Introductionadmin / March 14, 2019
This paper will give summary of what de Gruchy talks about in his book “A Theological Odyssey”, and critically engage some of the themes that are highlighted on the summary not all of the themes will be engage on this paper.
John de Gruchy in this book “A Theological Odyssey” the esteemed South African theologian takes us on a journey through his life as a theologian. This is a book that traces his own growth and understanding of the formative role that theology could play in the church but especially in society as a whole in spite of different and changing historical contexts. With the celebration of his 75th birthday in 2014 this book forms part of a celebration and recognition of his creative output through the years amidst the lean and better times of the country and church of his lifetime (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 1).
In his prologue John de Gruchy introduces himself as theologian who realizes that theology is about more than writing books, de Gruchy argues that (2014, p. 2), “Doing theology is about more than thinking great thoughts or writing books and learned articles, it is a way of being in the world, of engaging reality, an on-going quest, a form of prayer, a performance located in a particular time and space, and shared with fellow travellers”. In a creative and honest manner all these distinctions are found in the different chapters, in which he reworked the main themes of his own theological history. These themes are The Church Struggle; Doing Theology in Context; In Dialogue with Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Liberating Reformed Theology; Democracy, Reconciliation and Restoring Justice; Christianity, Art and Transformation; Confessions of a Christian Humanist; Led into Mystery. At the end of each chapter there is a bibliography, which can help the reader to pursue some of de Gruchy’s theological insights further.
What intrigues in reading these chapters is John de Gruchy’s understanding of theology as something alive and never stagnant. A theology that is constantly in dialogue with the context: “Studying theology is a necessary and important academic activity in which we engage as we explore and excavate tradition, doing theology is a faith practice, a committed engagement, a way of being, a passion, a contemporary and existential engagement with the gospel in the world of daily reality” (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 39). His theology then also flows from the interaction with his conversation partners, living and dead: From Calvin to Bonhoeffer, from modern science to his own late son Steve.
The Chapter on the “Church Struggle” is full of important historical background, which forms the context for “Doing Theology in Context”. The history is presented from his own experience and participation. It is from this context that Bonhoeffer and Mandela’s legacy is looked at in Chapter 3, and questions asked regarding the future of liberation? De Gruchy presents Bonhoeffer as his main conversation partner through the years in the formation of his own integral theology.
Especially important, for those from a Reformed background is the Chapter on the liberation dimension of Reformed Theology. Reformed theology has the potential for creating a just and compassionate society, for critical solidarity, if the proponents are honest and willing enough to retrieve and transform their own traditions. In Chapter 6 de Gruchy shares his own reflections on the importance of an aesthetic dimension in liturgy, the retrieving of symbols, the importance of worship and creativity: “Beauty as conveyed through the arts can become a way of encountering God” (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 121). The unleashing of artistic creativity helps us to reflect on the God of justice and peace. It reminds us that truth, goodness and beauty is integral to our living in this world in relationship with God.
In retrieving the reformed traditions de Gruchy opens up a whole new scope on understanding what it means to be reformed and how want can be Reformed and a humanist (chapter 7). His rethinking and tracing less well-known traditions of Christian humanism helps the reader to rethink the implication of justice and incarnation. To become truly human is a journey, which can erase divisions: “There is a profound sense of human solidarity and compassion that ignores the boundaries of religion and race, culture and country” (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 142).
In this “Odyssey” one does not only read about our history and the events of the past decades, one also reads about the play of beauty and tragedy in life. This book contains insights not just on the realities facing a democratic society but also the realness of sorrow and loss, which invites us into the mystery of God and life (Chapter 5, 8). In chapter 8 he invites us to places of imagination where our certainties, all of a sudden in the face of tragedy, loses its certainness: “The way of ‘unknowing’ begins when it dawns on us that God is beyond our knowing, and therefore that the answers to ultimate questions are also beyond our grasp” (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 153). One is not led into an understandable system but into mystery.
