December 6, 2013 Leave a comment
Beginning with my M.A. thesis, which I began researching in 2008, I have been researching and have published on the role of theology in the political life of South Africa. As an American deeply interested in the role of theology in the politics of both race and peacebuilding, South Africa’s history is fascinating for both its similarity to and difference from the American experience. My research has focused primarily, though not exclusively, on the thought and activism of Desmond Tutu. However, as must be the case for anyone studying the politics of South Africa, Nelson Mandela has always loomed large in my research.
For some time now I have thought that I would like to engage Nelson Mandela’s writings and speeches theologically. A quick search on the ATLA database (the primary database used by scholars of religion and theology in the US) reveals a dearth of theological engagement with his social thought. Mandela was, in many ways, a political theologian par excellence. From his conversion from nonviolent resistance to armed resistance to his prophetic denunciations of racism to his embrace of both communism and market economies at different times over his lifetime to his advocacy of forgiveness in politics to his role in establishing South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission, Mandela’s contributions to political ethics is legion. Though not a pastor like a King or Tutu, or a leader of intentional communities like a Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa, Mandela was a confessing Christian. And a close read of his writings and speeches reveals the influence of Christian thought on his politics.
Thus, I am calling for theologians and ethicists to take seriously the thought of Mandela. He should be added to the pantheon of twentieth century political theologians whom we engage regularly. We often treat Mandela as a symbol rather than as a serious thinker in his own right. This is a mistake that limits our ability to reflect on politics theologically in the twenty-first century.
For those unfamiliar with Mandela, a few web resources: