I have read Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country at least 12 times. Its poetic prose is beautiful and worthy alone of close study, but his message is searing. I read it today, across an ocean and many decades, and I feel convicted. His passionate denunciation of apartheid as harmful to both natives and Europeans, and his scathing criticism of the powerful, Christian colonizers feels modern, a mark of a true classic piece of literature. This excerpt was a speech written by a white man, Arthur Jarvis, who awoke from his privilege and his ignorance and vowed to fight for equality in a country separated into stark contrasts of color.
“The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in South Africa. We believe that God endows men with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply. We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under. And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions, and to say that because He created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement. We go so far as to credit Almighty God with having created black men to hew wood and draw water for white men. We go so far as to assume that He blesses any action that is designed to prevent black men from the full employment of the gifts He gave them. Alongside of these very arguments we use others totally inconsistent, so that the accusation of repression may be refuted. We say we withhold education because the black child has not the intelligence to profit by it; we withhold opportunity to develop gifts because black people have no gifts; we justify our action by saying that it took us thousands of years to achieve our own advancement, and it would be foolish to suppose that it will take the black man any lesser time, and that therefore there is no need for hurry. We shift our ground again when a black man does achieve something remarkable, and feel deep pity for a man who is condemned to the loneliness of being remarkable, and decide that it is a Christian kindness not to let black men become remarkable. Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment. Is it strange then that our civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma? The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions.
This last line struck me in a conversation I was having with a close friend about how we are so fearful of living open-handed. This statement, written over 50 years ago, feels so applicable even today, not only with race, but with so many social issues in which we find ourselves embroiled. You can hear the fear in the voices of even the powerful. What if we lose what we have worked for? What if someone becomes more important, more wealthy, more powerful than we have become? What if someone else’s opinion takes precedence over ours? Alan Paton had it right in his novel. The “haves” will always fear the “have-nots” because they have the potential to overtake, and therefore, they will seek to keep them down, whether through outright oppression or denied microaggressions.
I don’t understand the antithetical nature that many take to their faith. They claim great love, but they show veiled and open hate. They mark the benefit of peace, but they live in anxious uncertainty. Their charitable nature is overshadowed by Paton’s claim of a “fearful clutching of possessions”. We want God’s word on earth, but we are afraid to show His love. We want to legislate our faith into forced action, but we don’t want to model God’s plan through unwavering compassion and diligent service. We want to help the outcasts, the poor, the underserved and (to our minds) undeserving, but not at the expense of our time, our money, or our superiority. If you are bristling at this, it is likely it somehow applies to you. Some spoken or silent thought about immigrants, homeless, or other group that WE marginalize and judge into submission may come to mind. You may feel guilt, but worse, you may not. You may justify, justify, justify your thoughts and beliefs about many things, because we are all excellent defendants of ourselves, aren’t we? I look at the second part of each antithetical statement Paton makes- “fearful practice…desperate anxiety…fearful clutching of possessions”. I have seen it in myself. I am hesitant to help that person- for what? Fear, anxiety, self-preservation. I want to be the judge of someone’s situation to determine what they deserve, rather than loving openly and leaving the rest to God.
God does not legislate people into His arms. He does not undermine or coerce people to believe in Him. He does not check bank statements, criminal records, immigration status to determine value. And He does not call us to do that either. We are simply called to love, to serve, to model. We have it all, and none of it is lost by sharing. It is a loaves and fishes mentality of peace, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, unmerited favor, and boundless love. There is such a divisive history Christians find themselves in of holding so tightly to things that God wants us to loosen our grip on, an intermingling of power with religion, of assumed superiority. But I go back to Philippians, where Paul so simply lays it out for us:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2: 1-8)
What is compelling to me about the character of Christ is that he was the antithesis of a powerful leader, both then and now. He served with selfless humility, and He asks the same of us.