In memoriam

Earlier this year, I preached a sermon about fire and forgiveness, looking back and looking forward. Nelson Mandela, gravely ill at the time, was a great inspiration:

I know that I am not the only preacher this morning who looked at this admonition: No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God – and thought of Nelson Mandela… He put a hand to the plough a long time ago, hoping and praying and, yes, fighting for freedom. Because he refused to accept that the kingdom of God, the rule on earth was one that could discriminate against him and his family and his friends for the colour of their skin, which could segregate and separate them from their true place in society, which could demean their dignity and undermine their humanity; because he put his hand to that plough, he endured trials and tribulations that would have broken most of us; his eyesight was permanently damaged by forced labour in the blinding sun.

He spent twenty-seven years in prison, eighteen of them on RobbenIsland in forced labour.[1] Yet when he emerged from prison, he did not look back. His hand still at the plough, he did not look back, and looking forward he helped to lead his country into a new age, not without its problems, not yet the totally new creation of the kingdom of God, but leaps and bounds along the way from where it was.

With his hand at the plough, he did not look back in anger. After twenty-seven years of imprisonment and ill-treatment, he did not look for revenge; instead his government commissioned Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a remarkable endeavour to heal the people, to salve the wounds of division and oppression, by means of honesty and understanding, confession and candour, and the opportunity for forgiveness.[2]

James and John wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven to destroy those who had dissed them, but Jesus rebuked them. What must it have cost Mandela personally, to make those choices not to look back, neither to give up nor to go back and rewrite the fight as one that he had won by force?

In his book, God Has a Dream, Desmond Tutu makes the observation that, “Our world is better because of the life and witness of a Mahatma Gandhi, of a Mother Teresa, of an Oscar Romero, of a Nelson Mandela.”[3]

I pray him perfect peace, joy and light eternal.


[1] Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time (Doubleday, 2004), 72-73

[2] Ibid, 10

[3] Ibid, 115

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