Mandela–the Lion King of Qunu

by Dr. Michael Christensen


As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”—attributed to Nelson Mandela

After 10 days of global attention and national mourning of the death of the 95 year old anti-apartheid revolutionary and first Black President of South Africa, I am still in awe of this royal champion, this Lion-King of a man with mythic dimensions, magical powers, mystical depths of spirit, and feet of clay. I remember how his prophetic witness raised my global consciousness growing up in the 1970’s, and how supporting his call for divestment in the 1980’s added to the controversial issues that got me in trouble with my denomination.  I remember where I was and who I was cheering with on February 11, 1990, when he was finally released from prison after 27 years (it was the same day I decided to leave the church of my birth and become a United Methodist).   I want to remember and give thanks for Nelson Mandela and honor the Source of his Fire and Flame at Christmas time.mandela lion skin coffin

Today, December 15, 2014, the South African military handed over his remains to tribal leaders and family members for burial in his ancestral village of Qunu in the East Cape. The national flag that had covered his coffin at the State funeral was replaced with a lion skin, a traditional symbol of the Xhosa people (Mandela’s tribe), symbolizing the return of one of their own.  One of Mandela’s grandsons (a new tribal chief), other family and friends, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, British royals including the Prince of Wales, and religious leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson, Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu and Methodist Bishop Don Dabula (identified by CNN as the Mandela family chaplain), honored the body, soul and eternal spirit of this Lion King of Qunu named Madiba Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela as he was laid to rest.


Noble Birth

Before he was born on July 18, 1918, to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, a spark of divinity was planted in his soul. (This happens to all babies born to human parents, which is why we all are sacred flames from the One Source, royal offspring of Almighty God, beloved children of the Most High, formed in the image and likeness of our Creator).

He was born into the Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei (South Cape rural province) to parents who served as principal advisors to the Acting King of the Thembu people.  All members of this clan can be called Madiba—the name of their tribal chief in the 19th century —as a name of respect and honorable birth. (South Africans with deep affection often call Mr. Mandela “Madiba” as a way of honoring his tribal roots.)

Rolihlahla was the name his father gave him, a Xhosa name which means, “pulling the branch of a tree.” And it also means “trouble-maker” (prophetic for sure).  After the death of his father, when Mandela was 12 years old, the boy became a ward of the King at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni. (Like Moses as a child in Pharaoh’s palace, he may have grown up with a sense of royal destiny.)


Christian Baptism

In the news media we hear more about Mandela’s tribal roots and social values than we do about his Christian roots and spiritual values.  However, the Christian Church can rightfully claim one of our own, so I will proudly say it: Nelson Mandela was a baptized Christian from a life-long Methodist family! As the presider at his funeral announced today, “the Methodist Church was the spiritual home of Nelson Mandela.”[i]

 The Madiba boy born to be a king became a Christian at his mother’s urgings.   He was baptized at their Methodist Church in Qunu at the age of seven. His primary school teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave him the name Nelson in accordance with the custom to give all school children “Christian” names in baptism.  The name “Nelson” means “son of Nell.“  Nell is of Greek and English origin and it means “light.” Nelson means Son of Light.

From age 7 through college, Nelson attended Methodist boarding schools in his Provence, and gained a better education than he would have had by attending Banta Schools–the public schools assigned to native Blacks in segregated South Africa. Certainly the British Methodist mission schools mixed true Christian faith with colonial religion (as any church institution in the early 20th century would), but there was enough light from the divine spark in Nelson’s soul at birth, and enough grace in the sacrament of baptism at age 7 to fan thebb flame and last a lifetime!

As Nelson learned Bible stories from missionaries in his Methodist church and classrooms, I imagine that the word of the Lord came to him as a herds boy tending to his family cows, as it did to an earlier prophet, Jeremiah, when he was a boy:

4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:4-10)

As Morgan Freeman (the actor who played Mandela in the movie Invictus) said in a 2009 PBS interview: “He was born to do what he’s doing. I think Providence sat on his shoulder at an early age, and he was guided…”

After completing his Junior Certificate, Nelson went on to Healdtown, a Wesleyan Methodist secondary school of good repute, and got in to the University College at Fort Hare.  He was expelled for joining in a student protest in college, but managed to completed his BA through the University of South Africa and then went back to Fort Hare for his official graduation ceremony in 1943.  The following year, Mandela joined the African National Congress and helped form the ANC Youth League in 1944.  He rose through the ranks and became a compelling figure and leader.


Revolutionary Leader

As a political revolutionary and outlaw, Mandela’s vision during the apartheid era in South Africa was for the eradication of the system of racism and injustice in S.A., and the establishment of a constitutional democracy in which all citizens, including the native majority, had equal rights to vote and participate in their government.  In this campaign, he was supported by the Methodist Church:

tt“Methodist leaders were prominent among the prophets who refused to bow to the false god of apartheid,” he said. “Your ministers also visited us in prison and cared for our families. Some of you were banned. Your Presiding Bishop himself shared imprisonment with us for some years on Robben Island. This you did, not as outsiders to the cause of democracy, but as part of society and eminent prophets of the teachings of your faith.”[ii]

After the African National Congress was outlawed, Mandela continued operating secretly.  Like the Lion King, Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, who would come and go, appear and disappear from the land of Narnia, Nelson Mandela became a master of disguise, and would appear at anti-apartheid rallies in South Africa, give a roaring fiery and revolutionary speech, and then suddenly disappear from the scene to the delight of the crowd and the frustration of police who were trying to arrest him for treason.

