Nelson Mandela: Troublemaker for Peace

A troublemaker for peace died yesterday. The man born with the name “Rolihlahla”—which literally means “pulling the branch of a tree” and which is colloquially rendered “troublemaker”—died in peace.

Nelson Mandela brought peace to South Africa by making trouble. One cannot always make peace without conflict. Those who would shy away from conflict involving injustices are not about peace, but the status quo, for peace always entails advancing justice. Having been an advocate in his early years for non-violent resistance and then for armed struggle, Mandela became known in his later years for cultivating a culture of love rather than hate that entailed justice.

I received the news of Mandela’s death upon returning from participating in a Christian conference titled Convicted Civility: Candid Conversations in a Conflictual Culture, with keynote speaker Richard J. Mouw. Mouw’s powerful reflections included the claim that we cannot always be civil; when oppression exists, Christian leaders will be called upon to confront the oppressors in forceful terms. What that looks like will vary from one situation to another. Moreover, when one confronts depends on a variety of factors, including one’s motives and what’s at stake if there is no confrontation and how confrontation can lead to redemptive ends.

Still, we cannot tolerate injustice. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from his Birmingham jail cell to the white clergy who were troubled over his civil disobedience,

“How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is be uncivil by living out robust convictions that promote care for all people, especially the oppressed. Mandela and his people had been oppressed under an apartheid system, which in effect oppressed everyone, Black and White alike. The pressure of Mandela’s convictions for a just peace moved him beyond the status quo to reconciliation. As such, this troublemaker was a person of peace. What would you and I rather be? Pacifiers for the status quo or, like Mandela, troublemakers for peace?

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • Mike James

    Dr. Metzger, this is from an old friend of mine, who served as a missionary in Africa for many years before being forced off of the Mission field for health reasons, who posted this on Facebook(tm). She writes:
    Liz Allen Bussell-”Any world leader in history can be hailed for their ‘good deeds’…but I don’t understand how Christians can overlook the godlessness of a leader in spite of some good they accomplished…such as championing abortion rights, gay rights, murder, terrorism, communism, humanism…it seems we are quick to overlook those things in favor of seeing the good that was done…and I just don’t understand it. Example: if a man found a cure for cancer, bring untold millions of people relief from suffering and death…and it was discovered at some point that the same man raped women and abused children…would we still hail him as a great man? RIP? what if it was your child? doesn’t the ‘good’ outweigh the bad? how would that hold up in a court of law? How would the judge rule? would they release a murderer because he found a cure for cancer???? stuff to think about.”

    • Loren Sickles

      As Brad demonstrates above there is danger in creating either-or choices. Christendom has a long and sordid history of atrocities towards many peoples, and yet we manage to extol the contributions of Christians throughout the ages. Our own holy texts list the failings of many who were later proclaimed to be pillars of the faith. Even today many who identify as Christian have supported political leaders in America simply because of claims that align with their ideological positions, while implementing public policy and actions that are in conflict with Christian scripture.

    • Christopher Keller


      There’s a perspective I have pulled from my decades in the artistic communities of Portland, Oregon – a place known for its liberality and its largely anti-conservative leanings. The theater community here is even more so. But if you look at the Bible, the very first thing God does is create – so how do I reconcile people doing a Godly action with un-Godly motivations and/or results? I look for God in their creations.

      All Truth is God’s Truth – and by that I don’t mean everything that people say is true is divine Truth – far from it! But God can be present even in the darkest situation. He can speak to people even through someone shouting against Him. God’s love can shine through actions in a war, in a political debate, or in a musical. I feel this applies to people as well.

      It is a fact that we are all sinners. It is also a fact that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). While it is unwise to ignore the faults of historical heroes, it also does us little good to focus on their sins and throw all their contributions away. We respect Paul as a pillar of the early church; and we accept that prior to his eyes being opened (after they were rather dramatically “closed”), he committed rather dastardly acts on behalf of the enemy.

      It’s not a matter of whether the good outweighs the bad. Jesus died for the bad. We should be inspired by the good and continue to pursue righteousness.

      The fact that “gay rights” and “communism” were put in a list with abortion, murder, and terrorism is also troubling. But that is an entirely different discussion.

