Even the very greatest saints in the Christian calendar, like Francis of Assisi, are only “Christ-like” insofar as they have come to reflect their divine Master

Peter Saunders on his Christian Medical Comment blog has drawn my attention to a quote by Peter Oborne in Saturday’s Telegraph: “There are very few human beings who can be compared to Jesus Christ. Nelson Mandela is one. This is because he was a spiritual leader as much as a statesman. His colossal moral strength enabled him to embark on new and unimaginable forms of action. He could lead through the strength of example alone.”

Honestly! What an absurd comparison. I’m surprised at Peter Oborne who normally writes in a thoughtful and sober fashion and whose views I usually agree with. Yes – Mandela was a great human being, head and shoulders above almost all political figures. But there’s no need to deify him. Except that I surmise that Oborne is not trying to deify Mandela as to humanise Jesus Christ. By this reasoning, Jesus is not so much the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity (as all Christians believe, whatever their denomination) as a great and good man – and so was Mandela; ergo the comparison.

I have a tendency to hero-worship. It’s not a bad thing in itself, but you have to be careful who you choose (e.g. you have to avoid rallies in places like Nuremberg.). In my youth I listened to recordings of Churchill’s wartime speeches and went to pay my respects when he was lying in state in Westminster Hall in 1965. For similar reasons I also went to watch the gun carriage carrying Margaret Thatcher’s body through Fleet Street to St Paul’s earlier this year. In 1963, when Mandela went to prison for 27 years, I read his speech “Why I am ready to die” and wrote to him on Robben Island from my boarding school. If his funeral had been taking place somewhere close to home I would join the crowds in the streets.

But even the very greatest saints in the Christian calendar, like Francis of Assisi, are only “Christ-like” insofar as they have come to reflect their divine Master in the holiness of their lives. Magnanimous though he was, I don’t think of Mandela as “holy” in this sense. Interestingly, former President Jimmy Carter was asked by Justin Webb on the Today programme on Saturday morning if he would compare Mandela to Jesus. He answered in a straightforward Christian way: “No, I wouldn’t go that far. I’m a Christian. I look upon Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as God himself, and I certainly wouldn’t compare any human being with Jesus.”

I hadn’t realised that Mandela, like Margaret Thatcher, had been raised a Methodist in a mission school in the years before apartheid took hold of his country. Although she moved towards Anglicanism during her life, at her funeral she wanted the hymns she had sung as a child in the Methodist chapel at Grantham. It will be interesting to see what hymns are chosen for Mandela’s funeral.

Finally, who said the following quote: “It is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.” No, it wasn’t Mandela, but another great human being, Dorothy Day. Though they never met they had much in common: a hatred of injustice, a love for the marginalised and a determination never to give up their ideals during their long, lonely struggles. And they both firmly rejected the title “saint” that others wanted to give them.