Study Guide

Cry, the Beloved Country Religion

By Alan Paton

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The day was warm, and the smell strong in the carriage. But Kumalo was a humble man, and did not much care. They saw his clerical collar, and moved up to make room for the umfundisi. He looked around, hoping there might be someone with whom he could talk, but there was no one who appeared of that class. He turned to the window to say farewell to his friend.

— Why did Sibeko not come to me himself? he asked.

— He was afraid, umfundisi. He is not of our church.

— Is he not of our people? Can a man in trouble go only to those of his church?

— I shall tell him, umfundisi. (1.3.18-23)

Religion provides another form of identity in Cry, the Beloved Country besides race. Here, we see that Kumalo's position as a reverend gives him a great deal of status in the community. But while religion is generally a positive force in this novel, it does cause this small problem with Sibeko, that he is afraid to approach Kumalo for help because Sibeko does not share Kumalo's religion. We have to wonder what the implications are that Sibeko is the sole exception to the rule that nearly all of the other characters in this book, including Msimangu, Kumalo, and Jarvis, come together to help each other because they do share religious faith.

— I have a place for you to sleep, my friend, in the house of an old woman, a Mrs. Lithebe, who is a good member of our church. She is an Msutu, but she speaks Zulu well. She will think it an honour to have a priest in the house. (1.5.1)

Mrs. Lithebe is a Msutu and Kumalo is a Zulu, but she is "a good member" of the church who will "think it an honour to have a priest in the house." So religion seems to be a way to flatten out differences between tribes. And it also brings together Kumalo with white priests like Father Vincent. So generally, religion is a unifying force in Cry, the Beloved Country.

They went into a room where a table was laid, and there he met many priests, both white and black, and they sat down after grace and ate together. He was a bit nervous of the many plates and knives and forks, but watched what the others did, and used the things likewise. (1.5.3)

Again, religion becomes a way of bringing diverse groups of people together. The many priests, both black and white, who share dinner with Kumalo at the Mission House are all united by their faith in God. Paton is illustrating why he bases his reform politics in religion: because sharing a religion can help people to overcome racial biases and cultural differences.

You cannot stop the world from going on. My friend, I am a Christian. It is not in my heart to hate a white man. It was a white man who brought my father out of darkness. But you will pardon me if I talk frankly to you. The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that they are not mended again. The white man has broken the tribe. And it is my belief—and again I ask your pardon—that it cannot be mended again. (1.5.58)

Not only does Christianity in Cry, the Beloved Country play a role in helping to bring together people in the spirit of brotherly love, but it also has this more specific function of encouraging black activists such as Msimangu to overcome their prejudice and hatred towards the white people who have "not mended" the tribe that they have broken. Msimangu assures Kumalo that he cannot hate white people because they have brought Christianity to his family—but he can hate the results of white colonization of southern Africa.

They say [Msimangu] preaches of a world not made by hands, while in the streets about him men suffer and struggle and die. They ask what 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 he is done, feeding their empty bellies on his empty words. (1.13.39)

These critics of Msimangu say that his preaching just distracts people from their legitimate concerns in the real world. By pointing them towards heaven, he's helping them ignore the struggle going on all around them. But this criticism implies that to preach religion is to ignore politics. Do you think that politics and religion are really so separate? Would you say that Msimangu's preaching about heaven prevents him from dealing with real-world obstacles and challenges?

And do not pray for yourself, and do not pray to understand the ways of God. For they are secret. Who knows what life is, for life is a secret. […] Do not pray and think about these things now, there will be other times. Pray for Gertrude, and for her child, and for the girl that is to be your son's wife, and for the child that will be your grandchild. Pray for your wife and all at Ndotsheni. […] Pray for your own rebuilding. Pray for all white people, those who do justice, and those who would do justice if they were not afraid. And do not fear to pray for your son, and for his amendment. (1.15.70)

In our "Character Analysis" of Father Vincent, we talk about how we find him a bit condescending towards Kumalo. Because who is he, to tell Kumalo what he should be praying for? Surely prayer is deeply private and personal? At the same time, we are interested in the content of Father Vincent's prayers: he wants Kumalo to use his faith to pray for social change. This passage with Father Vincent seems to illustrate how faith can be a basis for an activist, political view of the community.

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. (2.21.58)

This passage comes from one of Arthur Jarvis's papers. He is discussing the hypocrisy of white South Africans who claim to be serious Christians, but who refuse to apply the Christian lesson of brotherly love to their relationships with black people. Indeed, historically speaking, the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa played a role in supporting the racist apartheid policies of the Afrikaner nationalists. So while Paton emphasizes the potential of Christian teachings to lead to greater racial equality, the novel also acknowledges that some South Africans use their churches as a way to support the segregation and oppression that Paton opposes.

— Yes, but Johannes said he would take the bar. It had been blessed, he said.
— It had been blessed?
— That's what he said.
— What did Johannes mean when he said the bar had been blessed?
— I do not know.
— Did he mean by a priest?
— I do not know. (2.22.130-8)

At Absalom's trial, the judge asks about the weapons that he and his friends used when they broke into Arthur Jarvis's house. Johannes Pafuri brought a metal bar that he used to knock out the servant, Richard Mpiring. Absalom's discussion of the bar shows his total ignorance of the meaning behind what's going on around him. He can't say what Johannes meant by the bar being blessed; all he knows is that the bar has been blessed. Absalom's naivete about the blessing makes him seem super ignorant and out of it—he just accepts everything at face value, which makes him easy to manipulate.

The annual Synod of the Diocese of Johannesburg cannot be supposed to know too much about the mines. The days seem over when Synods confined themselves to religion, and one of the clergymen made a speech about the matter. He urged that it was time to recognize the African Mine Workers' Union, and prophesied a blood-bath if it were not. […] But a man called a spokesman has pointed out that the African Miners are simple souls, hardly qualified in the art of negotiation. (2.26.65)

A Synod is a gathering of church leaders. These leaders have come together to decide if they should recognize the African Mine Workers' Union. But even within this church, the racism of individual priests matters. So one of the speakers at the Synod says that they shouldn't bother recognizing this black union because the miners are "simple souls" incapable of carrying out "the art of negotiation." Obviously, just because a person is a member of church leadership does not mean that they lose all of their own prejudices and biases about worldly politics.

— I am a weak woman, you know it. I laugh and speak carelessly. Perhaps it would help me to become a nun.
— You mean, the desire?
— Gertrude hung her head. It is that I mean, she said. (2.27.49-51)

Why is it so wrong for Gertrude to have desires? What specific criticism does Cry, the Beloved Country offer for Gertrude's desires? Gertrude also has a young son. If she chose to become a nun (as, in fact, we know she doesn't), what would be her moral obligation to him?

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