Nelson Mandela and the Language of Terrorism

This week witnessed the passing of a giant. Nelson Mandela was as powerful a man as modern history has known. Irish rock star and social activist, Bono, eulogized Mandela thusly:

Mandela would be remembered as a remarkable man just for what happened-and didn't happen-in South Africa's transition. But more than anyone, it was he who rebooted the idea of Africa from a continent in chaos to a much more romantic view, one in keeping with the majesty of the landscape and the nobility of even its poorer inhabitants. He was also a hardheaded realist, as his economic policy demonstrated. To him, principles and pragmatism were not foes; they went hand in hand. He was an idealist without -naiveté, a compromiser without being compromised.

The President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, said of Mandela:

Our nation has lost its greatest son. Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.

LifeWay's Ed Stetzer called Mandela, "Part Abraham Lincoln, part Rosa Parks, part Frederick Douglas, and part Martin Luther King, Jr."
As one would expect, praises for Mabidi (Mandela's tribal name) poured in from all corners. Some were captured by this Ugandan news outlet, New Vision.

American seminary president and cultural writer Al Mohler also weighed in with a tribute beyond the traditional eulogy. In "Nelson Mandela and the Ironies of History," a piece among the best things he has ever written, Mohler's examines what it means to be an imperfect leader.

[W]hen we look at his legacy in terms of the overthrow of apartheid, we recall the fact that Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most influential theologians in America at the middle of the 20th century, argued that there are times in which certain men, certain historical figures, appear to be historically necessary, even if they are far from historically perfect. That seems so often to be the case in a fallen world. In a sinful world, a world in which every dimension is marked by sin, the most effective political leaders are those who have the strongest convictions; but often those strong convictions and ambitions are met by a somewhat less than stellar character.

Mohler's article is worth your few minutes.

What sets Mohler's writing apart from many is his willingness to remind readers that Mandela's start did not include leadership on the world stage or the presidency of an African nation. Far from it. Mandela's start as an international name was because he was what we most frequently term, a terrorist. To some this would be crying foul, the soccer equivalent might be pulling a red card on a dead man. Such a complaint might hold water if Mohler were wrong. It would be even more egregious had he not mentioned other of history's famous terrorists: American George Washington, Zionist/Israelite Menachim Begin and Egyptian Anwar Sadat. (Speaking of historical ironies, all of them committed terrorism against the British. How's that for world domination?)

Mohler notes:

It does not absolve terrorists of their tactics, it just raises the point that when we talk about terrorism, character, and historical change, we must think honestly.

Decades and centuries after events it becomes difficult to separate truth from whitewash. Had we lost the Revolutionary War, George Washington would not have been the father of anything. He would have been a traitor, likely hanged, during what current British history books would deem "The Colonial Uprising of 1775." Because we won, though, we wrote the history and we are heroic in all outcomes.

This is why most Anglo-Americans think little if at all about the Trail of Tears, and multiple massacres of Native Americans until we "blessed them" by allowing them to keep land already theirs or forcing them from their land onto federally provided lands. Native American reprisals would likely have been labeled terrorism by today's press.

The death of Mandela allows us to think about what it means to be a terrorist, and how the language of terrorism is used to frame political debate.

No dominant or winning side refers to themselves as terrorists. Terrorism is a way to designate the other side as the real problem. Ergo, the role of the U.S. and British in the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq, remains a coup de tat. But, the student rebellion that overtook our embassy in 1979? Then President Carter used State of the Union to reference the hostages as "victims of terrorism and anarchy." Terrorists, even when responding to aggression, are always the aggressors and, even when raising legitimate political concerns, are always anarchists. The ability to brandish "terrorist" and "terrorism" are word weapons as powerful as a military incursion.

Mohler's calling out of Begin as a terrorist is unique among evangelicals, but helpful if we are to see beyond the political strategy of using the language of terror to win PR wars. Begin and David ben Gurion were terrorists according to current usage: from an underdog position, they used violence against the innocent to stir sympathy for their cause. From the view of the British, these were acts of terrorism. But, history looks on these as the fathers of their own country, heroes one and all.

But, the tables were turned on Israel. As their army moved through their newly established homeland occupying ancestral Palestinian towns, orchards and olive groves, some began to fight back. One of them was Yassir Arafat. Remember him? He was a terrorist according to most…but not to Nelson Mandela, who said, "Yasser Arafat was one of the outstanding freedom fighters of this generation, one who gave his entire life to the cause of the Palestinian people."

Future history may record many now branded as terrorists in our current Middle Eastern milieu as freedom fighters and heroes. Time will tell. One generation following everyone in the world will remember many as heroes, world changers, and giants.

The language of terrorism hinges a door that swings both ways. Branding terrorists is a tacit admission of underlying cause(s) being ignored or instigated by the powerful.

Followers of Christ should not allow the narratives of world events to be dictated by governments or any press, national or international. We must always look for that which lay in the shadows, because it is there the truth is often found.

And so it goes…

This column was orginally published at

Marty Duren is a former pastor, Christ follower, husband, father, writer, social media strategist and general provocateur who lives in Hermitage, TN. His blog, Kingdom in the Midst can be found at