STEVE DE GRUCHY: A LEGACY OF RISK, RESISTANCE AND HOPE
Second Steve de Gruchy 2nd Memorial Lecture
20 March 2013
Denise M Ackermann
I want to begin with a few lines from a poem by the American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, that captures something of the spirit of Steve de Gruchy.
My heart is moved by all I cannot save;
So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
Who age after age, perversely,
With no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
It is almost trite to say that we live in challenging times. Every generation has probably said much the same. Our times are not unique. And it is hardly necessary to name the challenges we face: Lies are paraded as truth; corruption is endemic; violence plagues our communities in which too often women and children are the victims; protests are the order of the day; the poor grow poorer and the rich grow richer and our environment groans under our thoughtless actions.
What is new, the cynics may ask. But Christians are not cynics. Cynics find it easier to mock or dismiss rather than to engage with what ails the world. As English essayist and poet George Meredith once remarked: “Cynics are only happy in making the world as barren to others as they have made it for themselves”. But the world is not barren. This is not our truth. Our truth is that the God in whom we believe is re-making the world. Furthermore, we are agents – so to speak – God’s hands in this long, often fragile but ongoing process of what Adrienne Rich describes as “reconstituting the world,”. No wonder we are challenged and no wonder that we experience moments of despondency, even hopelessness. The task before us cannot be under-estimated. But we believe that God is ceaselessly engaged with this world and with us. We are not alone as we respond to God’s call to make a difference and to continue the work of redemption.
Steve de Gruchy’s premature and tragic death deprived us of a companion and a significant guide for these troubled times. The voice of a progressive, often defiant and challenging, always critical and thoughtful theologian and man of faith, has been silenced. So I ask: What legacy has Steve left us on which we can draw today in the ongoing struggle to reconstitute the world?
I am a practical theologian. Thus I am interested in the relationship between the beliefs and the actions of people of faith, both in the churches and in the societies in which we find ourselves. This interest will guide my approach to my theme tonight. Our struggle is to make what we believe, and what we do about what we believe, congruent. We live between the tension of our confessions and beliefs on the one hand, and our actions on the other, a challenging tension that can be very fruitful, as I believe it was in Steve’s life. I shall first attempt to explain what I mean by “imaginative risk for resisting injustice”. After this I want to have a brief look at the theme of hope as found in Steve’s theology.
2. Imaginative risk for resisting injustice
The word “risk” evokes the idea of facing the unexpected and risking exposure possibly to dangerous situations. The word also suggests a sense of daring, of pushing boundaries, of being at the cutting edge. Calls for a transformed humanity in a transformed world require responses that do not duck risk. Awareness of the irreparable damage of structural evil, and hearing the cries of the needy, necessitate actions that are risky, imaginative and courageous as they seek a better way.
Steve was a man who took risks. It was in his nature to do so. This his family knew full well. Not surprisingly, he was also a theologian who took risks. What does this mean? To begin with, his output was prolific; the topics he covered were wide-ranging: From mission to ecumenism, from subjects such as social development, homosexuality and bio-technology to ecology and health. Steve was not daunted by the “newness” of a subject as he restlessly and critically explored new topics. No staying in a safe niche for him. This required imagination always accompanied by a rootedness in his context.
What drove Steve to tackle this diverse theological agenda? I believe the answer is found in one word: justice. Steve’s faith and theology were driven by his belief that God’s deliverance and God’s redemption are in essence liberation from injustice. Christian philosopher Nick Wolterstorff writes: “The call to justice is the call to avoid wounding God. The call to eliminate injustice is the call to alleviate divine suffering”.The concern for justice is central to the biblical narrative, central to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and central to our participation as God’s partners in re-making the world. There is no single way of describing justice, nor one single theory of justice that satisfies everyone. Frankly, our concepts of justice are incomplete and partial. Broadly speaking, justice is what makes for the common good.
I like German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s description of Christian theology. He says it is theology for the sake of God. Theology for the sake of God is always kingdom-of-God theology, he continues. Our passion for the reign of God in which love, justice, equality, freedom, wholeness, and shalom will come in fullness, is at heart a cry for righteousness and justice. We live between the torments of the cross and the fullness of what is to come. All that denies life in its fullness is to be resisted. Thus the work of justice, seeking justice and doing justice, is central to the coming of God’s reign. I understand this justice to be nothing less than ‘right relationship’ or righteousness.
Our God is characterised in the bible as both doing justice and loving justice. God seeks to deliver those who suffer and who have been wronged. This is the redemptive story line of our scriptures. The biblical tradition regards concern for the least privileged persons and groups as essential for a just community; and the exploitation of people is a primary injustice that must be resisted and corrected. Action for justice is directed towards the creation of the common good, something that all who are oppressed and on the margins of society deserve.