De Gruchy ends this “Odyssey” with reflections towards the future, looking at specific moments in the Western Cape welfare and rethinking global responsibility and resources for the future. He helps the reader to understand that gospel language, like “peace” is not a cliché but something that all are invited to strife and hope for.
De Gruchy’s education:
De Gruchy received an education to which only the white, privileged population of South Africa were entitled. He matriculated high school and began his undergraduate studies at Rhodes University from which he received his Bachelor of Arts, with Distinction and in 1960 he received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Rhodes, having achieved First Class Honors. He was ordained to the ministry in the United Congregationalist Church in 1961, the same year he married Isobel Anita Dunstan. While serving a congregation in Durban in 1963 de Gruchy was awarded the World Council of Churches Fellowship which enabled him to spend one year at the Chicago Theological Seminary (de Gruchy, 2014, pp. 4-5). It was in Chicago Theological seminary that de Gruchy was able to attend lectures given by Paul Tillich. In his thesis de Gruchy used Tillich’s understanding of anxiety and the fear of change in Tillich’s “Courage to Be” (Tillich, 1980), to reflect on the South African Christian church but de Gruchy’s real interest was in Bonhoeffer and what he might have said regarding the church situation in South Africa. This growing interest in Bonhoeffer would eventually lead him to doctoral studies. The seeds of a rich theological career having been sown, de Gruchy left Chicago to return to South Africa with a Master of Theology degree having graduated Summa Cum Laude. Beginning in 1964, he worked for four years as a pastor in congregations in Durban and Johannesburg. In 1968 he began his doctoral studies at the University of South Africa where he set out to answer Bethge’s lectures at the University of Chicago in the early 60s on “The Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and Theology” (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 5).
He resumed his duties as pastor in 1964 working in the mid-sized United Congregationalist church in Sea View, a town just outside Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. It was during this time that de Gruchy befriended Christiaan Frederick Beyers Naudé, a minister in the DRC and the founding director of the Christian Institute (CI). With Naudé’s encouragement, de Gruchy joined the CI in 1965 having already contributed to Pro Veritate,13 the ecclesiastical newspaper started by Naudé in 1962. Pro Veritate provided a public voice for those wishing to express opinions and concerns regarding apartheid, especially those anti-apartheid activists worshipping and working in the mainline Christian churches. The paper was published from 1963 until 1977 when the CI was banned having been declared an ‘affected organization’ by the government. De Gruchy’s name appears for the first time on the masthead of Pro Veritate in October of 1966 where he is listed as a member of the editorial staff. His work on Pro Veritate was the beginning of a long publishing career. It is possible that, at this time, he began to understand the power of the published word to effect positive change in the Christian church. Before de Gruchy was known as a theologian, he had been an active participant in public protests and anti-apartheid demonstrations while a student at Rhodes University and subsequently as a pastor in the Congregationalist Church. He recounts two such events which illustrate his understanding of the strong connection between the Christian church and the anti-apartheid movement that began to grow in earnest during the 1960s.
One of these events was an anti-apartheid protest in the City Hall where he saw his own minister, Basil Brown, sitting on the stage. De Gruchy recalled this event forty-seven years later in his book Confessions of a Christian Humanist where he remembered “that this made a considerable impression on me. But it was at Rhodes University that political sensitivities were sharpened. I recall the first anti-apartheid protest march in which Isobel and I participated, along High Street in Grahamstown in 1959. Hewson, one of the most saintly people I have ever met (a true model of holiness) was among its leaders. Early the next year, on 21 March, the Sharpeville massacre sent shock waves around the country. That was a critical turning point for me as it was for many others, but few in the evangelical fundamentalist camp seemed to take much notice. Indeed, evangelical fundamentalists in South Africa refused to get involved in opposing apartheid, and many of them openly or tacitly supported it. Ideologically, they had identified themselves as right-wing supporters of the status quo” (de Gruchy, 2006, p. 74).
