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 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 novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, that it is not even the subject of a Wikipedia entry. The book cries out for rediscovery, as does its author.
Long before 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 South 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 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 “C to C,” 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 magnates like Barney Barnato. While on a scouting mission, 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.
For obvious reasons, I am not reproducing the hideous image facing the frontispiece to the book’s US edition, a recent photograph of several Africans actually being hanged.
At first, the stranger listens quietly to this litany of unconscious self-condemnation, but increasingly he reveals his own behavior, his acts of compassion to all, regardless of race. When Peter jokingly refers to the hanging of several African prisoners, the stranger remarks that he was with the victims as they died. Wherever there is violence or injustice, he is there.
“I hear far off,” said the stranger, “the sound of weeping, and the sound of blows. And I hear the voices of men and women calling to me. … The Frenchman is not more to me than the Englishman, the Englishman than the Kaffir, the Kaffir than the Chinaman.”
For Schreiner, racial equality and justice are at the core of Christian social teaching.
Christ challenges Peter directly. Just suppose, he asks, that Peter really did obtain the wealth he was seeking, all the diamonds and gold, what would it profit him? Does he really want to be like Rhodes or Barnato? He continues:
“There have kings been born in stables,” said the stranger. Then Peter saw that he was joking, and laughed. “It must have been a long time ago; they don’t get born there now,” he said. “Why, if God Almighty came to this country, and hadn’t half-a-million in shares, they wouldn’t think much of Him.”
Christ makes Peter realize the lunacy of his political positions. He shows that it is nonsense to condemn as rebels the Africans who fight for their own country. Are not the Armenian Christians struggling against the Ottoman Turks rebels? Well certainly, says Peter, but they are on our side. Why, if the French conquered England, then the English would rise against the occupiers, and they would be absolutely right to do so. So how, asks Christ, are the Africans different?
Christ offers him the lesson of Naboth’s vineyard, the classic Biblical story of the plunder of the poor man’s land by a cynical abuse of power. And such, he suggests, is the work of Cecil Rhodes and his ilk. Because it has tolerated these crimes, England faces a dreadful divine vengeance, which Christ describes in apocalyptic terms.
Ultimately, Christ convinces Peter to join his followers, the church of disciples of all ages, who stand for truth even if it means renouncing their lives.
Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland deserves to be as famous as In His Steps.
I am adapting this post from a column I published several years ago at Aleteia.