As people of God we must live under the stringent and unwavering expectation of communal right relationships. When our relationships are skewed through the infringement of civil, political, or economic rights, and suffering ensues, people should be roused to resist and take action. The sense that things are not right and that something must be done, is described by the late German theologian Dorothee Sölle as follows:
Does the feeling of rage in the pit of your stomach have something to do with God? In every human being is a need for justice, a feeling about justice, and knowledge of what is unjust and unacceptable. Without justice we wouldn’t be able to live.
When justice is sought in a particular place and for particular reasons, understanding the context is pivotal for actions that can make a difference. It requires critical lenses through which to look at social and political conditions and their contradictions, and the ability to analyse what is seen. In order to resist what is unjust we have to understand our place and understand our limitations. We do not look at life in a neutral way. What we think and do is informed by what knowledge and understanding we have – all of which are also partial.
To advance the cause of justice, participation in the rough and tumble of public debate across our social and political differences, cannot be avoided. This I saw Steve do on numerous occasions. He did not shy away from conversation and debate across differences. He was fully committed to the context in which he lived. He was an engaged theologian.
This risk-taking, justice-centred man’s theology was also infused with imagination. Now imaginative thinking and imaginative acts are often risky, even dangerous. Accompanying the spontaneity of imagination is its unpredictability. When it seeks to resist injustice, imagination can be subversive. It is above all driven by a passion for change. Passion, like anger, kindles fire in the human spirit that makes people take risks. Imagination can thus become a dangerous activity. Steve’s wide-ranging theological agenda demonstrated his desire to imagine the possible in many different fields. This requires Spirit-inspired imagination. This imagination is not a faculty that fabricates images of reality. It is a God-given power that forms images that surpass reality in order to change reality. The gift of imagination is an impelling energy in which the desire for a better world is nurtured. In imaginative actions lies the birth of a restored world.
Imaginative theology and imaginative practices are born in the geist of a person but they take on a collaborative mantle in the communities we serve. Our actions are both individual and communal. If they are not to become bogged down they work best in small groups of people with a common purpose. This approach was found in Steve’s work. His theology was inseparable from his ability to network and to help establish communities of resistance and hope.
A mature theologian such as Steve was, is not resigned and accepting of all that is offered as “truth”. A mature theologian questions, is open to the unexpected, probes, and seeks new ways of relieving our human plight. She or he knows that outcomes are fragile, often fraught with contradiction and some times unseen Change is at best partial. The work of justice requires a kind of moral and theological stubbornness that refuses to give up, is never naïve, and believes that every little effort is worthwhile, such as found in Steve’s work and legacy.
3. A legacy of hope
Steve also left us a legacy of hope, a particular kind of hope. In Moltmann’s words: “God is our dignity, God is our agony, God is our hope”. We cannot call ourselves Christian if we do not hold on to hope. Why? Our God promises us a feast which the “Lord of hosts will make for all people” (Is. 25:6), and a new order in which “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (Is. 65:25). While we acknowledge that the whole of creation is groaning in labour pains (Rom. 8:22), we are buoyed by the announcement that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The hope for a redeemed world runs like a bright golden thread through the scriptures of both Israel and Christendom, culminating for Christians in the central theme of Jesus’ teaching, namely “The Kingdom of God”.
So we believe that a healed world is God’s intention. It is not only possible but a given, and we have a part to play in bringing it about. We hope for an existence that is transformed and redeemed within the just reign of God. Christian hope is not blind optimism – a sort of “alles sal regkom” attitude. To hope is to live with expectation, undergirded by patience, in a creative manner that commits us to actions for justice. Hope, unlike wishful thinking, is realistic and open to the unforeseen because we cannot predict tomorrow. But it does demand that we become creatively involved in making that which we hope for come about. 
Apathy is a threat to hope. Apathy speaks of loss of all desire. During the bleak apartheid years, frustration, despair and even hopelessness were familiar emotions to those struggling to survive the onslaughts of racist rule. Today, I see signs of both anger and of apathy, as hope for a better life is frustrated and betrayed. An apathetic citizenry will tolerate manoeuvres that can damage, and even ultimately destroy the very democracy for which so many paid a high price. Destructive anger is a last resort of the helpless. For the work of justice to be accomplished, both apathy and destructive anger should rather be channelled into a passion for justice that holds on to hope. Hope is fuelled by a passion for the possible.