Protests and demonstrations provided a means of expressing the anger and frustration felt by those who lived under the deadening weight of apartheid’s legislation but they did not provide much opportunity for theological dialogue, at least not the kind de Gruchy envisioned. He was convinced that the clergy in the mainline churches were lacking in theological depth. He was also convinced that, if there were a proper mean of engaging in dialogue, the church struggle against apartheid could be more effective. Pro Veritate provided de Gruchy with a sense of the possibilities of theological engagement but he knew that this was not the newspaper’s primary purpose. He also knew that there was no adequate forum in South Africa where theologians could grapple with the pressing issues of the time. One such pressing issue was the conflict between certain Christian churches and the apartheid state which evolved into a situation where two formidable institutions became locked in a battle for truth and the imaginations of the people they claimed to serve. How did one talk about this with other theologians and church members? Pro Veritate was a newspaper focusing on news from the churches and about the churches in South Africa. It also provided a means by which news about critical issues regarding the church struggle against apartheid could be brought to the foreground and disseminated efficiently and inexpensively. It gave a public voice to the private longings and hopes of the lay and clergy who were associated with the CI but it was not the academic journal de Gruchy believed was necessary for the intellectual debate to flourish in South Africa. For the time being, he would find a theological and ecclesiastical path to walk with the South African Council of Churches.
The South African Council of Churches’ (SACC) subdued and unassuming entry onto the ecclesio-political playing field gave little hint as to its future role in the antiapartheid movement. As Bernard Spong wrote in his history of the SACC, it was a ‘quiet birth’. It came into being without a fanfare of trumpets or any special form of celebration. The event is simply recorded in the minutes of the seventeenth biennial meeting of the Christian Council of South Africa, held in the Observatory Congregational church in Cape Town on May 29, 1968. Spong commented on the event and includes the text of the minutes to bring attention to the contrast between the simplicity of the motion and the magnitude of the SACC’s influence in the church struggle. Spong wrote: “Name of the Council: It was agreed that the name of the Council should be changed to The South African Council of churches” (Spong; Mayson, 1993, p. 2). It was as important to the churches of South Africa as the later establishment of the World Council of Churches’ Program to Combat Racism was to the world church.
These were humble beginnings for an organization that enjoyed the leadership of people like Manas Buthelezi, Desmond Mpilo Tutu and Beyers Naudé and it would go on to be a unifying and powerful force against apartheid. The year 1967 and the birth of the SACC marks the beginning of new level of commitment on behalf of the participating churches in the struggle against apartheid. With its first publication, ‘A Message to the People of South Africa’, it declared itself to be a Christian voice speaking on behalf of the victims of apartheid, both black and white (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 22). The document received a mixed reaction from the participating churches in the SACC. Some of the churches felt that the Message went too far while others felt it did not go far enough. It is the sentence like the following that caught the attention of the government and Afrikaner churches as it seemed highly critical of the claim that God had somehow ordained apartheid and their way of life. De Gruchy notes that, “The central theme of the Message was the rejection of apartheid as a false gospel (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 22).
From gloomy beginnings, a champion of the people rose to meet the challenge of apartheid. In the same year de Gruchy moved with Isobel and their three young children to Johannesburg, leaving his congregational work to serve as the SACC’s first Director of Studies and Communications. It is worth remarking, for the sake of emphasis, on the growing importance of the SACC’s new-found role as church advocate in the struggle against apartheid. While it may be difficult to measure de Gruchy’s influence on the burgeoning Council, it may be useful to consider the fact that he participated in the SACC at the highest level during the important first years following its inception. He was present in the organization as the new constitution with a clear mission statement was crafted and entrenched. It was during this time that the SACC’s message was clearly articulated and it fell to de Gruchy to disseminate this message to its member congregations. As the SACC’s first Director of Studies and Communications, de Gruchy was responsible for publicizing “A Message to the People of South Africa” to the member churches. De Gruchy was not a member of the drafting group of A Message but he was a signatory and he was later asked to co-author a book about A Message which was published in 1968. With the publication of A Message, the SACC had declared the ‘South African way of life,’ or apartheid, to be a false Gospel. It may seem strange that the church would confront apartheid on theological grounds as the term apartheid does not hold any theological meaning. However, it may be useful to remember that apartheid was a social and political system based on an Afrikaner self-understanding, along with a perception of the black majority that was allegedly based on the Christian biblical texts and theological tenets that had become popular in some parts of Europe. The SACC’s inaugural publication revealed the theological direction it would follow for the next twenty-seven years of its involvement in the church struggle. For de Gruchy and the churches that gathered under the new banner, it was a new way of engaging the Nationalist regime and apartheid. De Gruchy had committed himself to the struggle against apartheid in his time as a theology student and pastor; now the SACC presented a larger forum within which to explore theological possibilities for making inroads into the debate and critique of the Republic’s21 racist policies. His experience in the church and in the SACC suggested the need for proper theological discourse around the issue of the Christian churches’ role in the struggle against apartheid.
