Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A South African Reflection

Published on 28th January 2020

Dietrich Bonhoeffer`s  theology was centred on the fact that Christ is the one in whom the world and God are reconciled, as one who presented a suffering God, and as one who was disillusioned by the weakness of the church in challenging the status quo – for all these reasons and more, Bonhoeffer has inspired and continues to inspire Christians in South Africa.

I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology can indeed help us to discern "How the coming generation is to go on living."

 You've all no doubt heard before of the areas in which South Africans identify with Bonhoeffer's ideas:

• Of how the concept of a status confession is, retrieved by Bonhoeffer, became central to the South African Reformed churches' rejection of apartheid in the 1980s.

• Of how Bonhoeffer's willingness to join a plot against Hitler's life resonated in the debate in South Africa whether taking up arms against the apartheid regime was justified.

• Of how strongly South Africans have identified with Bonhoeffer's contrast of "cheap grace" with "costly grace". (As John de Gruchy has written, "This contrast, perhaps more than anything else in Bonhoeffer's writings, provided the language we... have so often used to distinguish between the costly reconciliation of restored justice, and cheap reconciliation without justice.")

• Of our explorations of how Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on, as Nico Koopman has described it, "the communal character of humanity" can help us renew and enhance ubuntu.

What I want to highlight tonight is the relevance of Bonhoeffer's work on forgiveness to "how the coming generation is to go on living..."

You don't have to visit South Africa for very long today, especially on university campuses, to learn that forgiveness and reconciliation have become discredited concepts for many. Nelson Mandela is seen as having sold out to white interests and having failed to take those oppressed under apartheid into the Promised Land.

In response I have argued that when Mandela began negotiations for bringing about democracy, our country was at war, our liberation armies had no prospect of imminent victory, and that if we had not compromised by reaching a negotiated settlement, the civil war would have intensified. As a result many of those now criticising their fathers' and mothers' generation would probably not have been alive to do so.

But that doesn't take away from the fact that we have one of the most unequal societies in the world today. The analyst and writer Moeletsi Mbeki has calculated that only 12 percent of South Africans of working age earn more than 800 US dollars a month. Of the rest, 38 percent are blue collar workers earning less than that. And fully 50 percent – half of those of working age – comprise the unemployed and what he calls an "underclass."

That is an unsustainable situation, and although we can blame our government for many failures, we also have to acknowledge that a large part of the problem is that our society has indulged in what Bonhoeffer has referred to "the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance..." Apartheid was a sin, but too many of those who implemented it or benefitted from it have tried to get away with "cheap grace", and with holding onto the privileges which the transfer of wealth across generations endows them with.

Listen to these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted by Gregory Jones, dean of the Duke Divinity School in the United States in his book, Embodying Forgiveness:

"[T]he preaching of forgiveness must always go hand in hand with the preaching of repentance, the preaching of the gospel with the preaching of the law. Nor can the forgiveness of sin be unconditional – sometimes sin must be retained. It is the will of the Lord himself that the gospel should not be given to the dogs. He too held that the only way to safeguard the gospel of forgiveness was by preaching repentance. If the Church refuses to face the stern reality of sin, it will gain no credence when it talks of forgiveness. Such a Church sins against its sacred trust and walks unworthily of the gospel. It is an unholy Church, squandering the precious treasure of the Lord's forgiveness."

I appeal to you: please help us. Please help South Africa at this critical time in our history. We need you, our theologians, to help us face up to the stern reality of sin in our society. We need you to help us preach repentance. We need you to help us to work out what that means in practical steps so that we transform our society to fulfill the vision of Jesus promised in John's Gospel – that "I came so that you may have life and have it in abundance."

Will you help us do that?

What is our clear message today? Does God's message of salvation ring true against unjust structures, arrogant leaders and spiritually inept and arrogant churches? In our current context in South Africa, I believe we as church leaders are called to challenge church and society to come out in active opposition to the forces of greed and what we call "state capture" in order to prevent our country from sliding into economic ruin. In my Christmas sermon, I said I hoped 2020 would be the "year of the orange jumpsuits" – the year in which those who drove our country to the brink of disaster – will start going to prison. In the coming weeks, we hope that in his annual State of the Nation address, our president, President Ramaphosa, will give us a clearer vision of how he intends to deal with the erring politicians and civil servants – as well as the business people who corrupted them – who as we speak are conducting a fight-back to try to defeat our efforts to root out corruption.

Let us all renew our vocations and, like John, give a bold, united witness and testify that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes upon himself the sin of the world; that we did not know him, nor have we seen him, but we nevertheless believe in him and seek to be in alignment with and intimate with him in our prophetic ministry.

By Thabo Makgoba

Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.


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