhood with circumcision at the age of 18 and he would later be accused in a Treason Trial which lasted four years in court. Bonhoeffer came from a privileged family which allowed him to pursue his education, graduating summa Cum laude (Doctor of Theology) and addressed Germany over a radio broadcast condemning Hitler soon after he had been put in political power. Their moral principles guided them as Nelson became a lawyer and Bonhoeffer rose in ecclesiastical positions. Early childhood experiences and choices they made as young men shaped the convictions they held.
According to Nelson Mandela, the “rule of law is paramount” but justice was not being served to his fellow man; apartheid ripped freedoms away in South Africa. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was known for saying, “Christians might be called upon not only to “bandage the victims under the wheel” of oppression but to “to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” Both men believed in bold and sacrificial action on behalf of their fellow man. When fellow Africans were dying at the hand of the state and when Jews were transported away from Germany to concentration camps, they could not stand idly by. Both men were a force against evil in their time.
Courage was a common trait shared by both Nelson Mandela and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When Mandela was leading the African National Congress (ANC), he needed to go “underground” with the operations to evade capture. Going underground was something he knew he needed to do even though he had to say goodbye to his wife and children without a return date. He did not return until he was 71 years old. Bravely, Nelson educated fellow prisoners in debate for the side of the ANC, with the hopes that other voices might abolish apartheid, if not his. A life long sentence was not his fate as he was released from prison after 27 years and eventually he became President of South Africa. Bonhoeffer’s story stands in contrast to Mandela’s but with no less courage. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for one and half years as a single man. He stated that “if we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of Him who goes before, we are already straying from the path.” (The Cost of Discipleship) Death came to him at the hand of the Nazi’s. Bonhoeffer died alongside the oppressed Jews in a Bavarian concentration camp at the age of 39.
Nelson Mandela and Dietrich Bonhoeffer remain exemplars of sacrificial service on behalf of their fellow man. Each stood for justice and freedom without discriminating against the color of one’s skin or cultural background. These convictions were challenged in the face of cruelty, imprisonment, oppression, and for Bonhoeffer-death. These men will remain with high regard throughout history and are worthy of emulation.