Feast of Albert John Luthuli (July 21)   Leave a comment

Flag of South Africa 1994

Above:  The Flag of South Africa, 1994-Present

Image in the Public Domain



Witness for Civil Rights in South Africa

Albert John Luthuli struggled for civil rights in South Africa.  His life typified the sage counsel of the father of the Reverend Doctor Vernon Johns (1892-1965), predecessor of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. (1939-1968), in Montgomery, Alabama:  when you see a good fight, get in it.

Our saint came from a Christian family.  His father, John Bunyan Lutuli, was a Seventh-day Adventist missionary.  Young Albert, born near Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1898, lost his father to death in 1908.  Luthuli and his mother, Mtonya Gumede, moved to her hometown, Groutville, in Natal, our saint’s uncle, Martin Lutuli, was the chief of the Christian Zulus in the area.  Martin had ties to the U.S. Congregationalist mission in the province.  Mtonya, a washerwoman, helped to put her son through Adams College, the U.S. Congregationalist institution of higher learning at Adams, near Durban.  Luthuli, who had become a Methodist, joined the faculty.  He was one of three African instructors at Adams College.

Luthuli worked as an educator.  In 1927 the instructor married Nokukhanya Bhengu, also a teacher.  Our saint, who also encouraged missions, advocated for a liberal arts education (not just a technical one) for Africans.  He became the Secretary of the African Teachers Association in 1928 and the President thereof five years later.  Also in 1933 tribal elders asked Luthuli to succeed his uncle as chief.  He finally accepted the offer three years later, after much consideration.

Luthuli joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1945.  His roles and responsibilities in the organization increased until December 1952, when he became the President-General of the ANC.  His vocal opposition to Apartheid brought him into conflict with the national, White minority government.  Although that government had deposed him as chief in November 1952, he remained the de facto chief.  Upon the event of his dismissal as chief our saint issued a statement, “The Road to Freedom is Via the Cross.”  Luthuli was also a banned person from 1952 to 1956.  In 1956, after an ANC conference, the national government charged him and many others with treason.  A court acquitted everyone in 1961.  Luthuli, a banned person again from 1959 until his death, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960.  His journey to Oslo and back in 1961 was a brief respite from his enforced isolation.

Being a banned person took its toll on Luthuli.  He suffered from discouragement, high blood pressure, and a stroke.  He died near his home on July 21, 1967, after a train struck him.

In a scene from Cry Freedom (1987) White liberal newspaper editor Donald Woods (1933-2001) speaks with a member of the cabinet.  The government minister explains that he fears what might happen to White South Africans should Apartheid end.  I contend, however, that fear of the potential negative consequences of ceasing oppression is not a moral justification for continuing to oppress people.  In fact, persisting in oppression is counterproductive.  It is like being concerned about a pot of boiling water spilling out onto an oven range yet turning up the heat anyway.  That which we do to others, we do also to ourselves; this is a moral law of the universe.

Luthuli understood all this well.  His political involvement had its origin in his faith:

My own urge because I am a Christian is to get into the thick of the struggle with other Christians, taking my Christianity with me and praying that it may be used to influence for good the character of the resistance.

I wonder how that sounded to his oppressors, many of whom belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, which quoted the Bible to defend Apartheid until 1992.  I wonder how Luthuli’s presence affected those who enforced his isolation.  I wonder how the work of enforcing that isolation damaged the souls of those who engaged in it.  In the case of oppression there are oppressors and victims–and only victims, for nobody can oppress another without harming himself or herself spiritually.







Eternal God, we thank you for the witness of Chief Luthuli, Nobel Laureate for Peace,

who was sustained by his Christian faith as he led the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.

Strengthen us, after his example, to make no peace with oppression and to witness boldly for

our Deliverer, Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,

one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Numbers 20:9-11

Psalm 122

Ephesians 2:12-17

John 16:25-33

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 479


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: