The movie “Invictus” (”Invincible”) tells the story of how Nelson Mandela, the President of South Africa, tried to unite the different racial/ethnic groups of South Africa during the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. A central focus of the movie is the relationship between Mandela, the ”captain” of South Africa and Francois Pienaar the captain of the South African rugby team (the ”Springboks”).
Mandela’s favourite poem was the short Victorian poem ”Invictus” by William Ernest Henley 1849–1903). Between the ages of 12 and 17, Henley suffered from tuberculosis of the bone. The only way to save his life was to amputate his leg below the knee, which did not prevent Henley from leading an active life until his death at the age of 53.
Mandela used to recite this poem to his fellow political prisoners on Robben Island, seven kilometres off the coast of Cape Town. Here is the poem (my italics and bold):
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
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.
Mandela never discussed his religious beliefs. What is certain – if the last two lines of Invictus be indeed his leitmotif – is that, with Henley, he did not believe in the God of the Bible, and with Henley also shared a stoic resolve to rise above “the clutch of circumstance” and ”the bludgeonings of chance” to try to become the master of their fate, the captain of their souls. In the New Testament, there is a very different kind of captain, the Captain of salvation. ”For it became Him, of whom are all things, and by whom are all things, to make the Captain (Greek: archigos) of our salvation perfect through sufferings” (Hebrews 2:10).
ἀρχηγός ar-khay-gos/archigos ”chief leader/author/captain/prince.
Here is the above verse (Hebrews 2:10) in context (Hebrews 2:3-10):
3. How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him;
4.God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?
5. For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak.
6. But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him?
7. Thou has made him a little lower than the angels; thou has crowned him with glory and honour, and did set him over the works of thy hands.
8. Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him.
9. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.
10. For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.
How did the Son of God, for whom is all creation and by whom is all created, become the Captain of my salvation, the Captain of my soul? Not through my suffering but through his. He – the Eternal, the Invincible, emptied himself (Philippians 2:5-11) and made Himself vulnerable (Latin: vulnis ”wound”), made himself the vincible, the victim; the victim not of the ”clutch of circumstance” and of ”the bludgeoning of chance,” No. He made Himself a victim for my soul. Oh, how the world, and even many Christians, find insufferable the notion that the Son had to suffer the Father’s wrath on behalf of those the Father gave to the Son (John 6:37-44). They cannot understand the method of the Gospel, which is that God’s love is not only mercy but justice. It’s not only the non-Christians Henley and Mandela who are far off the mark, because professing Christians may also focus too much on their own lack of righteousness rather than on Christ who has exchanged the sinner’s sin for His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
“As a Christian never loses comfort but by breaking the order and method of the gospel, looking on his own and looking off Christ’s perfect righteousness, so he that sets up his sanctification to look at [focuses too much in his own sanctification], sets up the greatest idol, which will ultimately strengthen his fears and doubts (Adolph Saphir, ‘‘The Epistle to the Hebrews: an Exposition,” p. 164).
Kara Wynn (in her “Suffering and divine hiddenness in John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul”) resonates with Saphir (my italics):
“His (John of the Cross) view of sin by no means lacks severity; nor does his view of grace lack the notion of the believer’s utter dependence upon the unfathomable mercies of God. Accordingly, he presents a view of spiritual transformation which, while it may be criticized by some for its highly optimistic finale (which is celestial union with God), aptly penetrates the roots of the human soul, and the very nature of the depravity that prevents the believer’s will from conforming to that of it’s new Master, Jesus Christ. According to John’s teaching, this depravity is remedied as God leads the believer through an immensely difficult journey into the realization of his or her propensity toward self dependency, accompanied by the subsequent realization of his or her utter dependence on Him. Thus, what stands out as fundamental in John’s view of spiritual maturation is “not the movement into character change but deeper relational dependence upon the Spirit.” (John H. Coe, “Evangelical Boundaries in Spiritual Formation: A Christian Understanding of the Dark Night of the Soul” (paper presented at the bi-annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Colorado Springs, CO, 14-16 November 2001), 21. Cited in Wynn).
The movie ”Invictus” ends with Mandela reciting the last two lines of the poem: I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul. Here’s a thing. One of the moments in the movie (which really happened) was the South African team gathered together in the middle of the field, kneeling in prayer. Captain Pienaar was giving thanks to the Captain of his soul. That prayer was the only Christian reference in the whole movie.
Here is part of a review of ”Invictus” that appeared on prime-time US TV:
Another disturbing aspect of Invictus is the editing out of the Christian Faith of key members of the Springbok rugby team. There were many consistent reports of a core of the Springbok rugby team being Bible-believing Christians who regularly met for prayer before the matches. Yet that is never depicted. The film does give a very anaemic presentation of the Springbok team kneeling in prayer after their victory, but it is such a lame and limp “Thanks Lord for letting us win the game” that it just doesn’t ring true. As Francois Pienaar declared in his BBC Sport interview in 1995: When the final whistle went “I fell right to my knees. I’m a Christian and wanted to say a quick prayer for being in such a wonderful event, not because of the winning. Then all of a sudden, the whole team was around me, which was a special moment.”