I have always been a reader – it’s how I learn, engage and make sense of the world – so it’s not surprising that reading was a way into my faith. As a young adult returning to church after a number of years, I felt a call to read long before a call to ministry. In the wake of “The Da Vinci Code,” scholarly authors seemed eager to reach a broader audience by hinting at secret lives of Jesus, Paul and even Thomas, rendering the biblical world more accessible. I shared these “secrets” with friends until one of them furrowed her brow and asked: “Why are you reading all these books? Are you taking some kind of class?”
Now that, I thought, was a brilliant idea. I was admitted to McCormick Seminary, where nonstop academic reading was not just expected, but required! Immersed in Reformed theology, I found myself applying my studies to my pleasure reading as well, including Alan Paton’s powerful “Cry, the Beloved Country.” It is a story of sin and redemption, and the possibility of reconciliation both for individuals and the collective society of apartheid-era South Africans.
The story centers on Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo, whose beloved son Absalom has left his parents and his village to seek his fortune in Johannesburg. With native Africans pouring in to work in the gold mines, young people are separated from the influence of extended family and the church. Absalom turns to burglary and, when caught by an unsuspecting homeowner, kills him and is caught. Kumalo learns that his son is sentenced to die, and heads to Johannesburg to save him.
The homeowner, Arthur Jarvis, was a white African from a wealthy family who used his privilege to write against apartheid. Black and white South Africans come to pay their respects and his father, wealthy landowner James Jarvis, finds himself shaking Black hands for the first time. From his son’s writings he begins to see a new way forward — out of apartheid and toward God’s realm in South Africa.
I return to this book often because it so clearly shows that the status quo fails everyone — the Jarvises and the Kumalos. It decimates the city and mutes the beauty of the countryside. And yet it offers hope! The reconciliation it promises is hard-won and certainly not guaranteed, but it ultimately is about people who, sustained by a deep and abiding faith, are compelled to change the system.
Paton’s characters are driven by faith in God. A fellow priest tells Kumalo, “I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hands on me, that is all.” Similarly, Arthur Jarvis attributed his social justice work to a higher power, writing: “I am moved by something that is not my own.”
Kumalo’s little country church is powerless against the government and most white churches defend the system, blaming a breakdown in moral values for the “decay” in the “native” population. Kumalo’s own brother, a cynical big-city politician, no longer trusts the church to advocate for justice. “Your brother has no use for the church anymore,” Kumalo is told. “He says that what God has not done for South Africa, man must do.”
Despite this, Paton lifts up the church as essential in a broken world, and he clearly trusts that God has a role for the church. As a seminarian, I needed to hear this, and I need it even more now. In 1969, Paton described his work as “a song of love … informed with longing for that land where they shall not hurt or destroy in all that holy mountain.”
Paton’s song of love is what I need to sing right now. Can songs of love be the starting point for social justice in our own time, and can the church lead the way? Paton’s lyrical prose, faithful characters and heartfelt story make me believe that the answer is yes. “Cry, the Beloved Country” offers a sneak peak at God’s realm on earth, in the rolling hills of rural South Africa and perhaps in our own beloved country as well.
Amy Pagliarella lives in Chicago and is the Outlook’s new book review editor.