Prisoner turned President


This semester, our College & Young Adult Sunday School class has been journeying through the book of Genesis which comes to a close with a story of a prisoner who becomes president and gives a nation a future based on forgiveness. But it’s not a story confined to ancient history. These things still happen. Injustices still occur and occasionally great souls still rise up to lead people out of the dead-end of retaliation into a future only reconciliation can create. The story of a prisoner who becomes president and gives his people a future based on forgiveness is the story of the Hebrew patriarch Joseph.

It’s also the story of Nelson Mandela.

The history of South Africa is one of the saddest stories in the shameful saga of European colonialism. Before the story of South Africa would give rise to hope, it would first give rise to a racist regime that lasted until the final decade of the twentieth century.

After twenty-seven years of imprisonment, Mandela was released in 1990. At that time, Mandela made a choice to re-enter the South African struggle without bitterness and worked for a peaceful transition to a democratic government. In 1993 Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and a year later his fellow countrymen elected him the first president of the new South Africa.

Mark Twain once said that, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

With Mandela, the prisoner had become president — echoing the Joseph story in Genesis. And if there were any question as to whether President Mandela would pursue a course of reconciliation or revenge, the answer was given when he invited his white jailer to be his honored guest at his presidential inauguration.

Under Mandela’s leadership South Africa sought a new approach to addressing injustices of the past. Mandela appointed Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was Tutu who gave the world the wonderful phrase, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

Instead of seeking revenge against those who had committed crimes under the apartheid system, those criminals were offered full amnesty in exchange for their confession. Over 7,000 received amnesty and many of these hearings were conducted in churches. What a beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God breaking in to our world!

Mandela lived with brilliance and beauty, wisdom and grace, imagination and creativity. Instead of seeking revenge, Mandela chose the way of reconciliation, the way of forgiveness. This was the only way that the nation could have a future beyond the self-destruction of forever seeking revenge. Through the Jesus way of forgiveness, a nation was given a future it could have no other way. This is what the prophet Amos dreamed of when he spoke of justice rolling down like water. This is what the psalmist dreamed about when he said, “Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed.” This is what Jesus dreamed of when he spoke of making disciples of the nations.

This is the kind of justice Mandela brought to a broken country.
This is the kind of justice Joseph brought to a broken family.
This is the kind of justice Jesus wants to bring to a broken world.

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