[Lambeth Palace] The Archbishop of Canterbury paid tribute to Nelson Mandela on Sunday at a special thanksgiving service for the life of the South African leader.
“Great injustice is overcome only by great courage. Evil can never be placated, it must be defeated. That means struggle, and struggles demand courage,” Archbishop Justin said in a sermon at St-Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square.
The service, which was led by the Vicar of St-Martin-in-the-Fields, the Revd Dr Sam Wells, featured a live link to Christ the King church in Sophiatown in Johannesburg.
“Nelson Mandela showed his courage by his determination in the face of evil and by his humanity in the experience of victory. What is more, such courage and humanity were learned and demonstrated in the midst of conflict and suffering.
“He was that rarest of leaders, those who learn from terrible events so as to exhaust all their lessons, rather than being shaped by them into bitterness and hatred,” the Archbishop said.
In the sermon, which was broadcast live on BBC radio at the same time as prayers were held across South Africa, the Archbishop said Mandela “stood out, resisted and fought” the oppression faced by so many South Africans.
He added that the courage of Mandela, who died on Thursday at aged 95, was undefeated by 27 years in jail.
“His capacity to go on becoming more human was breathtaking. His guards grew to respect and even love him. One called him a father figure, whose absence was a bereavement.
“Robben Island was defeated by someone who could take everything it threw at him, and by melting courage into forgiveness to create the gold of reconciliation.”
Read the sermon below:
Readings: Exodus 14, Matthew 18:21 ff
Great injustice is overcome only by great courage. Evil can never be placated, it must be defeated: that means struggle, and struggles demand courage.
Nelson Mandela showed his courage by his determination in the face of evil and by his humanity in the experience of victory. What is more, such courage and humanity were learned and demonstrated in the mists of conflict and suffering. He was that rarest of leaders, those who learn from terrible events so as to exhaust all their lessons, rather than being shaped by them into bitterness and hatred.
Our first reading was the story of the Israelites escaping the oppression of Egypt. It is a story of liberation. God made it possible for Israel to escape. He rescued them when all was lost, and he defeated their enemies, so that the oppressors were destroyed.
Throughout history, this story has been one to which those who are suffering oppression have turned. It is hard to remember today the full evil of apartheid. Nelson Mandela recalled how at school, and in every part of his life, he felt its injustice. Oppression was his life, and those of the vast majority of the people of South Africa.
Not everyone responds to such treatment with resistance. Many of us would have kept our heads down, made what we could of life, looked after those close to us, and closed our eyes to what was happening. We would have said to ourselves, “Life is tough enough, do not make it worse by swimming against the tide”.
But Mandela had courage that showed itself in leadership. He stood out, resisted, and fought. He faced the insult of being labelled a terrorist for fighting for his own people, the absurdity of trial for treason against an utterly wicked regime. At the height of the Cold War, with South Africa seen by many as a dependable ally protecting the seas around the Cape of Good Hope, he had little overseas support. One of the great pressures of conflict is loneliness: he faced solitude and isolation and continued the struggle.
Resisting evil is a call of God. Christians disagree about whether force is justifiable, but are at one that resistance is essential. Easy to say, how hard to act! More than that, the act of resistance opens our souls to harm. In fighting hatred, we risk becoming what we resist. History is full, especially in the 20th century, of evil overthrown – to be replaced by worse.
Archbishop Tutu commented, “I often surprise people when I say this. Suffering can lead to bitterness. But suffering is also the infallible test of the openness of a leader, of their selflessness. When Mandela had gone to jail, he had been one of the most angry. The suffering of those 27 years helped to purify him and grow the magnanimity that would become his hallmark. Jail helped Mandela learn how to make enemies into friends. It also gave him an unassailable credibility. When you speak of forgiveness, 27 years in prison sets you up very nicely.”
“27 years in prison sets you up very nicely” – only someone like Tutu has the right to say that, because he took the same risks. 27 years, add it to your age, think about what you would be like at the end. 27 years of hard labour, pointless oppression, petty insults. Yet in that school of hatred he learned to treasure the ideal of a just nation. That is a second aspect of his uniqueness. His courage was undefeated, indomitable, extraordinary. His capacity to go on becoming more human was breath-taking. His guards grew to respect and even love him. One called him a father figure, whose absence was a bereavement. Robben Island was defeated by someone who could take everything it threw at him, and by melting courage into forgiveness, create the gold of reconciliation.
In the Exodus story God brings freedom, but the Israelites have to struggle and trust. So it is with us. Jesus Christ gives us freedom. We must take it and struggle for it and stand for it, as did Nelson Mandela. And yet there is more.
Peter, in the reading from St Matthew, is looking for a natural limit to forgiveness. Jesus’ answer says there is no limit. Don’t do the arithmetic, learn the point. We are called to forgive forever. Few manage it. Nelson Mandela was one of the few. He did not merely call for resistance, he led it. He did not merely demonstrate and call for forgiveness, he put in place a constitution and governing system that faced evil and defeated it with truth and reconciliation. Leadership is not seen merely in policy, but making policy practice. It is what Jesus calls his followers to do along with him.
And there lies the challenge. Where do we find those who carry on his work? Pray for South Africa as it mourns. Ask God for every nation to have leaders who are full of courage and resist evil, who learn from suffering, who turn that learning into love and make both into reality. And thank God for Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s amazing grace.
Episcopal News Service, December 10, 2013