De Gruchy entered the theological debate in the 1960s at the same time the participating churches in the SACC began to explore new ways of working together to combat state-sponsored apartheid. Like most South Africans, de Gruchy was influenced and his theology shaped, to some extent, by apartheid. His contributions to theological research, particularly in the areas of Bonhoeffer Studies and Reformed Theology, are recognized internationally but South Africa is where he served as pastor and educator. It is for this reason that Bonhoeffer’s work, especially which treated the theological foundations of the Confessing church in Germany, resonated so strongly with him. He found in Bonhoeffer a theologian of considerable skill and compassion who chose to work within the Christian church as the place where God and God’s people meet. For de Gruchy, Bonhoeffer was a kindred spirit in his struggle to discern God’s will for the church within the context of national crisis (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 110).
In a letter to his friend Bethge, Bonhoeffer asserts that, “the church stands, not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village.” (Bonhoeffer, 1997, p. 367) This quote expresses the importance of the theological context in Bonhoeffer’s, and subsequently, de Gruchy’s theological method. It is a reminder that theology is done where we nurture and are nurtured in community. Theology ought not to be relegated to the realm of mystery where humanity can no longer answer its own questions. Bonhoeffer is suggesting that the church is not the provider of answers to the questions for which we have no mortal reply; God is not a convenient for lifting us out of the world but the One who throws us back into the world where God’s self-revelation intersects with humanity living in the heat of the moment.
De Gruchy, Barth and Bonhoeffer:
The similarities between de Gruchy’s situation in South Africa and Bonhoeffer’s in Germany are not lost on the reader of de Gruchy’s work but they must not be overemphasized. When de Gruchy read Bethge’s lectures on Bonhoeffer, helped shape de Gruchy’s exploration of the church’s proper theological response to apartheid. As de Gruchy wrestled with this question, his insights and conclusions helped the SACC formulate and hold a biblically sound, theological stance against apartheid, thereby avoiding the pitfall of becoming just another consumable item in the marketplace of political ideas that were available in South Africa at the time. It helped the Christian church claim its place in South Africa and speak against apartheid from an alternate perspective. Bernard Spong says this about de Gruchy’s contributions in his book entitled Come Celebrate written on the occasion of the SACC’s twenty-fifth anniversary: “at the 1981 National Conference, Dr. John de Gruchy was to point to the need for the supporters of the liberation movement in the church to ensure that they relied on God’s word and sought God’s Spirit or face the danger of “becoming indistinguishable from any other political movement.” It was this kind of constant reminder that helped the Council maintain that necessary balance, the “wary path between”, in personal and social Gospel. A balance that none would claim to have been complete throughout all its work and witness, but a balance that has provided the vision for what the Council should be about and the blueprint in its planning” ( Spong; Mayson; 1993, pp. 82-83).
