I read Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country at the beginning of the summer and meant to write about it long before now, but then the summer busyness that comes with youth ministry set in and I’m just now getting around to it.
Simply put, this is one of my all-time favorite books. I love Paton’s poetic style of writing, and I thought the story was incredibly moving and powerful.
Cry, The Beloved Country is set in South Africa in the late 1940s, before apartheid, but certainly in a time of profound racial strife. The main character in the book is Umfundisi Kumalo, an elderly Anglican priest (“umfundisi” is Afrikaans for “parson”) who leaves his native village to go to the great city of Johannesburg in search of his son Absalom, who he hasn’t seen or heard from in a long time. Kumalo has never really been away from his village before, and the old priest is completely overwhelmed by the size of the city, and the different customs and behaviors he sees there.
The book touches on several heavy themes—racism, theology, politics, the breakdown of the native village, crime, environmental concerns, and others—but I just want to focus on one quotation that I really liked.
While in Johannesburg, Kumalo becomes close friends with Umfundisi Msimangu, a younger priest who helps him in his search and comforts him as he endures one heartbreaking discovery after another. Time and time again, Msimangu goes out of his way to help Kumalo in any way that he can.
At one particular moment in the book, the old priest is so moved by the overwhelming love and kindness that the younger priest shows him that he begins to pay him a compliment. Kumalo tells Msimangu that he has never known anyone like him, but before he can go on, the young priest interrupts his compliment and rebukes him, saying, “I am a weak and sinful man, but God put His hands on me, that is all.”
I think there’s profound meaning there. Often, I think the world can be put off by Christianity because people assume that Christians consider themselves to be better than everyone else (and certainly some do). Instead, we should have the attitude of Msimangu. He wasn’t willing to take credit for his good deeds, but instead said that it was God’s influence in his life that made those deeds possible. That’s how we should be. We should strive to show the world that any difference or “betterness” on our part isn’t because of us—it’s because Jesus changes our hearts and allows us to be different.
“I am a weak and sinful man, but God put His hands on me, that is all.”