A Christian response to race issues on campus


[notice]A monthly column that reflects on living in the Kingdom of God.[/notice]

On the university campus and in general, white privilege does exist. Generally speaking, it is a lot easier for a white English speaking student to attend Rhodes University, learn and pass here, not face financial difficulties and not face a host of other challenges that predominantly black students will face financially, linguistically, socially and otherwise. It is a lot harder for black academics to see a future for themselves here, when their credentials are unfairly questioned, their accent made fun of and students continually opt against having them as their supervisors. The question is: how do we as Christians respond to this and race issues as a whole on the university campus. On my alma mater, Rhodes University, twitter was suddenly abuzz after a student anonymously put up posters with the hashtag #rhodessowhite, shortly after the now infamous protests at UCT around the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. The online campaign quickly generated a lot of race-based blaming, hatred, polarisation and defensiveness. In the middle of this and the now ongoing engagements on the issue of Rhodes and race, a number of friends and myself observed that many Christians behaved no differently to everyone else. A friend of mine asked me where the Christian voice was in the midst of all this. That is my context, and this is my first attempted response. Martin Luther King declared: There was a time when the church was very power­ful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . .

Chief Albert Luthuli.

Will we be bound by faith?
The Sharpeville massacre of 1960, where police opened fire on a crowd, killing 69 people, occurred during the ANC presidency of Chief Albert Luthuli. Despite this and the onset of apartheid, Luthuli did not respond with a call to violence. He was awarded the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the non-violent struggle against apartheid. There are convincing arguments that show that his views on lawful, non-violent change were not accepted any longer, especially by the recently formed ANC Youth League. Scott Couper writes the following in his recently acclaimed Luthuli biography “Bound by Faith”: Due to Luthuli’s domestic and international prominence and impeccable moral character, liberation struggle icons, political parties and politicians justify in part their past actions and their contemporary relevance upon a contrived historical memory. Often that memory is not compatible with the archival record. Contrary to a nationalist inspired historical perspective, in this book Scott Couper argues that Luthuli did not support the initiation of violence in December 1961. Luthuli’s ecclesiastical tradition, Congregationalism, embedded within him the primacy of democracy, education, sacrificial service, multiracialism and egalitarianism, propelling him to the heights of political leadership. However, these same seminal emphases rendered Luthuli obsolete as a political leader within an increasingly radicalised, desperate and violent environment. While Christian faith fuelled his political success, it engendered the inertia for his irrelevance following the ANC’s resort to violence. By not supporting the ANC’s armed movement, Luthuli’s political career proved to be ‘bound by faith’. After he had become President, Mandela later admitted that the ANC, in its struggle against apartheid, also violated human rights, criticising those in his own party who attempted to remove statements mentioning this from the reports of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

My point here is to use this example to ask these pertinent questions: In the heat of the moment, what is the true worth of my Christianity? Secondly, am I willing to be ‘bound by faith’ even when it means falling out of favour with friends and political correctness? 

The Gospel of The Kingdom
Another question we need to ask is this: will we adopt the gospel of the Kingdom as the only means of true and lasting change? Here’s why this question is so important for Christians. The popular pro-black narrative says white people are in a position of economic power and privilege, and therefore black people (who in the main are not in this position), can’t truly be racist, because racism is an exercise of this privilege at the expense of those who have less. It pitches black people with the moral upper hand and white people as racist, privileged or both. The popular pro-white narrative emphasises the material difference that Western civilisation has brought to this continent. The problem with both is that they can easily become the defining lens through which we see all of life, leading to pride in one’s victim status or pride in one’s achievements. The gospel however is totally different…it says that we are all desperately in need of the cross of Christ. It says that racism and prejudice is not first because of economic privilege but because of the sin nature in all of us. It says that left to ourselves, we are no better than the ‘other’ that we are provoked to despise. It says that what we have done to God is infinitely worse than anything that has been done to us, and what God has done in forgiving us by His grace is give us all the resources and more to forgive what others have done to us. The gospel leads to an admission of personal guilt as we pray ‘forgive us OUR sins, as we forgive those that sin against us,’ thereby allowing us to see clearly by taking the plank out of our own eyes first. It then says: this is how we will move forward…as one new man in Christ, desiring the Kingdom more than any ‘side’s agenda, as peacemakers, desiring to be meek, resisting the temptation to move from a place of anger and convinced alone by Scripture and not popular media on how to bring change.

In moving forward, here I believe are some values of the Kingdom:

  1. Seeking first the Kingdom

Before national, ethnic and other loyalties, our first and most important allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. We are to seek first the Kingdom (Matt 6:33). Secondly, anything that is contrary to the Kingdom should be contrary to us. God has not come to take sides, he has come to take over, as Joshua discovered: Josh 5:13-14 13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army o the LORD I have now come.” A biblical nation builder is convinced that only through the ways of the Kingdom will real change come. Jesus declared the ways of his Kingdom most clearly in His Sermon on the Mount, part of which declares: Matt 5:1-2, 5-9 1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them, saying:…5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.   

Martin Luther King.

The power behind Jesus’s Kingdom was not through force of arms or assuming political power. This is not to say that the Kingdom does not affect the material world. It does, but it first takes over the hearts of men and women and this internal, invisible change affects the external, visible world. Without this change, we easily become hypocritical, speaking out against the wrongs of others but remaining completely blind to our own. With the swing in political correctness, we are now all aware of the prejudice of Cecil John Rhodes. But without the Kingdom of God penetrating our own hearts, as black Africans (or anyone else) we can remain blind to the abuses of black Africans. While I would differ with his ideology, Julius Nyerere nevertheless remark echoes this danger, declaring: “Since Amin usurped power he has murdered more people than Smith in Rhodesia, more than Vorster in South Africa. But there is this tendency in Africa that it does not matter if an African kills other Africans…Being black is now becoming a certificate to kill fellow Africans.” Martin Luther King based a lot of his civil rights approach on the Sermon on the Mount, successfully overturning discriminatory laws in the US on the basis on non-violence and love for our enemies: He declared: Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. This was in stark contrast to the white devil rhetoric of Malcolm X. Faced with the same problem, they had a different solution. What do we want? 