De Gruchy is also a recognized Barth scholar. In 2000 he was awarded the prestigious Karl Barth prize. In the JTSA, Beyers Naudé (2000, p. 1) wrote in a brief tribute to de Gruchy that “No other person in South Africa deserves the Karl Barth Prize more than Prof. John de Gruchy”. Naudé’s tribute to de Gruchy echoed the sentiment of many Barth scholars. Lyn Holness recorded the event in this way: “Marking the centenary of Karl Barth in 1986, the prize was created in order to ‘honour outstanding works on the Theological Declaration of Barmen and the tradition created by it’. The jury reached its decision in favor of John de Gruchy in recognition of his vision in the transmission of this tradition, as well as of the theological impetus of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth in the ecclesiastical and social contexts of South Africa. The citation continues: Through his Reformed theology John W. de Gruchy has contributed with prophetic impulses to the overcoming of apartheid mentality as well as to the democratization of South African society and the renewal of his church, thus playing an outstanding role for a culture of international and intercontinental theological exchanges” (Holness, 2003, pp. 41-42). The citation begins, “Through his Reformed theology” This suggested that the jury recognized de Gruchy’s unique contribution to the reclamation of the Reformed tradition in South Africa. Barth was the pastor who became a theologian while Bonhoeffer was the theologian who became a pastor. This move from the university to the congregation placed Bonhoeffer in the midst of the faithful community struggling to find answers to the political questions of the day, questions that seemed to all but defy reasonable enquiry. De Gruchy remains both theologian and pastor and has done so throughout his entire career. His theology is grounded in the experience of the church, and of God’s people seeking the face of God in the other. His theological method pivots on the question by Bonhoeffer: ‘Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today?’ (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 54). It seeks to be a living critical engagement of events in a dynamic context rather than a snapshot, a static moment in time, frozen and immobile, ready for dispassionate examination. He worked alongside others in formulating a proper theological response to what some perceived as a heretical use of the Christian religion to support an oppressive political ideology.
Apartheid and the Church:
The question of identity has been part of South African social consciousness from the first time European sailors set foot in the Cape. Apartheid was the most pervasive and systematic attempt at defining identity in the history of the country and it was a theme that underpinned the theology that was done in South Africa. Beginning in 1948, the largely Afrikaner government took great pains to construct a national identity that would situate the white minority population firmly in the roots of the nation. The question of identity was no less important for the English-speaking population of South Africa. The term English-speaking refers to a small segment of the population whose origins are British. In terms of the church, the English-speaking churches are those whose roots are particular to Britain. De Gruchy explained: “A final consideration regarding the title ‘English-speaking churches’ is its exclusive character. It should include the Baptists, but it generally does not, especially after the Baptist Union withdrew from the South African Council of churches. It could include some of the Pentecostal churches, but their distinct character and lack of involvement in ecumenical groups and social issues excluded them. In some respects, Catholics and Lutherans have been in the vanguard of Christian witness and action in South Africa. Yet, because they are not of British origin, we cannot properly refer to them as ‘English-speaking'” (de Gruchy, 2005, p. 86). The English-speaking South Africans were a minority within the minority white population. It was difficult to find belonging within either the black majority or the larger white minority that supported apartheid.
Opposition to apartheid was always present and it had come to be expressed in different ways by the various Christian churches in South Africa. Often, at least within the Reformed tradition, individual congregations within the denominations were free to express their concerns in whichever way they chose. There was no real unified stance among the churches but the SACC served as a focal point for ecclesiastical resistance and opposition to apartheid. De Gruchy noted that the churches of the SACC provide a living example or model of a community in which black and contradict the policy, intention, and spirit of apartheid. Blacks and whites worked together in open defiance of the state’s discriminatory race laws but the disunity of the Christian church continued to hinder opposition. There was a general consensus among the member churches of the SACC and among the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). This was made clear in Ottawa in 1982 when the WARC declared apartheid to be a heresy (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 27).
The WARC had taken a stand in opposition to the DRC’s position regarding apartheid. The English-speaking churches had, for the most part, spoken against racial separation but seemed to be slow to make any unequivocal or unified statements about where the churches ultimately stood. Theologians and clerics sought clarity while the Christian churches struggled for identity in the face of division and strife. The DRC, on the other hand, was more certain about its support of the minority leadership of the National Party and faced no such crisis of identity (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 24).
