It should be the daily goal of Christians to become more like Christ. It is a remarkable reflection of God’s common grace that even those without faith in Jesus Christ can demonstrate remarkably Christlike qualities.
But the popular mind in general, and the media in particular, have a regrettable tendency to single out a few remarkable lives and virtually deify them. Cases in point would be Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela. The tendency to place Mandela in the pantheon of virtue along with Jesus Christ was reflected in a question put by BBC presenter Justin Webb to Jimmy Carter. The former US president, who is also a Baptist minister, swiftly rebutted the notion by affirming that Mandela could not be compared to Jesus, who is “the Son of God, actually God himself”.
Writing in the Mail Online, Dominic Lawson agrees that Mandela’s greatness is undoubted: ‘His ability to work with and, apparently, forgive those who incarcerated him for 27 years in appalling conditions does conform to behaviour we might characterise as saintly.’
Richard Stengel, who knew Mandela well, found that his public and private personae were very different. In public, he was radiant, warm, and charming. But in private, he was stern, unsmiling, and often unsympathetic to the problems of his intimates. We can understand that 27 years of incarceration must have wreaked terrible havoc on his relationships with his family, but even before that he had been unfaithful to his first wife, Evelyn, on many occasions.
It may be true, as Dominic Lawson suggests, that there is a distinct tendency amongst politicians for those who are charming in public to be misanthropic in private and, conversely, for those who seem to the outside world to be brusque and uncaring to be recognised as kindness personified by those who know them well.
What is certainly the case is that we all have a dreadful tendency to categorise people as ‘good guys’, who can do no wrong or ‘bad guys’, who can do no good. We really must get over this grotesque over-simplification, whether we apply it to our own intimates, or to world leaders. Nelson Mandela was neither a demon nor a God: he was a great man, but flawed, just like the rest of us. He was honest enough to reject as ridiculous the description of himself as a saint, and he would have reacted in a similar way to any attempts to equate him with Jesus Christ.