The South African hero shows that even the secular world needs its saints

The way the world has been gearing itself up for the passing of Nelson Mandela, and the way that process has gone into overdrive in recent months, is not something we are used to these days. Sudden deaths do shock us and take us by surprise, and create an emotional tsunami – the example of Diana, Princess of Wales, comes to mind – but the recent sad passing of Mandela is in another category entirely.

At the age of 95, his death was hardly unexpected. Indeed, average life expectancy in South Africa is 52 years of age, according to some sources. Mandela’s longevity had political implications: while he lived, he embodied a certain benign spirit presiding over the nation; even if he had long ceased to be politically active, he was still politically important. Many people had invested heavily in the concept of the rainbow nation; they all had a stake not just in the survival of the spirit of Mandela, but in the survival of Mandela himself.

But there are several things that need to be observed here. Dying, as Mandela knew well, having buried several of his near relatives, is a part of life. In fact, it is one of the most important things we ever do, and all our lives are a preparation for it. Dying, in Africa, has a greater immediacy that it does to us here in Europe. It is not hidden away.

Mr Mandela’s has been a very public death, reminding us of the way European monarchs once used to die. His funeral is a world event, just as funerals were once major events for us, not just the funerals of public figures, but the funerals of members of our communities. We all need to take back ownership of funerals. They have become remote happenings for most of us. But they are important reminders of existential truths about ourselves, our place in the world, and life itself. Above all, we need to go to more funerals. The funeral of Nelson Mandela will perhaps remind us of the way funerals can teach us something important.

One of the labels applied to Nelson Mandela, and I am not sure who made it up, is the term “secular saint“. (It may first have been applied to Ghandi, someone who has a lot in common with Mandela.) The term has traction because it encapsulates something important and true. We need saints, even when we turn secular. We need heroes, we need ideals to live up to, and bare ideals are not enough, we need embodied ideals.

Mandela embodied the ideal of reconciliation and forgiveness. Christianity provides several icons of this concept, but there is nothing wrong per se in supplying an icon that is not specifically Christian. If one wants to teach people about forgiveness, you can use the example of Mandela, alongside that of Christ.

But there is also a danger here. Secular sainthood (and I suppose our Protestant brethren would point out, sainthood generally) can lead to the idolisation of people. The cult of Mandela could in the end lead people away from God, by providing them with a substitute for God. The cult of Mandela, and it is interesting to see who are its greatest devotees, could be a sign of the replacement of real religion by a simulacrum of religion. And there is one way in which the cult of Mandela does this. When Jesus said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do”, He spoke as one who was paying a high price, and in so doing He tells us that our forgiveness of our enemies will cost us something, and that sometimes the cost will be almost impossibly high.

When Mandela forgave the enemies who put him on Robben Island and imprisoned him for 27 years, that forgiveness was certainly not cheap. But for the Mandela-worshippers in a comfortable society like our own, what price does their devotion cost? To revere Mandela may well be a cheap way of obtaining a pass to perceived virtue: you love Mandela, you love his values, but these were not values that you had to suffer for. Modern pseudo-religion enables you to feel good about yourself, without paying any price for it. It is not righteousness, but self-righteousness.

We do not know much about the late Nelson Mandela’s religious beliefs. Like Mrs Thatcher, he started out as a Methodist. Wherever he journeyed spiritually, one has the impression that he of all people would not like to be the centre of a cult of this kind.