Lessons from the life of Albert Luthuli.

Last week I wrote about Bernard Mizeki, a man from Mozambique who was martyred seeking to bring the Gospel to Zimbabwe. This week I’ve been encouraged by the legacy of a Zimbabwean believer who was used to further the cause of equality in South Africa.

Albert Luthuli was born in 1898 near Bulawayo in what is now Zimbabwe. His mother had lived in the household of a Zulu king and on his father’s side both his grandfather and uncle had served as tribal chiefs. It was an impressive pedigree for a future leader, but it was the influence of an earnest older African minister that was used to lead him to faith and the devout atmosphere of an African evangelist’s family with whom he lodged that stirred his calling to become a lay preacher.

Luthuli was trained as a teacher in mission day schools, boarding schools and eventually a college in Durban, South Africa. His education came mostly through European and British missionaries. But while some nationalists looked down on the mission schools he attended, Luthuli felt differently, “Two cultures met, and both Africans and Europeans were affected by the meeting. Both profited, and both survived enriched.” That concept of mutual help would be a life theme for him.

Luthuli’s teaching career ended in 1935 when the tribal leaders called him home and asked him to serve as their Chief. The experience would be formative, “Now I saw, almost as though for the first time, the naked poverty of my people, the daily hurt of human beings.” Over the next decade and a half, South Africa moved steadily from segregation to apartheid. Black voting rights were revoked, mixed marriages were forbidden and “pass laws” which restricted the travel of black South Africans became stricter. 

Although Luthuli was married in 1927, for the first eight years of their marriage, his wife lived 80 miles away because laws prevented them from owning land near Adams College where he worked. Luthuli’s faith moved him to work to right injustice against his people. He wrote, “My own urge because I am a Christian, is to get into the thick of the struggle … taking my Christianity with me and praying that it may be used to influence the good character of the resistance … I am confident in the Christian Faith to believe that I can serve my neighbour best by remaining in his company.” He would go on to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1960 for his efforts to bring equality and justice in South Africa through peaceful resistance.

What moved me most about Luthuli’s life was the motivation that fuelled his efforts. He could have lived a far more comfortable life. He could have turned a blind eye to the needs of people he saw around him. As it was he was often harassed, frequently arrested, and spent much of his later life under a ban that screened visitors, barred him from public gatherings and prevented him from travelling more than 25 km from his home. What motivated his passionate ministry was his conviction that all people are created in the image of God. So when he arrived back in South Africa after a mission visit to the United States he was told that future travel would not permitted because “natives who travel get spoilt.” He was said to respond, “I can only reply that I was not spoilt abroad. I was spoilt by being made in the image of God.”

The conviction that he was made in the image of God convinced him that he possessed an inherent dignity when others didn’t treat him with respect. His belief that all people were made in the image of God convinced him that his people ought to be treated with equality when injustice against them was being defended. And his belief that even his oppressors were made in the image of God, moved him to reject violent and vengeful tactics that others in his movement favoured as a response to their enemies.

His biographers summarize his legacy with these words, “As moral leader of his nation and Africa’s first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, he proclaimed with all means possible that because people of all races were created in God’s image, they could and should live in dignity with one another.”

Three lessons from Luthuli’s life stand out to me:

  1. Diversity strengthens us. When people of different cultures come together as equals both are changed and grow in the process.
  2. Faith acts. Following Jesus should give us eyes to see people with new compassion and motivate us to help.
  3. Doctrine matters. Luthuli could have been crushed by the apartheid propaganda and unjust laws he faced but the Biblical teaching that we are all created in the image of God overcame the negative voices in his world and transformed his relationships and his legacy.

May God raise up more like him!
In awe of Him,