  • Brad Harper

    For many years I have been increasingly frustrated by Americans who wonder how Mandela can be seen as a hero when he was involved with the African National Congress, a Marxist group that committed acts of violence. Yes, Mandela was part of the ANC and was most likely involved in some violent activities. To which my response is, “What do you expect?” Mandela was part of an entire culture of people brutally oppressed for centuries, first by the Dutch who just annexed Cape Town for a provisioning station under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company in the 1650s and then moved to the interior in the 1800s where 500 soldiers with rifles slaughtered 10,000 Zulu warriors who had nothing but spears at the Battle of Blood River. Then they discovered gold and diamonds and enslaved the black population to mine for them and forced them to live in compounds on unfarmable land, so that those not working the mines had no possibility for self-determination, but were relegated for working for rich white people. This oppression was then continued by the British after the Boer wars. So you have an entire population of native people, enslaved by white imperialists who took over their land and who relegated them to lives of poverty and severe injustice for centuries, with no hope for a way out. What other choice did the black Africans have but violence? And what’s more, the during the days of the ANC, the Afrikaner government actually fomented Black violence by giving weapons and ammunition to warring Black groups like the ANC and Inkatha so they would continue to fight each other, allowing the white government to tell the world that they must stay in power or the Blacks would tear the country apart. This is the situation in which Mandela and all people of color found themselves in South Africa for centuries. Sure they did acts of violence and terrorism. By the way, the British saw the colonists of the Boston Tea Party as terrorists and colonial violence did not end with wet tea. What is amazing to me about Mandela, is that when he was catapulted to power, after all the years of oppression, prison, and injustice done to him and his people, instead of responding in kind and calling for the heads of those who oppressed him, he called out for forgiveness and reconciliation. Amidst all his imperfections, this is what makes him a hero and this is why we should honor his legacy.

    • Mike James

      So Dr. Harper, you believe that it was justified? To justify the ANC in the 1960s could be sort of like justifying Aitler’s treatment of the Jews in the 1930s because it helped to lay the groundwork for a better Germany for all Germans who were not Jews.

  • John McKendricks

    I was thinking along these same lines. I was a bit taken back by the news headlines regarding Mandela’s passing. They simply said, “Mandella, South Africa’s first black President died.” I was thinking to myself, how one-dimensional, for Mandela was much more than that. To be reduced to only his status as South Africa’s President, is seemingly insulting.

  • Charles Twombly

    You were a man who knew
    Both shadows and the limelight.
    The feared and hated Zulu
    Prepared the Xhosa tribesman
    For “separateness” of another kind,
    One that drove you to rage
    And brought the boxer, the fighter
    In you to the fore. …

    Robben Island became your Patmos,
    Where visions were received
    And plans were made.
    Why did that forced interlude
    Not make you bitter
    And drive you to despair?
    When the man who lived in shadows
    Emerged into the light,
    ANC swords were turned to plowshares.
    Victory was achieved, not by force,
    But by open arms and rugby shirts.
    Those braced for revenge
    Received a slap on the back
    And not the face.
    “Come, let us sit down together”
    Replaced “Stay out—Whites Only.”
    Reconciliation based on truth
    Became the unexpected portal
    That former enemies could walk through,
    Arm in arm.

    Yes, Madiba. Shadows remain,
    But the light will not be quenched.
    Your words are a burning torch
    That will not go out.
    But more than words
    Is the image of a glowing face,
    A face that knew long shadows
    But emerged in radiant light
    With love and hope so strong
    That even doubters were drawn in.

    Good bye, Madiba, father to so many.
    Xhosa and Zulus,

    Afrikaaners and Englishmen,
    Coloreds and South Asians,
    Americans, French, Danes,
    Argentines, Serbs, Koreans—
    Each hearing your words in their own tongue—
    Will hold your memory dear.
    So will their children and their children’s children,
    Keeping alive the dream of a lonely prisoner,
    Seemingly lost to the world and languishing in despair.
    Now the little cell that held you
    Has opened to a space
    That holds a world,
    But not in servitude.
    No, the gates of that enormous room
    Are named “Joy” and “Love” and “Freedom.”
    Goodbye, then. Goodbye
    And may angels receive you.

    • Mike James

      But yet, the blood of Mandela’s victims (also Xhosa and Zulus), cries out for vindication and justice.

  • Charles Randall Paul

    This was a thought-provoking post. I prefer not to use the term civility in discussing contestation and collaboration between rivals. I prefer respect and honor. This allows for even violent action between people that respect and honor each other. Respect and honor do not correlate with envy, hatred, contempt, whereas they can and do describe relations between people who are being civil or polite to each other. Civility is better than persecution of course. However, Dr. Mouw and you understand that passivity at times is not loving. The Christian peace that is beyond understanding is not reduced to a formula any more easily than love is. How we feel as well as how we act toward our rivals and enemies seems to matter to God.

    • pmetzger

      Thank you for your comments. I have a few questions. How is it that one shows respect and honor for those toward whom one is violent? Perhaps you have in mind examples like samurai battling with one another to the death in respectful and honorable ways. Is that so? Whether or not this is the case in physical warfare, can we engage in violent speech toward one another in respectful ways? Your answers would help me to understand more fully what you have in mind. On a separate note, I appreciate your point that we can never reduce peace or love to a formula. And yes, we must account for God, as we encounter our rivals and enemies. After all, God’s love revealed in Christ is definitively enemy love.