Do you remember where you were the day Nelson Mandela was freed after decades in prison on Robben Island?

Remember Mandela was freed on a Sunday, an event that was broadcast live across the world.


I remember watching that broadcast before necessity forced me to rush to church.


The date was Feb. 11, 1990. I made my children, then ages 5 and 3, to sit in front of our TV set, already dressed for church. I wanted them to be able to say that they saw the day apartheid died in South Africa. Regrettably, we couldn’t watch the entire broadcast. When I shared with my Sunday school class what we had observed and why Mandela’s release represented the tip of justice touching earth, I recall mostly eyes of incomprehension.


Watching the newly released movie, “Invictus,” reminded me of that experience.


Educated at a Wesleyan mission school and influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela spent almost 30 years in prison for being a freedom fighter. The Sunday of his release, he spoke of reconciliation with the ruling white minority government.


In 1994, he was elected president of South Africa.


That’s where the movie begins. Mandela seeks to unite a badly divided country in which resentments are immeasurably deep and mistrust is everywhere.


Mandela’s partial solution is to bridge the partition through rugby, really refocus the nation away from what separates and focus the country on a common dream—the rugby world cup championship. His core supporters resist his initiative and resent his commitment to forgiveness.


As some moviegoers may know, film director Clint Eastwood has made forgiveness a theme in his works. He returns again to forgiveness—forgiveness related to racism, as he did in “Gran Torino,” a simply superb movie about race and redemption in our age of rage against people of color.


Unlike “Gran Torino,” in which the leading actor is an elderly and angry white man who spits racial hostility, “Invictus” captures the racism in the eyes and attitudes of the black South Africans who are in political power.


Yes, the film rests on the bed of racial conflict. But the movie is about more than racism. It’s about the human struggle to exceed who we are.


The film’s title means in Latin undefeated, unconquerable. It comes from a poem written by William Henley in 1875 as he lay in a hospital bed, having had his foot amputated.


The poem reads in part:


“Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”


Now what the poem has to do with the movie is something the reader will have to discover when they watch the movie.


And while the movie is a sports movie with lots of rugby and a few F-bombs and other cuss words, it has some powerful lines that American Christians—of all people—need to hear this Christmas so full of cultural bile.


Known as Madiba to his closest supporters, Mandela offers memorable lines—lines upon which we need to reflect as the year ends.


Read a few:


  • Mandela tells the existing white presidential staff uncertain about their future in the new administration: “The past is the past. We look to the future now.”


  • He tells his black security chief, who objects to the presence of white body guards: “Forgiveness starts here. Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”


  • Mandela says in a TV interview: “If I cannot change when the circumstances demand it, how can I expect others to.”


Our country needs change this Christmas. That change must be born anew in the American church. Surely, the hope of Christmas is about the impossible possibility—the new beginnings that the birth of Christ brought into the world and brings afresh each year.


Merry Christmas.


Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.


MPAA has rated the film PG-13 for brief strong language.

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