As the story broke, people around the world wallowed in grief at the realisation that such an inspirational man was gone. And the tributes began pouring in, from local Facebook posts to worldwide announcements from some of the most well-known celebrities. Each hailed Mandela as a superlative – whether it was the greatest, the most gracious, the kindest or most compassionate man who ever existed.
He certainly was pretty remarkable wasn't he? I don't think any of us can truly comprehend the depth of sorrows and joys he would have experienced, as well as those people whose lives have been changed through his actions. I cannot deny or minimize the incredible work that Mandela achieved in a hard-fought life of indescribable struggles and successes. I admire him and praise God for the step towards justice that he brought for South Africa. Nevertheless, I wonder if our praise for Mandela has gone askew.
We seem to have forgotten that Mandela was a human just like you and me. He had his faults, his shortcomings, his weaknesses. Yet we, as a world, have lifted Mandela up to be the superlative that God never intended him to be. He has become a god. This is illustrated in the many celebrity tributes that have streamed from Twitter, news interviews, and even the White House.
Kelly Osbourne tweets, "Today is officially one of the saddest days! The world has lost the most inspirational person to ever walk the earth". Morgan Freeman writes, "Nelson Mandela was a man of incomparable honor, unconquerable strength, and unyielding resolve". Obama pronounces Mandela as "A man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice". Arnold Schwarzenegger even claims, "President Mandela's life is the closest thing we have to proof of God".
Do you see the picture that is being built? These don't sound like the type of accolades that Nelson Mandela would expect to receive. A quote from the man himself demonstrates his modest self-image, "I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people". Mandela knew he was not above anybody, but rather was there to serve mankind.
When I think about Mandela's desire to bring justice, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness to those who did him and his fellowman such colossal injustices, I cannot help but be stunned. I am stunned because we hold Mandela in such high esteem, and yet hated and killed a man who held these qualities a thousand times more perfectly.
A huge difference
Jesus Christ, who was with God from the beginning of time and through whom all things were made (John 1 verses 2-3), is truly the personification of justice, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness in all the earth. Rather than bringing some racial reconciliation to one country, Jesus offers reconciliation between all mankind and God. Despite this incredible work, we crucified him, despised him, rebelled against him and spit in his face both when his ministry on earth occurred 2000 years ago, and today still.
By worshipping Mandela who shows just a speck of the glory Jesus deserves, we have "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man" (Romans 1 verse 23). We have made someone who reflects not even 1% of the goodness that dwells in the person of Christ, and lifted him to be our hope for humanity.
At this huge act of idolatry, Jesus weeps. He gave us Mandela for our good. He gave us Mandela to show us what a glimpse of justice and mercy and forgiveness look like. But this fleeting triumph in the name of equality has turned us towards ourselves. We are worshipping man rather than the God who gifted us not just the beautiful reconciliation in South Africa, but more importantly reconciliation of the world to God.
So let us remember Mandela. Let us praise the small picture of grace that God has given us through Mandela's life. But let us not elevate him to a god. Let us not forget the true living God, whose glory exceeds Mandela a thousand times over.
Let us always remember this Jesus pierced and hung on the splintered cross to bear all of the world's injustices – who was then raised from the grave to epitomize true justice, compassion, forgiveness and mercy.
Harriet Campbell has almost finished her Commerce and Arts degrees, and works for the New Zealand government. She volunteers at Wellington Zoo, where she most enjoys watching the lions laze about and the tarantulas devour their prey.
Harriet Campbell previous articles may be viewed