After two decades of social protest and stirring up popular demonstrations, and previous arrests and trials for treason, Mandala was put on trial with nine others in 1963 for conspiring to commit violent revolution and acts of sabotage.  Found guilty and facing the death penalty, his words to the court at the end of the trial became immortalized:

 “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (‘Speech from the Dock’ on 20 April 1964)

 Like the Lion King Mufasa in Disney’s film, who told his son “Remember who you are!”, Mandela heard the Voice and remembered who is was what he was called to do—to lay down his life if need be, for truth and justice, and to devote his life, as long as he had breath, to fight for the freedom and dignity of his people, and for all people.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. would also say: “If a person hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”


Prisoner of Hope

Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.  But it only lasted 27 years!  According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking to PBS, prison was a time of suffering and deep spiritual growth for him:

“…suffering can do one of two things to a person. It can make you bitter and hard and really resentful of things. Or, as it seems to do with very many people–it is like fires of adversity that toughen someone. They make you strong, but paradoxically, they make you compassionate, and gentle. I think that that is what happened to him.”

The divine spark within that baby boy of the Madiba clan continued to grow into the fire of the Spirit during his 27 years in prison. Through what might be called a “baptism of fire” he grew into the very likeness of the Christ—“a man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” a person of faith committed to truth and reconciliation, a “prince of peace” and champion of justice for all people, and a prisoner of hope.

“I am not an optimist, but a great believer of hope,” Mandela writes in his autobiography. ”Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being [a person of hope] is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” (Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom)

After 27 years in a dark prison cell, he was transformed by the light.  That original spark before birth had become a cross and flame. That spiritual seed planted at his baptism had grown roots and branches, bearing nine beautiful pieces of spiritual fruit:

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, kindness, self-control against which there is no law.” (Gal 2:20)

Finally, on February 11, 1990, the Lion King of Qunu was released from prison in recognition of his international stature, moral courage, and spiritual authority.

“AsPRESIDENT MANDELA SPEAKS TO A YOUNG GIRL. I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

I noticed this week all the news commentators asking the same question:  How was Nelson Mandela able to spend 27 years in prison and come out without hatred and bitterness toward his oppressors and enemies?  How did he transform his resentment into a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness?

The common answer was that he had must have had righteous anger and justifiable resentment, but he simply choose not to let it master him by repeating his favorite poem, Invictus for years in prison: “I am captain my soul; I am master of my fate…”

I don’t think that is the answer, as powerful as that poem is when committed to memory.  I choose to believe that Nelson, through the power of the Spirit, let his heart grow large enough to include everyone, even his enemies and oppressors, in its compassionate and forgiving embrace.

Feet of Clay

 “I am not a saint,” Mandela is often quoted as saying, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

Mandela, like any human, had limitations and made a number of personal and political mistakes.  He had moral failures and harmful associations (including friends like Fidel Castrol and groups leaders in the Community Party). I faulted him at the time (and still do) for his refusal to renounce violent force and armed resistance to oppression, as Gandhi and Dr. King did in favor of active resistance through non-violence.

And the personal price he paid for the international success of the movement was very high.  As Morgan Freeman said about Mandela in an interview:  “…all of this world renown and glory sits on him, on one side of him. Over here, he feels like he’s a complete failure because of what his family had to pay.”[iii] That price included two failed marriages and his many children unable to see their father for decades. As Mandela admitted, “my commitment to my people, to the millions of South Africans I would never know or meet, was at the expense of the people I knew best and loved most.”  As one commentator observed: “When one is father to all, he is less a father to his own.”


President and Elder Statesman

Tata is the Xhosa word for “father” and a term of endearment that many South Africans use for Nelson Mandela who became a father figure to millions and the faaaaaather of the new South Africa.  Overtime, he took on mythical qualities and mystical dimensions of global significance.  And in his death, Mandela is almost canonized.

Like Jesus, the Lion of Judah, with a genealogy going back 1000 years to King David; Mandela now has a bloodline to the chiefs of the Xhosa tribes.  We noticed that, as Elder Statesman, Mandela had noble stature, royal air of native pride, and carried himself with the authority of a man who would be king.  In one of his inaugural addresses upon becoming the first Black President of South Africa in 1994, Mandela was widely reported to have quoted or paraphrased what Marianne Williamson wrote about remembering who you are:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…. You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone, and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”– Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles



Let us take heart from the Lion King of Qunu, and learn what we can from the life experience of Madiba Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela.  When we remember who we are, as Nelson did, we can continue to build the beloved community of shalom in the place where we have been sent (Jeremiah 29:7).

Fountain of wisdom, a pillar of strength, and a beacon of hope for all those fighting for a just and equitable world order. Your long walk to freedom has ended in a physical sense. Our own journey continues. We have to continue working to build the kind of society you worked tirelessly to construct.”  (Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, at today’s funeral, December 15, 2013)

 [i]TheMethodist Church, Mandela often acknowledged with gratitude, supported his witness against apartheid South Africa: “The Methodist Church was the only Church to be declared an illegal organization under apartheid, Mandela reminded church leaders in 1994, “and for ten long years you were forbidden to operate in the Transkei Bantustan.”  “Address by President Nelson Mandela to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church,” Sunday, September 18, 1994)

[ii] “Address by President Nelson Mandela to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church,” Sunday, September 18, 1994.

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