Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Mandela the “Spiritual” Leader

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The worldwide and history-making example set by Nelson Mandela’s leadership is a model seldom rivaled or surpassed in the annals of human history. Few people have paid the price in human suffering and rose triumphantly on the world stage as an iconic symbol of hope and reconciliation as did Nelson Mandela.

He endured years of observing the oppression of his people, experiencing the personal pain of living in exile in his own land. Labeled a renegade, made an outcast and called a political pariah, he was the most famously reviled inmate in the entire South African apartheid prison system. Yet Mandela honed – through great toil, discipline and sacrifice – some of the most powerful spiritual lessons of life and leadership: to obtain healing out of suffering, gain out of loss and victory out of defeat.

The irony and paradox are that the evils of life can teach us, if we are willing and open, what Christ himself teaches us. Those who suffer the greatest human indignities can triumph over them by choosing not to become the evil they have wrongfully experienced from others. In attempting to eradicate evil in the world, a person does not have to become that evil.

Moving and rising to higher ground in such transactions requires incredible fortitude, an iron will, and a deep transformative spirituality. This is what gave Mandela the capacity for self-transcendence seldom achieved under such humiliating circumstances.

Although Mandela was initially a proponent of violence in response to a system that systematically and violently deprived African people of their basic human rights, the lessons of pain he suffered from violence heaped upon his person and upon his people ultimately transformed his thinking into new paradigms of healing, reconciliation and redemption. He demonstrated in the words of author Ken Sande, the ability to enact positional and transactional forgiveness. Transactional forgiveness is given when the offender repents of his offenses and desists entirely from them. Positional forgiveness is actualized even when the offender has not apologized or atoned for his transgressions. Such spiritual practice is not accidental but is intentional, honed over years of suffering and by finally coming to the realization that even our greatest adversaries are still human beings who can be forgiven and redeemed.

Suffering can numb us to pain so as to be more than willing to unconscionably inflict pain on those who caused our pain or sensitize us to pain in ways that compel us to renounce and disavow its usage. Often the deep lessons learned by enduring pain and alienation created by oppression, suffering and dehumanization do not anesthetize us to suffering, but make us so deeply familiar with it, so saturated, cloyed and beaten down by it that we refuse to ever allow it to become our reason or our weapon . . . ever. Some pain, some suffering is so deeply experienced that we never want any person, not even our greatest adversaries, to experience it in any way or form.

Contrary to some conventional thinking, we always have a choice in the weapons that we employ against our antagonists. This is a key part of a redemptive process; a process that inverts the normal responses to evil and injustice to a higher course of action. That higher course reverses both the logic and outcome of evil’s intended result which is to create more evil by driving the oppressed to inflict even more pain and suffering, in retribution. Redemption may come with the spilling of blood, but redemption may also come by refraining from any form of bloodletting as a legitimate or moral response to the initial letting of blood.

So, Mandela in many respects was a man engaged in various forms of spiritual practice which ultimately led to his complete transformation as leader. Oh, he did not always ostensibly speak the platitudes or axioms of any particular religion or philosophy, but he was a man who exemplified through character and action the power of positive change – the triumph of unity in a country desperately in need of a messianic person who could transcend its bloody history and help the nation heal its wounds.

In fact, his spiritual example of leadership is needed more than ever in the world today which is led by leaders who are also acquainted with suffering and are also not oblivious to its corrosive nature. Leaders who understand how it feels to be oppressed and experience the various privations of life and who also still have compassion, even for those who may have caused their suffering. Mandela was a leader who understood the “kairos” or “the value of the opportune moment” that marked his contribution at his chosen time in history. We pray that more leaders with his voice, compassion, moral courage, sensitivity to the poor and even to their adversaries can finally realize such practices when opportunities to live them out are presented.

The capacity to transcend personal suffering and to utilize it as a lesson for peace, equality, freedom and justice – to positively impact South Africa and save its people from imminent destruction and annihilation – this was the hallmark of Nelson Mandela’s contribution as a true spiritual leader of the world. To draw from the deeper recesses of the divine and human spirit, and to exemplify a higher way of seeing and acting in the world so as to inspire true and lasting change, is so greatly needed, and we pray that more leaders of his character will rise to the occasion to make this world a better place for all people.



One response to “Mandela the “Spiritual” Leader”

  1. Seregainiv Avatar

    The truth is that no one can fill Mandela’s shoes, or take his place. I have asked is there another great spiritual leader waiting in the wings. I have been told not at the moment. I pray we don’t have too long to wait and that I will see another spiritual leader of his stature in my lifetime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *