I was coming home late last night when news of Nelson Mandela’s death came over the radio. As the details were reported I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sadness I couldn’t quite explain.
Madiba, or Tata as he was affectionately known occupies a very similar place in everyone’s minds. He was the persecuted leader of an oppressed people, an elusive freedom fighter, an honourable martyr and, in the words of his old political adversary FW De Klerk, “a great unifier that showed a remarkable lack of bitterness”. The Guardian’s headline today reads “Freedom’s Father dies”, the Telegraph calls him “South Africa’s Liberator”, the Sun “The President of the World”.
There is little doubt that he was a great man even if some of these headlines are a little over the top. Perhaps it is because deep down we all long for a real leader, a real freedom fighter and a real liberator.
When Mandela, after 27 years incarceration finally walked through the open gates of Robben Island he never thought of himself as the Messiah the world made him out to be. In one of his favourite quotes he often said: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” By his own admission, his failure to lift many millions of people out of the oppression of poverty should remind us of his human limits.
But the world has seen another great leader - one not limited to the constraints of age or experience. In many ways one could say that John’s first letter was his response to the death of this man he knew so well (1 John 1:1). Where David Cameron was last night saying about Madiba’s death that: “A great light has gone out in the world”, John would say about Jesus: “…the true light is already shining: (1 John 2:8). The more one is tempted to compare Jesus and Mandela, you realise that it is like comparing a shadow to the thing it represents. To say it another way - everything we find admirable about Madiba is because it mimics in some weak way what Jesus did so perfectly.
It’s most evident when we look at what it is Jesus came to to liberate believers from - a regime that is far more pervasive than political oppression - spiritual oppression. John paints a simple picture of this oppression: a world divided simply into those that are free to love and those that are in bondage to hatred (1 John 4:7,8), those that are liberated by truth and others that are deceived by error and lies (1 John 4:6). As this evil regime of the devil becomes more evident his letter forces you to ask on which side you're on. He gives us only two options: we’re either prisoners of the devil and his deception or liberated children of the living God.
Once you’ve realised that you’ve been born into the camp of the oppressed, that you too are by nature trapped in a world of hatred and deception you start to long - not for a political leader, or a freedom fighter, but for a loving Saviour.