God's Image in Color

Suppose that the year is 1958; you live in South Africa—and you are black. Your home is a two-room shanty on five acres in a rural area where in a good year, if you work hard, you can earn about $60. It is government land, not yours. You may be ordered to leave at any moment for any reason.

You carry a pass that identifies you by name and race, and records every trip you have made more than a few miles from home. Your pass allows you to work, but only at the lowest types of physical labor. Jobs are assigned by race. You may marry but also only within your own race. If you find work in a city, you cannot bring your family with you; you eat and sleep with other workers in male dormitories on the edge of town. When you leave your work, after six months, to visit your family, you are quickly replaced. If you visit a town, you may stay only 72 hours. Your pass will note your entry and exit times. If you overstay, you may be arrested, questioned, or beaten.

You may not vote. You may not speak to the press. Your tribe used to elect a chief who settled local disputes; now your “chief” is a white government official, and you've never met him. Your children must leave your home the day they turn 18. Your younger children go to school, but it is a “Bantu school” where they learn to work, not read. You do not have enough to eat—ever. One out of three of your children dies of malnutrition before reaching the age of one.

This was Albert Lutuli's world when he was around 60. But Lutuli did not explode with violent hatred as did so many black South Africans in the next generation. Instead, he led his people into organized, nonviolent resistance, which eventually tumbled apartheid (government-sponsored racial separation) into oblivion. His example gives oppressed people everywhere courage to seek peace and justice.

Growing up South African

The first experiments with apartheid began in the late 19th century when the British colonial government attempted to curtail the growth and spread of its Indian laborers who were brought to Natal colony as indentured servants. In 1910, when the self-governing union of South Africa was established, these racial laws were extended to African peoples.

At that time Albert Lutuli, born in a Rhodesian mission station where his father served as an evangelist interpreter, was a young boy living in a rural area near the coastal city of Durban. His mother was widowed almost immediately after his birth and shared child-raising responsibilities with the family of an uncle who was chief of their village. Throughout the first 20 years of his life, Lutuli lived and received his education within an African context inherited from European missionaries. In Lutuli's thinking, “Two cultures met, and both Africans and Europeans were affected by the meeting. Both profited, and both survived enriched.” This concept became the theme of his life's work.

To remain neutral in a situation where the laws of the land virtually criticized God for having created men of color was the sort of thing I could not, as a Christian, tolerate.

During Lutuli's first job as principal and solo teacher of an intermediate school north of Durban, his “religion received the jog that it needed” through the influence of “an old and very conscientious African minister, the Rev. Mtembu” and also the host family where he lodged, “an evangelist of the Methodist Church, named Xaba, the devout and peaceful atmosphere of whose home echoed my own.” It was there that Lutuli was confirmed in the Methodist Church and became a lay preacher.

African chief

Lutuli spent the next 15 years studying, teaching, and serving as choirmaster at Adams College. The years were happy and peaceful for him. But outside the college walls, South Africa was far from peaceful. Between 1920 and 1935, racial segregation established itself at center stage. In 1922, the army quelled a miners' strike, killing 214—mostly blacks. By 1927, segregation became compulsory in 26 cities. Native Africans stirred. In 1923, several resistance groups combined to form the African National Congress.

Meanwhile, Lutuli married Nokukhanya Bhengu in 1927. Because blacks could not purchase land near the school, his wife lived some 80 miles away. “Behind our decision to live apart right from the first year of our marriage lay the spectre which haunts all Africans … the spectre of impermanence and insecurity,” he later wrote in his autobiography, Let My People Go. “Between 1929 and 1945, Nokukhanya bore me seven children … We pray very hard about our children, most of all because of the South Africa in which they are growing up.”

Lutuli's teaching career came to an end in 1935 when his tribal elders said they needed his leadership at home and his people elected him “Chief of the Umvoti Mission Reserve.” There, he could finally live with his wife. For the next 16 years he served as tribal magistrate, mediator, adviser, and connecting link with the outer world for his 5,000 people living on 10,000 acres. “Now I saw, almost as though for the first time, the naked poverty of my people, the daily hurt of human beings.” In Lutuli's culture, the position of chief was a lifetime commitment. It was a title he bore with honor (though eventually without legal sanction) until his death.

During those same 16 years, South Africa moved step by step from racial segregation to a full-blown national system of apartheid. Black voting rights were revoked in the Cape (1936), united Nations oversight was rejected (1947), the Afrikaner Nationalist party came to power determined to enforce apartheid (1948), mixed marriages were forbidden (1949), pass laws were intensified (1950), public protests against apartheid were forbidden (1950), u.N. criticism of apartheid was rejected (1950), and separate voting lists made it impossible for “non-whites” to vote (1951).

In 1952, the African National Congress (ANC), now grown to more than 100,000 members, joined with the South African Indian Congress in a “Campaign for the Defiance of unjust Laws.” This passive resistance campaign consisted of mass meetings of up to 10,000 people. The resisters attempted to use white-only public facilities, stayed out past curfews declared for Africans, and publicly disobeyed pass laws. More than 8,000 were arrested—including Albert Lutuli. That year, Lutuli was elected President General of the ANC, an office he held until his death.

