Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and Desmond Tutu’s biography, No Future Without Forgiveness, are two powerful books demonstrating the influence of resilient leadership to challenge gross injustices with a kingdom orientation. Born in 1918 to the son of a chief, Mandela spent much of his life advocating for the freedom of his people, only to one day become president, but not after a long 27 years of imprisonment. His observations particularly struck me after walking out of prison, ushering in his people’s liberation. He reflected,
I have walked the long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
Tutu, an ambassador for peace and reconciliation who served as the Bishop of Johannesburg and Archbishop of Cape Town, working in tandem with Mandela, was driven by a similar vision. While much had been done to bring about healing and restoration from the damaging effects of the apartheid, Tutu also acknowledged that significant work was yet to be done as the world still bore the marks of brokenness and oppression. He wrote,
There is a movement, not easily discernable, at the heart of things to reverse the awful centrifugal force of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility and harmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving towards the Centre, towards unity, harmony, goodness, peace and justice; one that removes barriers.
There are a couple of notable characteristics consistent with the examples of Mandela and Tutu. First, both leaders were deeply convinced that all people had significant value and worth. Tutu stated,
the little people whom apartheid had turned into the anonymous ones – faceless, voiceless, counting for nothing in their motherland – whose noses had been rubbed daily in the dust. They had been created in the image of God but their dignity had been callously trodden underfoot every day by apartheid’s minions… just because of an accident of birth, a biological irrelevance; the colour of their skin. (italics mine)
Similarly, Mandela fought to oppose the apartheid, which means ‘apartness,’ the oppressive system that had shackled the freedom of Africans for centuries. He dreamt of a different reality for his people, one in which they would experience the same liberties as their white counterparts.
Second, both leaders acknowledged that suffering for just cause ultimately resulted in good. Tutu believed that Mandela’s hardship paved the way to greater compassion, ensuring credibility and authority to lead and provide hope for his people. Mandela himself held an optimistic view of suffering. He stated,
the human body has an enormous capacity for adjusting to trying circumstances. I have found that one can bear the unbearable if one can keep one’s spirits strong even when one’s body is being tested. Strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation.
I would be amiss if I failed to note an observation that perplexed me. While initially adopting Gandhi’s principles of non-violence, Mandela concluded that non-violence may not always work. He wrote,
The lesson I took away from the campaign was that in the end, we had no alternative to armed and violent resistance. Over and over again, we had used all the nonviolent weapons in our arsenal – speeches, deputations, threats, marches, strikes, stay-aways, voluntary imprisonment – all to no avail, for whatever we did was met by an iron hand. A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire.
Contrasting this opinion, Tutu held to the conviction of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Unless we learn to live together as brothers, we will die together as fools.” Reflecting on a husband and wife who had lost a child by an unjust act, the mother said,
Though I readily admit that initially I wanted to kill this man with my bare hands, by the time of the resolution of his crimes, I was convinced that my best and healthiest option was to forgive… I believe the only way we can be whole, healthy, happy persons is to learn to forgive.
Though I may be baffled by Mandela turning to violence to ensure justice, at least in part, I fully acknowledge that I have not walked in his shoes, nor can I begin to identify with his difficult situation even for a moment. Regardless, I greatly admire both Mandela and Tutu and their conviction to lead as self-differentiated leaders. While their goals had been accomplished, the yearning for the fullness of God’s kingdom for even greater freedom was evident, the day when “there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, come!
 Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography (New York: Little, 2013), 625.
 Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (London: Rider, 2000), 213.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 40.
 Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 416.
 Ibid., 166.
 Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 6.
 Ibid., 122.
 New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), v. Revelation 21:4.
10 responses to “Maranatha”
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I appreciate that you underscored that both Mandela and Tutu leaned into the inherent dignity of all people, even those that committed the most evil of acts.
Regarding your comments about Mandela turning towards violence, I also found it, although understandably, intriguing. I was speaking to a friend that lived in South Africa at the time and when I told her I was reading Mandela, her first comment was “you know he was a terrorist!” — I didn’t respond but just asked some more questions and let the conversation progress. I did walk away though questioning if she were aware of the many non-violent attempts he and the ANC made…. Or if perhaps she didn’t, which is exactly why they moved towards more violent engagement with the government.
That is VERY interesting!
Eric, I so appreciate you highlighting the one thing that you didn’t understand about Mandela and his “non-violence as a strategy” but not as a moral principle. Do you think you could apply his emotional/psychological struggle to those you serve?
When I was in Palestine for a Peacemaking conference, we heard for many Palestinians of their struggle to hold onto peace and love because of the brutal treatment of the Israeli government. And we heard from plenty of Palestinian Christians. When I heard their stories and I saw what life is like being isolated from freedom I began to have a sense of why violence seems like a viable option.
This experience still informs my understanding of my call to break down the walls of hostility that lead to the perceived need for violence.
See my comments to Roy. I do believe there are direct applications to my context.
lol ok I will go back and read what you said to Roy 🙂
Eric, such a great job putting several key principles side-by-side from the books. The issue of non-violence and a willingness for Mandela to step across that line struck me as well. As I grow older, I find myself increasingly drawn to a Quaker position of non-violence but I have obviously never encountered anything remotely on the scale of what Mandela faced. A couple of years ago, I read the biography of pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who joined an attempt to assassinate Hitler. As a leader in the “confessing church” during Nazi Germany, that willingness was highly unusual. I wish Bonhoeffer had written more about his thinking and how he got there biblically. Perhaps that writing exists and I’m not aware of it. Maybe there’s an ethical line for some that see the violence as undesirable but necessary in extreme situations? I fear that some Christian Nationalists view the current time as a need for violence. I see that as a grave mistake. That’s the danger I fear down that road – my perceptions can get skewed in ways that lead me to justify my own violent actions. But again, for me this is a theoretical issue, not an one that I have lived.
I am 100% with you, Roy. I would love to chat more about this if we have time. People call me a pacifist, but I would disagree. I believe we are take take oppression and injustice head-on, but I, like you, believe that can be done without violence. While I may not agree with all of MLK, I do admire his commitment to non-violence. John Perkins is another one who has modeled this well.
Eric, I appreciate your reflection and the tension. I do think that his primary aim of violence toward the State such as roads, electrical plants is reasonable considering the circumstances of apartheid. It is quite complex and gets into an entire other world of Just War Theory, but I think harm can be done when we lean too heavily into an ideal like non-violence (or violent extremism on the other end). I find in Mandela a tension of opposites that actually gave the grounding for true change and not just idealism.
Eric: That was a good collection of quotations you used from both books. It was surprising to read Mandela’s thoughts about armed resistance. The man had high ideals and principals that controlled his thinking but he was also at times a realist and his solutions were sometimes very practical. That’s how I understood his thoughts on the subject. Navigating the country’s painful history and the precarious politics during that time is a case study in leadership,. Nice analysis.
Thank you, Eric for your post. My feeling around Mandela’s decision to engage in violence was different than yours, disappointment. I found myself being disappointment that the authorities were so set in their power that it required more than peaceful acts. I was impressed with the efforts the ANC went to in avoiding harming people.
What might the ANC have done differently?
I am curious about how this reading impacted your thoughts about your own leadership?