Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in the Cape Province of South Africa. As a young boy he worked as a cattle-herder, and was baptized as a Methodist. He studied law as a young man, and soon became an anti-colonial and anti-apartheid activist. His dream was to change the government that separated the races and oppressed black people in his country. In 1962 he was arrested for treason and sentenced to life in prison.
Mandela served 27 years in prison, and was finally released in 1990 so that he could help negotiate a peaceful end to racial inequality. The once-illegal African National Congress was legalized the same year, and in turn they renounced the practice of violence for political means. In 1991, Mandela was elected President of the ANC. Working with President de Klerk, he abolished apartheid and established multiracial elections. Mandela and de Klerk were both awarded Nobel Peace Prizes in 1993.
Mandela was elected as the nation’s first black President in 1994. During his term as President, he worked for racial reconciliation and peace. In the later years of his life, he continued his work to combat poverty and injustice. After battling a recurring lung infection, Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013, at the age of ninety-five. He is remembered for his dedication to humanity and work for peace.
The first international Nelson Mandela Day was celebrated in 2010, as a day in which people dedicate 67 minutes working for peace, justice, and reconciliation in the service of others—one minute for each of the years that Mandela spent on these causes. This past week was the first Nelson Mandela Day since Mandela’s death. His memory lives on in the good works that others do in his name. On Mandela Day, volunteers work at local homeless shelters, food banks, orphanages, and schools. They help with literacy programs, clinics, and neighborhood cleanup projects.
Those who participate in Nelson Mandela Day have said that 67 minutes once a year is just a starting point—that the real goal is changing their own habits and becoming people who have a personal mission to affect people’s lives and bring positive change to the world. Though the early years of Mandela’s life were occupied with thoughts of violence, hate and revenge, his mature years saw a change of heart. Mandela said, “I know that my country was not meant to be a land of hatred. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin. People learn to hate. They can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.” Those who honor Mandela’s life say they try to live that sentiment.
This week at Vacation Bible School, our kids focused on 1 John 4.7 (NLT), which says, “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.” We heard the story about the paralyzed man whose friends went out of their way to get him to Jesus the Healer (Mark 2.1-12). We heard how God loves us so much that He gave His Son to save us from our sins (1 John 4.9-10), and that our response to His love should be love for one another. Loving your friends is easy to do—but loving those who don’t love you, as Nelson Mandela discovered, is much harder.
1 John 4.20-21 (NLT) tells us, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters.” Mandela modeled the same thing that Jesus showed and taught: that we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5.44). This can be a fearful thing to do, because there’s risk involved in showing such reckless love. But 1 John 4.18 (NLT) says, “…Love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear.” When God gives us His perfect love, then His perfect love working inside us ought to prompt us to love fearlessly—even to love those people who have made themselves our enemies.
Acts 9 tells the story of a Christian named Ananias, who lived in Damascus. One day, God spoke to Ananias, telling him to go to the house of a man named Judas on Straight Street. There he would find Saul, the notorious persecutor of the church, in need of divine healing. God told Ananias that He wanted him to proclaim God’s peace to Saul. Ananias was reluctant to go, and reminded God just who Saul was, and the terrible things that Saul had done to fellow believers. Nevertheless, God insisted that Ananias go. Obeying the Lord’s word, the disciple found Saul, laid hands on him, and healed him in Jesus’ name. The one-time persecutor of the church would in time become its chief missionary—all because Ananias allowed God’s perfect love to expel all fear from his heart. All because Ananias was willing to love others just the way that Jesus had loved him.
Like the friends who carried the paralyzed man to Jesus, we ought to love our friends enough to bring them to Jesus. Like Nelson Mandela and Ananias, God calls us to work for peace and reconciliation. Our Lord asks us to love not only our friends, but also our enemies. This may be a fearful thing. As Mandela found, there may be a price to pay. But Jesus’ perfect love working in our hearts can expel all fear. It can give you the strength you need to do the impossible. It can help you live the command of 1 John 4.7: “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.”