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Christ Comes to South Africa

Albert González Farran/UNAMID

Philip Jenkins - published on 11/20/14 - updated on 06/07/17

What would Jesus say to a soldier bent on exploitation?

Whether through their clothing or jewelry, American Christians often display the phrase WWJD? or “What Would Jesus Do?” This challenging question was originally the subtitle of In His Steps, a vastly influential novel published by Congregational minister Charles Sheldon in 1896. Sheldon’s work is rightly remembered as a bold attempt to insist that contemporary believers work seriously to follow Jesus’s teachings in politics as much as personal behavior.

Much less known, though, is another book that appeared at almost exactly the same time, which is even more daring in its demands for radical discipleship, even to the point of death. So little known is this book, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, that it is not even the subject of a Wikipedia entry. Bold enough in the context of its age, the history of the past century has made the book ever more relevant. It cries out for rediscovery, as does its author.

Long before the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Peter Halket asked a simple question. What should a Christian do if he or she lived in a society that notionally accepted the faith, but which engaged in acts of monstrous tyranny and savage exploitation? The book was the work of Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), the daughter of Wesleyan Methodist missionaries living in British South Africa. She is today most famous for her novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883), a pioneering work of African literature. But she ranged widely in her concerns and activities, as a feminist and pacifist, and a progressive activist for social justice.

In the late nineteenth century, she was deeply involved in the opposition to imperial expansion at the expense of black African peoples. One target of her criticism was the English magnate Cecil Rhodes, who used ruthless military force to carve out a personal empire in what became Rhodesia. Rhodes famously dreamed of a British African realm stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo. That expansion led to repeated wars of conquest against militarily inferior African peoples, fought by armies variously composed of soldiers, militiamen, mercenaries and amateur adventurers. These wars, fought with the unabashed goal of gaining wealth, were brutal even by the standards of colonial conquest. Africans were massacred, prisoners slaughtered, and women were raped or enslaved. It is scarcely too much to compare these campaigns with Nazi activities in the Second World War. Schreiner’s critique of the violence and racial exploitation placed her in an extreme minority in an English-speaking world that largely idolized Rhodes as a heroic figure.

In 1897, Schreiner’s short novel Peter Halket portrayed the trooper as an ambitious twenty-year old dreaming of the wealth that could be won from African soil. He wants to emulate magnates like Rhodes himself, or legendary Randlords like Barney Barnato. While on a scouting mission, though, a mysterious stranger joins him at his campfire. Long before Peter recognizes the man, the reader is left in no doubt that the visitor – “a Jew from Palestine” – is Christ himself. He visits Peter Simon Halket by the fire, just as he had once met the apostle Simon Peter by the Sea of Galilee.

Trying to make conversation, Peter comments on the activities of himself and his fellow soldiers, offering an account that is all the more horrifying because of his casual style. By the standards of his force, he does not see himself as particularly reprehensible. He rarely rapes African women, although he had been very happy with a fifteen year old girl he had bought from a police officer. Unlike his friends, he gets little personal pleasure from witnessing Africans being hanged or massacred.

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