Drawing on his legacy, I want to speculate how Steve would respond to the needs of today. I think he would begin by confronting what is making the future of our hard-won democracy more fragile than we had hoped. The so-called Secrecy Bill; repeated attacks on the constitution and constitutional jurisprudence; the present obfuscation between the task of government and the interests of the ruling party, would all be challenged. I believe he would resist injustice in a critical and creative public voice. When injustice is accepted in the guise of a moral purpose – in our case rectifying the evils of the past – when what is good and right is labelled as exploitative, it must be named and resisted.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this inversion of values take place in his lifetime as he confronted the evils of the Third Reich. In a letter from prison he wrote: “The great masquerade of evil played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, historical necessity or social justice, is quite bewildering for someone brought up on traditional ethical concepts…”. I am not comparing South Africa to Nazi Germany. I am merely pointing out that those who seek truth must be vigilant in times when values are turned upside down and moral purposes are inverted in the interests of power. This allows absolute power to be valorised.
Holding on to the promises of God, means placing our hope in God’s love for humanity and God’s ongoing, just and merciful acts in mending this world. God is a lover of life. God is a God of life. Yet today human life is in danger, says Moltman, not because it is mortal – since this has always been the case. He explains: “It is in danger because it is no longer loved, affirmed and accepted… A life no longer loved is ready to kill and be killed”. Our context affirms this bleak truth. But the kingdom of God signifies God’s unqualified engagement with life, with us and with all that makes for life in its fullness. That is what we hope for and work towards.
I think that Steve would have hoped for justice to come about with resistance and faith, tempered by realism. Reinhold Niebuhr the American theologian and proponent of Christian realism, played a significant role in Steve’s formation as a theologian. Niebuhr, as a critic of liberal theology and ideas of progress that dominate western thinking, took human sin seriously. He saw human beings as both creative and destructive and our lives as torn between these two poles. He believed that the human capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but our inclination to injustice makes it necessary. Thus the struggle for true democracy is ongoing, and for Steve it was the foundation for proper social development – one of his key theological and moral concerns.
Steve’s views were critical, reflective and realistic. It was precisely this realism that took away false hope and enabled him to understand the cost of opposing injustice while hoping for a better world. In his own words:
Democracy then is the way in which power can be used for justice. It provides the balances necessary to hold the creative and destructive uses of power in check and to ensure human agency and control of these in an open, accountable, and transparent manner. Rather than some unattainable utopian vision of a kingdom of God on earth, democracy is the best that society can achieve in history. It is the space in which human beings can exercise their freedom for creativity, and be restricted from using their freedom for destructive means….The struggle for democracy then, rather than a faith in growth or progress, should guide our critical vision and engagement.
For a just order to come about, the values of the common good must be reclaimed, enhanced by a social consensus that a participatory economic democracy is the way forward.
This is risky business that can ultimately only be realised fully through God’s mercy and compassion in the establishment of God’s reign on earth. The fact that we have to wait for the coming reign of God does not mean that we can sit back, wash our hands and say: “Well, let’s leave it all to God”. Neither does it mean that we are starry eyed about the present. We long for a different and new future. Yet our longing is tempered by realism. For all who are involved in the work of social development, disappointment is inevitable. We will seldom achieve what we hope for. Steve quotes Niebuhr approvingly: “Like Moses, we always perish outside the promised land”. Disappointment, frustration, impatience and moments of despondency will occur. But there is no giving up. Realism is tempered by faith in the work of justice and the belief that working for a just society is the task of believers. A just democratic order is our goal; for then human beings can flourish and live out their potential.
What Steve knew well was that this what not a solitary task, as I have already said, and he was committed to solidarity in communities struggling for a better life. “What enables a community to work with integrity and persistence for a new society?”, asks Sharon Welch as she examines an ethic of risk.  It requires more than the efforts of a few. She suggests that it requires a communal ethic of risk and resistance in communities that have ongoing conversations about justice, across our differences in order to create support and solidarity. Ours is a country of many differences – cultural, linguistic, historical, social and racial. Solidarity of purpose cannot be achieved unless we can talk and listen across our differences, while realising that all our lives are so intertwined that we are mutually accountable to one another. This requires and awareness of how power is distributed among us: the have’s and the have-nots; women and men, young and old; able and less able – the categories are numerous.
Here I dare to hope that resistance to injustice can come from members of different communities, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or whatever, be they believers or people who seek a better world, and whose actions are ethically based on a desire for justice, no matter what the risk. Our history has shown us this. Not all who called themselves Christian opposed apartheid. But thank God some did. And in the long run this contributed to change.
South Africans of different faiths joined the opposition to apartheid. We marched in the streets together, met together and encouraged one another. As an old woman I can remember united actions for resistance during those dark times. I can remember clandestine meetings, written documents, declarations, spokesmen and women, institutes, pamphlets and weightier publications. I remember bannings, stands, censorship, clothes stained with blue dye. I remember many conversations with Steve. In more recent times Kairos Southern Africa, a voluntary network of people, has taken up the cudgels of critical and reasoned protest against what ails our society. In its own words, “Kairos SA was conceived and established to reconnect the prophetic voice that recognises God’s face in the face of the poor and most marginalised people in Southern Africa…Liberation is an event, justice is a process”.
