Human greatness is difficult to define, much more easily recognised in the way a life is lived. Even then, greatness may not be recognised during a person's lifetime, or come late in life. I listened to a Glasgow man on Radio Scotland, speaking with deep emotion and obvious honesty about the way he used to think of Nelson Mandela. As a young man he had seen a photo of Mandela, the convicted and imprisoned "terrorist", and he thought he looked an evil man. Ever since, he has been suspicious of the press, of self-serving State rhetoric, and the use of legislative policy to disqualify protest and resistance. If ever the word repentance was appropriate it was in this man's brief comments.
I guess he wouldn't have known the Greek word metanoia - why would he. But he didn't need a lexicon - his tone of voice and what he said made it clear. Once he discovered the truth that Mandela stood for, and understood the oppression and dehumanisation of institutional apartheid, his commitment and way of looking at the world shifted, turned round.
That one reflective Glasgow punter says as much about the gift that Mandela was to our world as all the other prepared tributes of the good and the great around the world. When Glasgow conferred the freedom of the City on Mandela it articulated the strong currents of respect for justice and commitment to human dignity that run deeply in the Scottish psyche. And is perhaps more to be reckoned with given our own shadowy past as an arm of empire, with implications in the slave trade.
My own tribute to Mandela is the recognition that when a man comes out of prison and greets the world in the name of peace, then we are hearing the voice of human greatness. When that same man accepts the burdens of political responsibility and makes it his life's goal to bring reconciliation, justice, peace and a future to his people, and to all people, then the world is compelled to recognise that same greatness. Only then are we helped towards a definition of what we mean by human greatness. Yet it may be just as much the disposition of such a man, the humility and humour, the compassion and seriousness of purpose, the self-effacing determination to bring righteousness and peace into conversation, that is the real benchmark not only of human greatness, but of political courage and moral integrity focused on human welfare.
It would be wrong to portray Mandela as a saint, secular or otherwise. But in another sense it is both essential and required of us, that we see in such a man, the mysterious quality of leadership that convinces the heart as well as persuades the mind, that here is someone who understands the tragic complexities of human society, and the moral perplexities of political justice. In my lifetime only Martin Luther King shares the stature, ambiguity and inspiration of Mandela as one whose own suffering and capacity for forgiveness were so obviously transformative of our shared life. And in the great vision in the book of Revelation, where people of every tongue, tribe, nation and people stand in praise before God, somewhere in that crowd is an ex-prisoner, dancing to African rhythms, and celebrating the great reconciliation of the peoples of the earth. Or so I hope. You can see a foretast of that dance here.