“Madiba,” that’s what he is called. This name was foreign to us. As most guessed it has African roots, but no one associated the name with Nelson Mandela. It is a name in which his countrymen, members of his village, and those who knew him personally commonly referred to him. It reflects the person he is and not the one we have become familiar with, Nelson Mandela. As we mourn his loss, his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” has come to the silver screen to help many of us become familiar with Madiba. His story and the assigned name given to Mandela reminds me of other men who lived in an oppressive government that removed their names and gave them another.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are the Babylonian names that we remember as given to the Hebrew boys, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The story, as told by their friend Daniel, who was simultaneously given the name of Belteshazzar. As captives of an oppressive regime, they were stripped of all that is indicative of how God made them and the ethnic group that shaped their worldview, their senses, and any semblance of what defined their identity.
An important phrase which captured their survival is, “But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself…” These young men conferred often through Daniel’s narrative about how to survive and thrive in an oppressive environment. Identity was not symbolic or peripheral, but critical to maintaining their integrity, and critical for their success as they found employment and remained captive for the duration of their lives.
The tragedy of this story is how these faithful Hebrew men are referenced in modern times. Songs, sermons, and the memories of so many recall the name of these three men as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the friends of Daniel. Names that when they engaged in conversation with each other, they would never use as identifiers nor would they respond to those foreign names. Their actual names are Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. For the most part these names are unknown by those who are so called enthusiasts of their story. Daniel’s determination not to defile himself is often a reference to uphold Christian morality and principles, but doesn’t value the encouragement to protect ethnic identity or understanding that God created ethnicity as much as He created the earth.
Even more unfortunate and tragic is that Christians emulated these oppressive acts by replicating the practice of re-naming people with “Christian” names and repressing the cultures of many as they embraced the call to spread the Gospel of Jesus. They changed names of thousands of people for decades and centuries. They obliterated countless Native American people, cutting their hair, changing their diets, and haberdashery. This story is indicative of countless generations of African Americans who continue to search for any remnant of their African heritage. If you travel across the globe, this practice is replicated in the continents among targeted groups of missionaries.
Thus, as we remember the life and mourn the loss of Mandela, we must remember that the first name that we remember most was given to him by an United Methodist teacher. She looked at him and saw “Nelson”. Unfortunately, like Daniel and his friends, Madiba is often referred to by another name, Nelson Mandela. We became aware of his true name much later thanks to those who wanted to respectfully honor his identity and lineage as the son of a tribal chief. Mandela overcame the oppression of the ruling minority, became a symbol of multi-ethnicity, forgiveness, and reconciliation, while recapturing his name. As a result, Madiba and his legacy is celebrated throughout the world.
We are challenged in our time and in the times to come with how we will reference him. This seems to be an enormous task, since we fail so miserably to remember the true names of Daniel and his friends. Wouldn’t it be sad to see them all walking down the streets of gold; to call out the names: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Belteshazzar, and Nelson; and have them continue walking past us. The humble and gracious Madiba may stop and smile, and softly inform us why he didn’t respond. He might politely say, “My name is Madiba.”
James “Jimmy” McGee III is a native Chicagoan, living in Atlanta with wife, Genie and three sons, James IV (Jay), Noah Aslan and Asher Cross. He is an applied Anthropologist who formerly worked with InterVarsity. He now serves as the president of The Bitumen Group, Inc, a consultant firm that serves churches, seminaries, nonprofits and schools. Jimmy is a consultant, facilitator and speaker on subjects related to ethnicity, spiritual formation, program development, and vocational discernment.