Ethos Education

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom: Why do some people choose prison or death rather than recant firmly held beliefs?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding of the concept of prisoner of conscience.
  • Awareness of the case of one prisoner of conscience arrested for their Christian beliefs.
  • Consideration of what, if anything, the students feel strongly enough about to go to prison for.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Reflect on the concept of fundamental rights.
  • Understand the term ‘prisoner of conscience’.
  • Analyse a film clip providing one example of prisoners of conscience.
  • Analyse a news report of a modern-day Christian prisoner of conscience.
  • Analyse Bible passages and compare the case of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim with early Christians in Acts 4.
  • Synthesise learning by summarising the arguments for the release of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim.


Ask the students to stand up. Explain that you are going to read a series of statements, and that you want the students to remain standing if they agree with the statement. After each statement, ask some follow up questions to explore why people agreed or disagreed, particularly if a statement didn’t meet with a unanimous verdict from the class. After discussing each statement, stand everyone up again before continuing with the next statement. Here are the statements:

  • Women should have the same rights as men.
  • People should be free to believe whatever they want, and to express those beliefs however they want.
  • People of different ethnicity should be given the same rights.
  • People of different nationalities should be given the same rights.

Explain that there are some laws that people disagree with, and other laws that they feel are not just misguided, but fundamentally wrong. When people feel strongly enough about such laws, their actions may lead to them becoming prisoners of conscience, which is the topic of today’s lesson.


Write the phrase ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ on the board. Ask the students if anyone can define a prisoner of conscience. Explain that the term was coined in 1961 by Peter Benenson in the Observer newspaper, and is commonly used in reference to anyone who is imprisoned because of their political views, religion, race or sexual orientation, as well as those who are imprisoned or persecuted for non-violent expression of conscientiously held beliefs.

Ask the students if they can think of other instances of people becoming prisoners of conscience. What different causes have motivated people to put themselves in such a position? Can the students imagine believing something strongly enough to ever be in such a position themselves.

Introduce the clip from the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Pathe, 2014, certificate 12). Click here to buy the DVD online.

Explain that Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba) and his fellow leaders of the ANC are facing trial for acts of sabotage. Ask the students to pay particular attention to the way Mandela describes their actions and their attitude towards possible punishment.

  • Start time: 0.43.52 (in chapter 8 of the DVD)
  • End time: 0.53.29
  • Clip length: 9 minutes and 37 seconds

The clip begins with the caption Palace of Justice, Pretoria, 1963 appearing onscreen. It ends with Nelson Mandela and his comrades being taken away to prison. If you want a shorter version of the clip, start at 0.44.50 (the accused being led into court. The first line is, Mandela leading his supporters in the viewing gallery in a chant) and finish at 0.50.02 (last line: ‘…but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’)

Ask the students why Nelson Mandela and his comrades were willing to be sentenced to death without pursuing all possible routes of legal appeal. Draw out their willingness to die being founded in absolute commitment to the justice of their cause, and an awareness that their deaths might be a significant factor in achieving their goals.

Ask the students whether they think that the ANC leadership were fighting for a just cause. You might want to explain something of South Africa’s laws at the time concerning racial segregation and the lack of rights that black African’s enjoyed compared with whites.

Explain that across the world many Christians have been imprisoned as a result of their faith. An example from the Bible can be found in Acts 4:1-22 (with Acts 3:1-10 providing some additional background). Tell the class that you are going to look at a modern example of a Christian prisoner of conscience.

Give out copies of the news report about Meriam Yehya Ibrahim:

Ask the class whether they agree with David Cameron that, ‘religious freedom is an absolute, fundamental human right.’ Should the same right be extended to people who hold political views that are at odds with the majority of a nation’s population?

Ask the students to compare the case of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim with the account in Acts 4:1-22 of Peter and John’s arrest. Have the students read the passage, then answer the following questions, both for Meriam and also for Peter and John:

  • Why were the prisoners of conscience arrested?
  • What do you think the ruling powers were afraid of if the prisoners of conscience were not arrested?
  • What principle or belief led to the prisoners of conscience continuing to do what the ruling powers didn’t want them to do?
  • Why do you think they kept going rather than falling into line with the ruling powers? To what extent were they right to do so?
  • Why might Christians be particularly likely to find themselves as prisoners of conscience in some parts of the world?


As a final task, ask the students to create a poster to raise awareness of the case of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim. The poster should explain what she did and why she did it, as well as her resulting circumstances. Alternatively, students could write a reasoned letter to the Sudanese government calling for Meriam’s release.


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