Religion and This World

Perhaps because I know less about the context of Cry, The Beloved County, I found myself drawn more to the religious tensions addressed in the book. For instance, after recording a powerful sermon by one of the most saintly characters in the book, Alan Paton writes this:

It is good for the Government, they say in Johannesburg, that Msimangu preaches of a world not made by hands, for he touches people at the hearts, and sends them marching to heaven instead of to Pretoria…

Yes he is despised by some, for this golden voice that could raise a nation, speaks always thus. For this place of suffering, from which men might escape if some such voice could bind them all together, is for him no continuing city. They say he preaches of a world not made by hands, while in the streets about him men suffer and struggle and die. They ask what folly it is that can so seize upon a man, what folly is it that seizes upon so many of their people, making the hungry patient, the suffering content, the dying at peace? And how fools listen to him, silent, enrapt, sighing when it is done, feeding their empty bellies on his empty words.

This was Marx’s concern and I think a fair one. Religion can be twisted to support brutal hierarchies or serve as an escape valve for the pressures of the world without actually addressing injustices. When you help each individual be patient in hunger, content in their suffering, and at peace in the face of death, you run the risk of calming the forces that allow a society to confront its systematic wrongs.

On the other hand, religion can also be the power that calls us to a higher plane, that compels us to face those same systematic wrongs. That’s what is happening in this passage, written by a white South African:

The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled 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, ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions, and 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 not need to hurry. We shift our ground again when a black men 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. It is 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.

Recognizing these inconsistencies between his Christian ideals and the realities of his nation, the character was moved to action: to rejecting the social norms (which benefited him) and to embracing the fight for right. Religion, for him, served as a moral compass that motivated engagement with the world, not escape from it. At its best, religion can do both of these things for us, simultaneously lifting our burdens and providing the vision and conviction to improve our world here and now.

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