Division was not new to the Christian church. The Great Schism of 1054 divided the church into the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. The Reformation of the sixteenth century further segmented the church. South Africa inherited a divided European church, and any move toward unity seemed to be further thwarted by apartheid. De Gruchy, in commenting on the history of division in the Christian church, lamented the fact that, “while it is painfully true that the divisions which separated Christians from one another in Europe were transplanted into South Africa, it is equally true, and more painful, that these confessional divisions have been exacerbated by separation along racial, cultural and ethnic lines. These issues, normally regarded as non-theological, must now be seen as equally confessional, because they have to do with the truth of the Gospel as much as those that, for example, traditionally separate Catholics from Calvinists. If the churches seriously begin to confess Jesus Christ as Lord in South Africa in terms that relate to the critical issues of our society, that is, the real issues which divide them, they will begin to discover their unity in a new way. There is a confessing movement in South Africa, and one which includes Christians from virtually all denominations who regard apartheid as a heresy and who strive for true justice and peace” (de Gruchy & Villa- Vicencio, 1983, p. 80). The ‘confessing movement’ to which de Gruchy referred was the status confessionis which was forming around the issue of church-sponsored apartheid. What were once non-theological issues were now being thrust upon the churches and were considered among those theological matters which concerned the Gospel message of equality and unity. De Gruchy’s concern was that the lack of a properly articulated theology, one that was able to challenge the theology of apartheid had created a situation in which the Christian church needed to confess its having rejected God’s rule of justice. De Gruchy’s assumption was that the Christian church, by seeking guidance from within a worshipping and contextually-relevant community, informed by the preaching of the biblical texts and celebrating the sacraments, would understand more fully God’s call to bear witness to God’s Reign of justice and grace. But the church had become divided over the issues of apartheid (de Gruchy, 2014, pp. 66-67).
De Gruchy was also concerned that the church, in its willingness to divide along political lines, had usurped the will of God for the church. Apartheid society meant an apartheid church. According to de Gruchy, nothing could be farther from the idea of the Reign of God. Apartheid had become part of the social landscape and the systematic separation of black, coloureds, asians, and whites was now official policy in the DRC. It appeared that the Nationalist government would need to maintain a hold on the political imagination of the country in the face of national and international criticism. Perhaps one of the ways to do this was nurture the nascent civil religion that would make it easier to accept minority rule as God’s plan for South Africa. A civil religion could also maintain the appearance of justice, allowing the English-speaking community to stave-off a critical examination of rather questionable social and economic structures that always favored whites over black.
Another pillar of the Reformation was the idea of the liberty of conscience. It implied that the ideal for any society was for a free church within a free society, unencumbered by the demands of the civil authority. There are two parts to Calvin’s conception of the liberty of conscience. First, as de Gruchy points-out, the role of the government is to cause the Christian church to respect the individual’s liberty of conscience. Second, the government must give way to the Sovereign Conscience. De Gruchy expressed this same idea by suggesting that, the sovereignty of God implies the liberty of conscience. Indeed, conscience, he maintained, can never be subject to man but always and ever to God Almighty. Humanity may enjoy liberty of conscience when it comes to matters of doctrine or teachings of the church that cannot be biblically substantiated but it is never free from God’s authority over humanity. At the same time, Calvin’s emphasis on the importance of the right of the individual conscience to assert itself under the Sovereignty of God cannot be overstated. De Gruchy took this notion one step further arguing, that ‘the struggle for liberty is not only declared permissible, but it is made a duty for each individual in his own sphere (de Gruchy, 2014, pp. 75-76).
