A memorial service for Nelson Mandela will be held today in Johannesburg, South Africa. The city’s 94,000-seat soccer stadium will be filled. President Barack Obama and his wife are among the 53 heads of state expected to attend. Celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and Bono will be there as well. Today’s event is a fitting tribute to a man one diplomat called “the hero of the planet.”
However, not everyone is coming to eulogize the South African leader. Westboro Baptist Church has announced plans to picket today’s service. It also released a YouTube video in which Timothy Phelps, the youngest son of founder Fred Phelps, delivers the church’s indictment against Mandela: he is in hell today for divorcing his wife and for fighting against AIDS, a disease Westboro Baptist considers “the divine recompense of God.” The video concludes: “Thank God for killing Nelson Mandela and dropping him into an eternity of torment for his blasphemous and unrepentant sins against his Creator. Amen.”
Is Nelson Mandela really in hell? He attended a Methodist school growing up and was baptized in a Methodist church. While in college, he joined the Students Christian Association and taught Bible classes on Sundays in nearby villages. When Communism spread into South Africa in the 1940s, he befriended some party leaders but could not reconcile their atheism with his faith. When he led armed resistance to the government, he chose to avoid civilian casualties by targeting electricity substations, crops and government factories rather than bombing populated areas.
A few weeks before he became South Africa’s president, Mandela told an Easter conference, “Each Easter marks the rebirth of our faith. It marks the victory of our risen Savior over the torture of the cross and the grave.” At his inauguration, Mandela invited his prison guard to sit in the front row. He often credited his faith with giving him the courage to survive 27 years of prison and the compassion to forgive those who imprisoned him.
Nelson Mandela proved the reality of his faith not by making videos condemning others, but by leading his nation to treat the oppressed as God would. Israel fell because “they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:7). Did South Africa’s brutally oppressive apartheid government come under the same judgment? Did God raise up Nelson Mandela, a victim of that government, to lead his nation through peaceful revolution to a more just society?
I know this: God measures our faith not by how loudly we proclaim it but by how practically we live it: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24). Did Nelson Mandela’s works prove the reality of his faith (James 2:18)? Here’s the more personal question: do ours?