Steve left us a legacy of ongoing opposition to injustice that can encourage us to use whatever tools are available today to continue to do so. The sharing of our common faith should enable us to seek solidarity in the cause of a just society. But it was and is risky. We are limited by our finitude in what we can do. Injustice can be eliminated in one sphere, but human conflict and our natural limitations cannot be removed. We cannot control or transcend them. But they can be endured, survived and when possible, redeemed. If Steve were with us I believe that this is what he would be doing: continuing creatively to resist injustice, taking irks, restless yet persistent in the struggle for a just democratic society. He would not give up hoping. Such hope involves action, not stasis, passion not passivity. Once clear and concrete images of hope are formulated, and we are willing to work toward realizing these hopes, we can risk disappointment. But our faith in the God who is making all things new, impels us forward, while the Holy Spirit accompanies us and encourages us to continue the work of justice in this world.
In the letter attributed to James, the author cautions the faithful:
Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.
Steve was a theologian who took the “doing of the word” seriously as the measure by which its integrity and its authority would be judged in the public square. The witness of the church in the public sphere, its mission to the world, needs wise women and men whose actions are marked by critical consciousness, imagination, a concern for justice, courage to put their bodies on the line and fidelity to the teachings of the One who showed us the way: all ingredients found in the valued and challenging legacy that Steve de Gruchy left us as we continue the struggle to “reconstitute the world”.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition, E. Bethge (ed.) (New York, Macmillan, 1972).
de Gruchy, Steve, “Like Moses, we always perish outside the promised land: Reinhold Niebubr and the contribution of theology in development”, in Holness and Wüstenberg (eds.), Theology in Dialogue, pp.133-150.
de Gruchy, Steve, Koopman Nico, Strijbos, Syke (eds.), From our Side: Emerging Perspectives on Development and Ethics (Pretoria, Unisa Press with Amsterdam, Rozenberg, 2008).
Hansen Les, Koopman Nico, Vosloo Robert (eds.), Living Theology: Essays presented to D. J. Smit on his sixteenth birthday (Wellington, Bible Media, 2011).
Holness Lynn, Wüstenberg, Ralf K., (eds.), Humanities, and Science on Contemporary Religious Thought. : The Impact of the Arts, Humanities and Science in Contemporary Religious Thought. Essays in Honor of John W. de Gruchy (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2002).
Moltmann, Jürgen, “Theology in the Project of the Modern World”, in Volf (ed.), A Passion for the Reign of God, pp.1-22.
Moltmann, Jürgen, “On a Culture of Life in the Dangers of this Time”, in Hansen et al (eds.), Living Theology, pp. 607-613.
Rich, Adrienne, ‘Natural Resources”, The Dream of a Common Language Poems 1977 (New York, W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 67.
Sölle, Dorothee & Steffensky F., Not just Yes and Amen: Christians with a Cause (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1983).
Volf, Miroslav (ed.), A Passion for the Reign of God (Grand Papids, Eerdmans, 1998).
Volf, Miroslav and Katerberef, William (eds.) The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition and Modernity and Post modernity (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004).
Walsh, Sharon, An Ethic of Risk (Minneapolis, Fortress, 1990).
Wolterstroff, Nicholas, “Seeking justice in hope”, in Volf, M, and Katerbref, W. (eds.) The Future of Hope, pp.77-100.
 David Tracy in The Analogical Imagination (New York, Crossroad, 1981), p.57, affirms the authentically public character of all theology but argues that “Practical theologies are related primarily to the public of society, more exactly to the concerns of some particular social, political, cultural or pastoral movement or problematic which is argued or assumed to possess major religious import”. I would argue that practical theology relates to all three of Tracy’s publics. It is certainly concerned with the actions of the church and it is an established discipline in the academy. I do, however, agree with the wide scope of Tracy’s understanding of practical theology which in my view places it squarely in the realm of public practical theology.
 Moltmann, “Theology as the project of the modern world” in Volf, A Passion for God’s Reign”, p.1.
 Sölle & Steffensky, Not just yes and amen: Christians with a cause, p. 8.
 Moltman, “Theology in the project of the modern world”, in Volf (ed.), A passion for the Reign of God, p. 1.
 For a discussion on the difference between Christian hope and secular optimism, See Wolterstroff, “Seeking justice in hope”, pp.90-92.
 Bonhoeffer, “Letters and papers from prison”, p.4.
 Moltmann, “A culture of life in the dangers of this time”, in L. Hansen et al, Living Theology, p.607-8.
 de Gruchy, “Like Moses we always outside the Promised Land”, p. 148.
 Welsh, An Ethic of Risk, p.123.