The Church Amid Racial Tensions

by Alan Paton

Alan Paton is a world-famous South African novelist and opposition political leader who is also a layman achieve in Anglican and World Council of Churches affairs.

This article was published in the Christian Century, March 31, 1954. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We do not like the thought that it may be our own unconvertedness, our own unregenerateness, that causes racial tension within the church. A Christian may still like his own race better than others, but it is getting very hard to think that God agrees with him. And even if he does think that God agrees with him, it is getting very hard, almost impossible, to say it out loud.

Not only is the church set amid racial tensions, but there are racial tensions in the church, too. These racial tensions we bring in with us; they are the evidence of our unregenerateness. We do not like the thought that it may be our own unconvertedness, our own unregenerateness, that causes racial tension within the church. Therefore we sometimes choose to think it possible that God likes racial tension, that it is part of his creative plan. In the story of the Tower of Babel we find support.

Or, alternately, we choose to think that although God does not like racial tension, he knows how inevitable it is, and therefore he thinks that the races ought to stay away from one another. We can go a step further, too, and think that God thinks that if the races cannot be reasonable then they must be made to keep away from one another. And we can go yet another step and make a law to keep the races away from one another; and not only law, but a whole array of regulations, social arrangements, customs, traditions, to keep them away from one another.

One thing we can be grateful for -- it is getting very hard indeed for a Christian to think that God likes his race better than other races. A Christian may still like his own race better than others, but it is getting very hard to think that God agrees with him. And even if he does think that God agrees with him, it is getting very hard, almost impossible, to say it out loud.

Now what happens if you lose faith in these arguments, which when seen in darkness appear to the credulous to be dressed in God’s majesty? They are like kings in invisible clothes, and once laughed at can never again be revered. What happens next?

This is what happens next. You can say that you yourself personally have no race prejudice, that you personally have Jewish friends, and that you see no reason why Asia should not belong to the Asians. But in your own country you can’t go too fast. You have to consider local customs, local prejudices and last but by no means least the power of the state. You accept racial equality in theory, but you accept racial inequality in practice. In a thousand years things may be different.

You also have two other powerful arguments. These are geography and culture. Colored people often live in areas distinct from white areas; therefore geographically it would be difficult to have colored people in your church. Further, they are culturally different. They use different languages and have different customs. They like to have services lasting three hours, and you like services lasting one hour. You must not force them to do what they would not like to do.

Some Christians think that it is love that is impelling them to seek for a greater, more tangible, more visible unity among the races. But there are other Christians who doubt this, and who think that this "love" is really anything but love; it is guilt, it is busybodyism, it is patronage come back in a new and more subtle guise. Above all it is sentimentality, and what is worse, it is sentimentality that will actually defeat the ends of that true love that is so wise, so gracious, so intensely practical, so well controlled.

These are powerful arguments. So powerful are they that one may be pardoned for supposing that their strength often comes from somewhere else, from deeper motives whose existence we deny. These motives are fear and pride, seldom encountered in their pure state (though that can happen), but usually in compounds. And these compounds are at their most powerful when to them has been added a good dollop of love and consideration for others.

It is very difficult to counter these arguments; it is always very difficult to counter arguments that conceal emotional attitudes. You are very much in the position of a man who must comment on all the points of his friend’s sheep, when all the time he knows that inside it is a wolf. Nor does it help very much to know that it is quite a decent wolf.

Let us be honest: it is often not the inadvisability, the impracticability, of going faster that deters us, but the fear of it. This fear is of two distinct kinds. One is the fear we feel because we ourselves are unregenerate; the other is the fear we feel of the unregenerateness of others, especially of an unregenerate state.

All these attitudes are intensely human, but they are not noble, courageous or generous. They are cautious, calculating and cold. They rule out of court any possibility that God may be calling us to transcend differences of race and culture and calling us to assert our common sonship. In a race-ridden world, but more especially in a race-ridden country, God may be calling us to proclaim something far more ineffable, far more Christian, than race difference.

If the Lord of our faith and church, the Savior of mankind, if Robert Herrick’s "darling of the world" were to come to our state or country, what would he make of our laws and our arrangements? If people of every race and color flocked to see him, longed to touch him, would he be bound by our arrangements? Would he accept our segregated churches? Or could we suspend our arrangements while he was with us in person? Or would we beseech him to leave our coasts? Or would we crucify him?

Christians cannot ignore the problems created by racial tensions in their society, nor problems of geography and culture. There is not much danger that they will. The danger is that they will use the existence of these problems to excuse them from action, that they will use the unregenerateness of the world to excuse their own. The danger is that the church may consent to be used as an instrument to delay or prevent regeneration. It may, by overestimating the gravity of racial tensions, and by planning its course accordingly, help to entrench them.

One does not find that the church as a whole is enough concerned about the evil and unjust results of race discrimination and the color bar. It is not so concerned as its Lord in person would have been. One may condemn the evil results, but it is the color bar itself that needs our condemnation. And the best way for the church to condemn the color bar is to show that it has not got one. Now the church often says it has not got one. By this it often means that there is no physical color bar inside the physical church building; it means that Mrs. Jones will sit next to a black man in a church even though she wouldn’t in a cinema. I suppose that’s something, but it doesn’t seem to be much.

To remove the color bar from the heart is a much more difficult matter. It would truly be difficult to imagine an unsegregated church in a segregated community. But even in a highly segregated community, the church should be moving away from segregation. Alas, in many places this movement is hardly to be discerned.

The problems of race within any state or country are paralleled by problems of race and nationality in the world itself. About this great area of task and opportunity I know very little, except to know that world leaders of the churches feel the weight of their responsibilities. But of one thing I am certain -- the Christian churches of the world will face their task and their opportunity with a new authority, I dare to say with the divine authority, when they have faced squarely their own national tasks and opportunities. In some countries there is a danger that the churches, by having too great a respect for the prejudices of their own members, and for the prejudices of non-members, will make these difficulties greater than they are.

This seeking for a visible unity of Christians I believe to be good and right. I am not impressed by arguments for a spiritual unity which will not be visibly expressed. Much argument about the inadvisability and impracticability seems to me to conceal a reluctance to move. What I mean is, when I personally am too much aware of the impracticability, then I know that I personally am too reluctant to move. I also believe that when Christians are too reluctant to move it is mostly out of fear, to a lesser extent out of pride. On the other hand, that which moves them to move, I believe to be love; I do not believe it to be guilt, patronage or sentimentality. Because it is love it must be obeyed. In all simplicity and humility we must as Christians show our unity to the world; it is our witness to our Lord’s claim, and to ours, that he is truly the hope of the world.