NelsonThe world is celebrating the life and mourning the death of one of the greatest people of the 20th century.  Lawyer, politician and freedom fighter, he became an unwitting poster boy for the anti-apartheid struggle during his 27 years in prison, but only became a truly global icon when the world discovered the extent of his magnanimity once he was released.

Eschewing violence and embracing forgiveness, possibly only his graciousness and leadership prevented South Africa descending into chaos as the apartheid regime was dismantled.  It is impossible to overstate his critical significance at this turning point in his country’s history, and in the many tributes people have been referring to him in the same way as they also talk about Gandhi.

Free Nelson MandelaBorn during the First World War and given the name ‘Nelson’ by a teacher in a time when it was thought normal for government employees to give Africans  new names that meant nothing to them, he embraced black South Africa’s struggle for freedom from white rule, and his activities resulted in his imprisonment.  Much has been made of his subsequent refusal to seek revenge or preach violence, and his determine to forge a new South Africa in which all races could find a place.

Some weeks ago as Syzygy was preparing a lecture which involved some reflections on healthy male sexuality, we conducted some internet research on who young men might choose as role models.  Some of the more disappointing results included wealthy industrialists, actors (more for their characterisations, one suspects, than for their personal qualities) archetypes such as cowboys, bodybuilders or famous lovers, and fictional characters like Indiana Jones and Dr Who.  Few politicians were even mentioned, and yet one name stood out from the crowd of mediocrities – Nelson Mandela.

Mandela rugby shirtMany single Christian men, including mission workers, struggle to know how to embrace their masculinity, since stereotypes like father or husband are not available to them, and many of the other examples cited above might not appeal to them.  Strong male characters are notably absent from many of our churches, and even the popular perception of Jesus as ‘meek and mild’ undermines the masculine strength he exuded which drew men to seek his company.  Perhaps it is the appeal of Mandela that he offers us a rare balance: strong but gentle.

Nobody would doubt his masculinity – he fathered six children – yet he reportedly even as President made his own bed and was courteous to his servants.  Those who met him frequently report that he seemed genuinely interested in him and he remembered details of their family lives at subsequent meetings.  He fought his battles courageously, respected his enemies, held high office with humility, was resilient in adversity and magnanimous in victory.

He was, of course, not a saint, nor a saviour, and certainly not a messiah.  Yet Christian men could do a lot worse than emulating Nelson Mandela.