De Gruchy raises the question, ‘Can a Christian within the Reformed tradition support the use of violence against an unjust government?’ This was a question that stayed with de Gruchy for many years. He supported the Calvinist proposition that condoned the Christian’s resistance to the tyrant. On obedience and authority, Calvin asserted that God restrains the fury of tyrants’ in two ways; “either by raising up from among their own subjects open avengers, who rid the people of their tyranny, or by employing for that purpose the rage of men whose thoughts and contrivances are totally different, thus overturning one tyranny by means of another. There have been many instances where theologians within the Reformed tradition supported the Christian’s right to resist an oppressive and unjust government
De Gruchy chose to stay in South Africa when many of those who were able to leave the country did so. He had quickly risen to prominence in the academic world and he would have had opportunities for employment outside South Africa. In a passage from his book Confessions of a Christian Humanist, he did suggest that leaving had been a possibility: “I, like many of my peers, never felt as our parents did that we belonged in some way to Britain, but were equally uncertain about belonging to apartheid South Africa. For that reason, and out of a fear for the future, many left to build their homes elsewhere. Those who could go but stayed, again like myself, and not least those who became conscientious objectors, did so because we had a sense of loyalty to South Africa in a much broader sense, and longed for the day when we could be proud of our country as other people were of theirs” (de Gruchy, 2006, p. 191). There were others in de Gruchy’s life who, at the time, realized that it would not be easy for an outspoken critic of apartheid to work with any real freedom in South Africa. There were enough academic opportunities outside South Africa for a theologian as capable as de Gruchy but he was, first and foremost, a South African. His call to serve the people of God in South Africa was a compelling impetus for his doing theology in the first place. The church community was where he found God active in the world and nowhere more so than in South Africa. Like Bonhoeffer, de Gruchy chose to contribute to his country from within while looking forward to the time when he could be proud to call himself South African.
De Gruchy described belonging as locating oneself within a larger, corporate narrative that knits together one’s own fragmented story with similar fragments of those with whom you share a nation.39 One such fragment is the story of black South Africans paying the cost of white privilege. De Gruchy lived in just such a privileged environment of the white European community. The question ‘What is my nation?’ was not easily answered. The question ‘Who is my nation?’ was more easily answered by white South Africans than by black, coloured, or asian South Africans. The expression ‘nonwhites,’ used to describe the black, coloured, and asian segments of the population was in use in South Africa until recently. When a group is described only in the negative it becomes difficult to assert a positive or historical place in the nation. It is as if the group has no history or land which they may call their own. De Gruchy was aware of the privilege of being able to trace his ancestry when so many South Africans could not. He recognized that it was a privilege to know where he came from and that there ” were many others who came to Cape Town as slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wrenched from the soil, families and communities in which they had been nurtured in East Africa and the Dutch East Indies” (de Gruchy, 2006, p. 10).
While de Gruchy may have lived the majority of his life as a privileged white person, he was keenly aware that his privilege came at a cost. Nelson Mandela, for example, was not so privileged. While de Gruchy was completing high school and preparing himself for university, Nelson Mandela, along with other African National Congress activists, was arrested under laws entrenched in the civil code that were relevant for black men and women, only (de Gruchy, 2014, p. 5). Again, a particular segment of the nation was identified by laws that applied to that segment alone. It is a way of segregating a population within a nation by describing who they are not, to the point of annihilation. De Gruchy was one of the few privileged white South Africans who both voiced his concerns and acted upon them. He had decided early on that the cost of white privilege was simply too high.
I believe de Gruchy’s theology is what I perceive to be his understanding of God’s reconciling work through Christ, as made manifest by the Christian community that worships, preaches and celebrates the sacraments together. I maintain that, for de Gruchy, Christology and ecclesiology are done together for they seem to be inseparable. The Christian church is the institution that exists for others. The church acts, not as refuge for the oppressed and marginalized in society, but as their advocate. De Gruchy developed and shaped his ecclesiology within this context. He rejects the idea that theology could provide a strategic process of compromise and he affirms instead the church’s duty to provide a critical and prophetic appraisal of the relationship between church and state, illuminated by biblical texts and guided by the principles and priorities of the Reign of God as made manifest in the church.
For anybody who would like to engage with the theology of one man’s lifetime this is a must read, especially for those who are convinced that theology is a constantly lively engagement with God in context. The words that act as a refrain right through all these different chapters and quests are justice, beauty, love, being truly human and restoration. All these are building blocks of his writings that still inspire and will keep on inspiring.