The Native Affairs Department insisted that Lutuli either resign from the ANC or resign from his position as chief; they could not allow a chief to encourage disobedience of any law. Lutuli chose the ANC.

“I have embraced the nonviolent passive resistance technique in fighting for freedom,” he said, "because I am convinced it is the only non-revolutionary, legitimate and humane way that could be used by people denied, as we are, effective constitutional means to further aspirations. The wisdom or foolishness of this decision I place in the hands of the Almighty.

“What the future has in store for me I do not know. It might be ridicule, imprisonment, concentration camp, flogging, banishment, and even death. I only pray to the Almighty to strengthen my resolve so that none of these grim possibilities may deter me from striving, for the sake of the good name of our beloved country, the union of South Africa, to make it a true democracy and a true union in form and spirit of all the communities in the land.”

Behind-the-scenes leader

During the remaining 15 years of his life, Lutuli endured many of the hardships he had envisioned for the cause of justice, and for most of that time the condition of non-whites in South Africa got steadily worse. In 1952, he was placed under the first of four bans that limited his travel to within 15 miles of his home, screened visitors, and barred him from all public gatherings. He continued to attend Communion services because they were restricted to “communicants” and therefore not “public.” He often preached at home because, he said, “I do not ever intend to ask permission to worship God with my fellow-Christians—I do not concede that any man has the right either to grant or to withhold this 'privilege.'”

In 1956 he was arrested for treason and spent a year in prison, and in 1958 he was prohibited from publishing. But throughout this period he continued to be an effective leader of the ANC. He orchestrated peaceful resistance from behind the scenes—such as the bus boycott of 1957 (when virtually all of the workers among the 100,000 Africans living in one square mile on the fringe of Johannesburg walked up to 20 miles to work each day in protest of increased bus fare), workers' stay-at-home days for “appropriate expressions of mourning,” and mass demonstrations by African women who refused inclusion in the pass laws. Lutuli earned the respect of even hostile observers as “a man of absolute integrity and great moral force.”

In 1960 the Nobel Peace Prize went to Lutuli “in recognition of his nonviolent struggle against racial discrimination.” He was the first African to receive this prize. Still restricted to within 15 miles of his home, Lutuli was granted grudging permission in 1961 to travel to Oslo, Norway, to participate in the ceremonies, though the South African Minister of the Interior noted, “The government fully realizes that the award was not made on merit.”

Gentleman of justice

In a setting where safety meant silence, why did Lutuli keep on resisting a separation of the races? A devout Christian, he believed in the doctrine of imago Dei: that he, a black Zulu, was made in the image of God. When he returned to South Africa from a visit to the united States in 1948, he learned that such travel would be prohibited in the future to black South Africans because “natives who travel get spoilt.” Said Lutuli, “I was not spoilt abroad. I was spoilt by being made in the image of God.”

Lutuli extended that grace to opponents when, in 1959, he was asked a question that hovered in the mind of every black person in South Africa: “Should we get rid of the whites?” Lutuli answered, “The aim should be to get him to repent of his wrongdoings rather than to work for his forceful removal out of the country.” When asked why he allowed Communists to participate in the ANC, he implied that even Communists were created in God's image.

“I am in Congress precisely because I am a Christian,” Lutuli said. “My own urge because I am a Christian, is to get into the thick of the struggle … taking my Christianity with me and praying that it may be used to influence for good the character of the resistance. … I am confident enough in the Christian faith to believe that I can serve my neighbor best by remaining in his company.” Lutuli returned to this theme as a defense for his life's work when he was accepting the Nobel Prize: “To remain neutral in a situation where the laws of the land virtually criticized God for having created men of color was the sort of thing I could not, as a Christian, tolerate.”

Albert Lutuli did not live to see victory for his cause. The same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize, his own African National Congress created a military wing that became increasingly violent. For the next two decades, the laws implementing apartheid increased their stranglehold. In 1967, when the nearly deaf Lutuli was knocked down by a train while he was on a walk near his home, the bloodshed had hardly begun. But Lutuli was a gentleman of justice who spent his life staying the hand of violence while firmly proclaiming that people of all races should live in dignity with one another.

For him, integrity of faith and righteous political action were part of the Christian's witness in the world. Piety and social justice were both part of the same gospel. He spoke out against the kind of Christianity that “estranges [his] people from Christ. Hypocrisy, double standards, and the identification of white skins with Christianity, do the same.” He wrote, “It is not too late for white Christians to look at the Gospels and redefine their allegiance. But if I may presume to do so, I warn those who care for Christianity, to go into all the world and preach the gospel. In South Africa the opportunity is 300 years old. It will not last forever. The time is running out.”

By Gerald J. Pillay and Carolyn Nystrom

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #94 in 2007]

Gerald Pillay is vice-chancellor and rector of Liverpool Hope university in Liverpool, England, and the author of Voices of Liberation: Albert Luthuli.
Carolyn Nystrom is a freelance writer living in St. Charles, Illinois.
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