Desmond Tutu.

Similarly, a biography on Desmond Tutu wrote the following:  Although he is close to Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) leadership, Tutu has never joined the ANC, and, consistent with his non-violent position, he opposed the ANC’s guerrilla action during the liberation struggle…On the morning of Mandela’s inauguration, he celebrated the eucharist in Afrikaans. He said: “We must not allow ourselves to become like the system we oppose. We cannot afford to use methods of which we will be ashamed when we look back, when we say, ‘…we shouldn’t have done that.’ We must remember, my friends, that we have been given a wonderful cause. The cause of freedom! And you and I must be those who will walk with heads held high. We will say, ‘We used methods that can stand the harsh scrutiny of history.'”* Compare this to the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, who saw at least 1 000 people killed per day during his leadership, insisting that…“Even if for every hundred correct things we committed 10 000 mistakes, our revolution would still be – and it will be in the judgment of history – great and invincible.” When we see our problems through a lens other than the Kingdom of God, it blinds us to our own shortcomings and makes all of our actions justifiable in our own eyes.   

  1. Reconciliation

I firmly believe that a reconciled church is a vital part of the solution to this and other problems. As we pursue the Kingdom of God and model multi-ethnic churches, it provides a platform to pray with, humbly discuss and practice the values of the Kingdom with people of other ethnicities. Here, we can model the amazing truth that my primary identity is not my skin colour, but my faith in Christ, and that God’s purpose was to create one new man in Christ. Ephesians 2:14,15-16 declares: For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility15 His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility

We are thus not tackling the issue of transformation and race as black and white first, but as one new man. Reconciliation therefore involves not only tolerating of the ‘other’, but being actively concerned for their welfare and treating them with the same respect as your own. Often in the church we can hang around people of the ‘other’, pretending that we see them as equals. However, when it is crunch time we often hypocritically retreat into our ethnic boxes, recreating our own division as Peter did in Antioch: Gal 2:11-14 11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. 14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? We must ask ourselves: Are our churches thermometers registering the racial attitudes and actions of the world; or are they thermostats raising the warmth of commitment to racial understanding and love and demonstrable harmony? Author and pastor John Piper writes about the deliberate steps his church took to overcome the racial attitudes of the world. He writes: Some years ago a twenty-three-member team at our church took over a year to draw up a vision statement for our church that included six fresh initiatives. Number three reads like this: Against the rising spirit of indifference, alienation and hostility in our land, we will embrace the supremacy of God’s love to take new steps personally and corporately toward racial reconciliation, expressed visibly in our community and in our church. 

Entitlement or example
Back to the white privilege. In my first year of ministry, I was given a monthly stipend, along with other young Black campus ministers. The rationale behind this was that our churches, eager to support our efforts, recognised that the challenges faced by a young black campus minister are often far greater. They are often the first in their family to have attended university, and the pressure is much greater on them to bring financial support back home. (So by my actions, I agreed that privilege existed, though it was just the one year!) Here is the other side of the coin. The reality is this: there will always be people who have some kind of advantage over others. In the midst of this, we can either push for entitlement, or we can strive to be an example of overcoming the odds. One encourages excuses, the other encourages virtue. World acclaimed paediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson speaks of how his mother, illiterate and divorced, refused a government grant, and chose rather to work two jobs, observing that those who chose the state welfare route never came out of it. Impressing these values on her children, she raised the world’s most well known and respected paediatric neurosurgeon, training them out of destructive habits and into self-education and a change of mindset. At the age of thirteen, David Molapo was imprisoned for political activities. It was there where he started an amazing process of changing his life that led him to be the successful businessman, leader, husband and father that he is today. David Molapo’s famous quote exemplifies personal responsibility and the ability to create a better future: “We are no longer prisoners of our past, but we are pioneers of our future.” Timothy was the leader of a church where older people could easily look down on him and reject him. What was Paul’s advice? 1 Tim 4:12 Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Will we encourage entitlement or become an example? 

Before we give our yes/no to the name change debate, or what to do with the statue, as Christians, we must first commit to be ‘bound by faith’ and pray, preach and practice the gospel of the Kingdom as the only means of real change. 

(*Note: While the author does not agree theologically with recent statements made by Desmond Tutu concerning salvation, he is of the opinion that the stance he took during and after apartheid with regards to racial reconciliation has a lot of Biblical truths we can draw from.)



  1. What great insights Tendai – a true Christian Kingdom approach. At last someone who speaks from his Faith and not the all too familiar Politically Correct platform that so many church leaders hide behind for fear of losing members. Excellent, thought provoking word. Thank-you

  2. Truly an inspired viewpoint. Gives us all something to aspire to. Thank you.

  3. Brilliant article, Pastor Tendai. Inspires me to not stay silent in the midst of it all.

  4. Brilliant article Tends!

  5. A combination of a correctly functioning church and a government of integrity is what is needed. Please check out my website listed alongside. Blessings.

  6. Thanks for the comments and encouragement! Much appreciated.

  7. Thank you Tendai,excellent article with much food for thought. Bless you!

  8. Thank you, yes, there is a lot of truth in your article. Although I disagree with the results of the Cecil Rhodes debacle and that whites are no longer more priveleged than blacks in our universities; reading between your lines is the message that ‘loving our neighbours as ourselves’ is the greatest challenge of all South Africans.