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Nelson Mandela: 'I am the captain of my soul'

Nelson Mandela listens to the State of The Nation address being delivered by the current President Jacob Zuma at Parliament in Cape Town, June 3, 2009 (Credit: Reuters/Mike Hutchings)Nelson Mandela's birth name was "Rolihlahla," which means "troublemaker."  When he started school, his first teacher gave him the English name "Nelson."  He had no idea why she chose that name for him.

Here's what she may have had in mind: "Nelson" originally meant "son of Neil."  After Lord Nelson defeated Napoleon's fleet in the pivotal 1805 Battle of Trafalgar (a conflict in which the famous British admiral was killed), "Nelson" was commonly given to children in his honor.  Perhaps Mandela's teacher saw him not as a "troublemaker" but as a "sacrificial victor."

If so, her choice proved prophetic.  Mandela suffered 27 years in prison before becoming South Africa's president and leading his nation peacefully from apartheid to democracy.  While imprisoned he contracted tuberculosis, survived long bouts of solitary confinement, and was kept from attending his son's funeral.  For several years, he was permitted one visit and letter every six months.

During the long years of his confinement, he came to cherish William Ernest Henley's poem, "Invictus."  He often recited it to fellow inmates; its title was given to a 2009 movie starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela.

Here's the text of Mandela's favorite poem:

Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
    I am the captain of my soul.

The famous poem had a remarkable author.  William Ernest Henley was born in 1849.  At the age of 12, he contracted tuberculosis of the bone, a disease that led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee when he was around 20 years old.  Over time his right foot became diseased as well, leading to a three-year stay in the hospital.  He died of tuberculosis in 1903 at the age of 53.

Henley and Robert Louis Stevenson were good friends.  In fact, Stevenson patterned his Long John Silver character after Henley, telling his friend after the publication of Treasure Island, "It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver . . . the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you."

Another interesting fact: Henley's young daughter Margaret was friends with J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.  She called him her "fwendy-wendy," resulting in the use of "Wendy" in the book.  Tragically, Margaret Henley died at the age of five.  After her father's death, his ashes were interred in her grave.

Given his life challenges, it's easy to see why Henley would write about his "unconquerable" soul.  Given Mandela's horrific suffering, it's easy to see why he would cherish Henley's poem.  But while we can applaud the poem's inspiration, we must be cautious with its assertions.

There are not "gods" that "may be," but one God who is.  Our soul is not "unconquerable"—to the contrary, when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords returns to the planet he created (Revelation 19:16), "every knee will bow, in heaven, on earth, and below.  And every tongue will confess 'Jesus, the Anointed One, is Lord,' to the glory of God our Father!" (Philippians 2:10-11, The Voice).

I am not "the master of my fate" or "the captain of my soul."  Rather, "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Corinthians 5:10, ESV).  On that fateful day, what will matter is not what I think of myself, but what my Master thinks of me.

"Invictus" inspired Nelson Mandela to reject his despotic government's claim to be the "captain" of his soul.  However, his well-documented and sincere commitment to Christ taught him the larger truth: we must keep our soul "unconquered" by all but Jesus.

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