Like so many, I’ve been deeply saddened today by the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing. To be honest, I don’t quite understand this sense of mourning for someone I never personally met, but I think millions of people around the world are sensing the loss of someone who embodied something ‘good’. I can’t explain this sense of grief I feel, but I do feel it.

(I’m sure I can’t possibly understand the impact on South Africans today, and I won’t pretend for a moment that I can.)

Of course, when someone as high-profile as Mr Mandela dies there is always a mix of epitaphs; some seemingly pushing for immediate sainthood, others suggesting that the person (or their legacy) was not-so-perfect after all.

It is true that Mr Mandela was not perfect. He was human. There were personal and public failings that are there for the record, and it makes no sense either to forget them altogether or to focus solely on them.

In regards to his achievements, however, I have been thinking all day about a conversation I had with a man named Lethula when I was fortunate enough to travel to South Africa earlier this year. We happened to be travelling at a time when Mr Mandela was reported to be very close to death, and it seemed quite likely, at the time, that he would pass while we were in South Africa. For Lethula, Mr Mandela seemed to symbolise hope in an otherwise impossible situation. He spoke of living under apartheid (as a black man), and he spoke of what it was like now.

In Lethula’s words, “Tata means everything to us. He showed us what was possible.”

This, it seems to me, is (at least one of) the most significant achievement(s) of his life. He embodied the hope that things could change for the better—that beauty and wholeness could come out of ugly brokenness. A generation on from the victory over apartheid, the question still remains as to how deep the reconciliation runs (not to mention how well Mr Mandela’s legacy has been carried on by those who have come after him), but the one thing that I don’t think can be denied by anyone is that Mr Mandela symbolised the possibility for a better future.

In light of Madiba’s passing, and as we reflect on his story and achievements (and, yes, perhaps even some of his flaws), I think it’s worth asking the question as to where we go from here. Nelson Mandela was an amazing human being, no matter which way you look at it. But what does it mean for us?

I would suggest two things.

Firstly, I think we need to be careful to remember that the types of things that he stood for and the types of injustices he stood against are very much still relevant today. This fight against social injustice is not over. The victories of people like Nelson Mandela don’t relegate such struggles to the past. Systemic injustice is alive and well, and in many cases it’s living right under our noses. We don’t value the memory of Madiba by burying the struggle against injustice with him. In the same way, we don’t honour his legacy by forgetting that he was despised and feared by many of the types of people who are praising him today. He stood up to powerful forces of hate and injustice, and they hated him for it. They stole 27 years of his life in prison. It is worth remembering, then, that to stand with Nelson Mandela is to stand against the self-interest of the powerful, and to challenge injustice in all its forms. We must not let his memory be co-opted by the powerful and his example be emptied of its extraordinary activist force.

Secondly, as difficult as this sounds, we must be careful in raising the memory of Madiba to super-human heights. To forget that he was a normal person—an actual human being— is to cut off the possibility of following in his footsteps. There is a terribly disempowering tendency to focus on the achievements of extraordinary individuals, often moving their memory, as an individual, well beyond the constraints of reality. Once this happens, it becomes impossible to think that change can happen without one of these historical giants coming along and making it happen. And this is why we need to remember that Nelson Mandela, as courageous and wonderful as he was, did not change everything by himself. Martin Luther King Jr did not fight the battle for civil rights in the U.S. by himself, and Gandhi did not do what he did all by himself either. These people may become the symbols of the change that happens, but they do not make it happen on their own. Thousands and thousands of ‘regular’ people just like us struggle and fight and die to see that change come about. Though their names may be forgotten, their significance is no less important. I am convinced that it’s right and proper to honour Nelson Mandela at his passing, but I am also convinced that we need to remember that what he symbolises is something much greater than himself alone.

So, farewell Madiba. Thank you for all that you did, and all that you left behind. I pray that we would take up your challenge.


Challenging the Individualistic (False?) Gospel

Last Sunday I had the incredible privilege of attending a combined church service in a small village in rural South Africa.

It was an amazing experience!

The whole service was very special, and the time we spent after the service listening to and praying with the local church leaders over lunch was beautiful, but the thing that stood out most significantly to me was the singing. Oh the singing!

What struck me was the way in which the individual voices worked together so perfectly to produce the whole. These voices came together so gracefully (and seemingly effortlessly!) to produce impossibly beautiful harmonies. As soon as someone led off with a new song the people in the congregation instantly (quite literally) sprang into action – each voice playing its own part (and individually discernible if you paid close enough attention) to produce a remarkable symphony. Individually, each voice was good and each part necessary; together they were sublime.

In the midst of this experience, I was struck by the intrinsic social nature of humanity in general and of Christianity in particular; the way in which we only make sense in relation to others. I couldn’t help thinking of the powerful imagery the Apostle Paul uses when talking about individual Christians coming together to form one ‘body’. Each part is necessary and must play its own part in order for the whole ‘body’ to function as it should.

I was also struck by how profoundly us Western Christians miss this point.

Of course, this is something that’s been noted many times before, and I don’t really want to get into that whole naive and simplistic notion of how everything about Western Christianity is corrupt and useless and how everything about (in this case) African Christianity must therefore be pure and wonderful. Reality is always far more complex than this, and those statements taken at face value are plainly ridiculous.

Rather, I want to offer two relatively simple observations that stood out to me in the midst of the church service and that wonderful singing.

1) Firstly, I feel like a fairly sizeable proportion of the Church in Australia—at least the parts I’ve had a lot of experience of—has prioritised the personal over the communal to such an extent that individualistic Christianity, if it can be called such, has triumphed. We are taught to focus on our (individual) walk with God. We seek to understand God’s plan for our (singular) lives. When we meet together we are often told to block out everyone else and focus only on God. We hear the biblical imperatives in the second person singular.

Now I don’t for a moment want to forget that our faith must be personal, but I do want to keep that understanding in tension with the fact that our faith must absolutely not become individualistic. It just doesn’t work that way.

In fact, it is my belief that Christianity should offer the most significant critique of and alternative to the rampant individualism that we so often see in Western societies, rather than being (as has so often happened) the conduit for it.

2) Secondly, and this point leads out of the first, the intense focus on personal (or more specifically individual) ‘sin’ has meant that we have lost almost all understanding of the social nature of sin. Not only is personal sin often something that involves other people anyway, but there is significant social or ‘structural’ sin that plagues our societies. I know this might offend some people (who might consider that places like the U.K. or the U.S. or Australia are societies which are ‘based on Christian values’), but I am convinced that there are structures of institutionalised ‘sin’ that are far bigger than one person. There are groups or organisations or companies or social structures or prevailing attitudes or cultural practices that are partly or wholly oppressive or exploitative or just plain evil. These things are real, and they don’t just disappear if we ignore them. In fact, that’s how they thrive.

Again, I don’t want to neglect the fact that our faith should certainly be personal. We do need to bring our own thoughts and attitudes into the light for examination. The point, I guess, is that it can’t stop there. It cannot be our sole focus. Unfortunately, it often is.

And so I finish where I began.

The extraordinary singing only worked because each voice understood itself in relation to the others. It is because of this fact, I think, that the result was a thing of such beauty. May our lives be the same.