South African Reflections


John W. de Gruchy

Emeritus Professor  

University of Cape Town


 Politicians seldom quote theologians to support their policies, but in recent times some have elicited the support of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who died at the hands of the Gestapo in Hitler’sGermany.  Most notoriously, George W. Bush claimed Bonhoeffer’s support for going to war againstIraq.  From what I hear, Bonhoeffer’s name has also been exploited in Australian politics in recent times, though I confess that my knowledge of what goes on “down under” is somewhat limited to rugby and cricket.  But I pricked up my ears when I heard that he had been elicited in the Australian response to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

 I have been reflecting for virtually a life-time on Bonhoeffer’s legacy and find that he continues to speak to us today, and I am not adverse to drawing on his testimony within the political arena, quite the contrary.  We did that in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  Bonhoeffer was a serious challenge to those of us who are white because though he too was privileged by background, he took the side of the victims of racism and injustice.  I suspect it was for such reasons that I was asked to reflect on how Bonhoeffer might have responded to the present-day Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and especially the plight of the Palestinians. This is certainly a thought-provoking question because in his life-time Bonhoeffer was one of a handful of Protestant theologians in Nazi Germany who spoke out on behalf of the Jews.  In his context, they were the victims, so it was the “Jewish question,” as it was called, not the Palestinian one that demanded his attention. 

 Although murdered by the regime because of his involvement in the 20th July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was initially arrested because he was suspected of helping Jews escape the clutches of the Gestapo.  Whatever his somewhat traditional views about Judaism in relation to Christianity, there can be no doubt about his concern for the plight of the Jews.  Unsurprisingly Bonhoeffer’s legacy played a significant role after the Second World War in re-shaping of Christian theology in the light of the Holocaust or Shoah.  His critique of the idolatries of Christendom and his affirmation of the suffering of God in solidarity with humanity and especially the victims of injustice, challenged Christians to radically re-think their faith and role in the world.   As a young theologian I was nurtured in those discussions.  Only much later, after a visit toIsrael in 1970, did I also become aware of the “Palestinian question,” and began to ponder how Bonhoeffer might have responded given the way in which he responded to the victimization of the Jews in his own day.  And, of course, I could not avoid relating it all to what was happening in apartheid South Africa at the same time.

 Having visited Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Flossenburg (where Bonhoeffer died) concentration camps; having spent many hours in several Holocaust museums from Jerusalem to Washington, from Berlin and Prague to Cape Town; and having been involved in lengthy discussions with Jewish scholars about the Holocaust, I am only too aware of the horrors unleashed by Christian anti-Semitism in the course of history.  And I am disturbed by the rabid anti-Semitic rhetoric of militant Muslims whether on the air waves broadcast from Scandinavia or from the current President of Iran, as I am horrified by suicide bombers.  I am also aware that there is sometimes a thin dividing line between anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism, and anti-Zionism, and that given the legacy of Christendom fromConstantineto the Holocaust, Christians, especially those in the West, need to be cautious in casting stones or pointing fingers. 

 In view of this history, it was with a heavy heart that Desmond Tutu likened the treatment of Palestinians to the way in which blacks were treated in apartheid South Africa.  He is not alone in holding this view; it is one shared by Nelson Mandela and others who have, at the same time, shown deep respect for the Jewish community inSouth Africa.  It is also shared, from my knowledge, by many Jews whose sense of justice and commitment to human rights has also been violated by the way in which Palestinians have been and are being treated, and who see their compatriots becoming psychologically damaged, if not brutalized and killed, by the ongoing strife.  I have listened to the testimonies of Palestinian Christians who, with great sadness mixed with anger, have told of the ways in which they have suffered as a result of Israeli policies and actions, and I have seen young Israelis treat aged Palestinians with a disdain and contempt that reminds me of my own South African past.

 Towards the end of his life, I raised the “Palestinian question” with Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s close confidant and biographer who, during the nineteen-seventies and eighties took a leading role in redefining Christian thinking and action in the light of the Shoah.  Bethge remained committed to his views on Christian-Jewish relations, which called for a decisive re-think on the part of Christians.  But as his life drew to a close in the nineteen-nineties, he was becoming increasingly concerned about the situation in theMiddle East.  I believe that he, along with Bonhoeffer, would be even more deeply disturbed by the recent developments resulting from the Israeli continued occupation of the West Bank and the recent war on Gaza. This would not have meant any lessening of their commitment to the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants, but it posed a very serious question: who is now the victim?

 It is not too difficult to surmise what Bonhoeffer’s answer would be if we take his legacy seriously.  Bonhoeffer’s solidarity with the victims of injustice whoever they might be, and his preparedness to speak out and act where possible on their behalf, is unequivocal. Listen to what he wrote shortly before his arrest:

 … we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering.

 In his day, this described the plight of the Jews; in our day, within theMiddle Eastit chiefly, if not only, describes the plight of the Palestinians. 

 No one can deny the complexity of the situation in theMiddle East, which has defied political resolution for so long.   There are many sides to the story, and even if we are inclined to do so, it is unhelpful to place the blame on any one side to the exclusion of others, as if this will resolve the problem.  But does this mean that we, especially if we claim to be inspired by Bonhoeffer, should remain silent about the current suffering of the Palestinian people, and the injustices and indignities that they daily face?  This would surely not have been condoned by the ancient Hebrew prophets for whom justice and mercy, not least for the “stranger,” were essential to the well-being ofIsraelitself.  Like his favourite prophet Jeremiah, I think Bonhoeffer would have wept as many others do over the tragedy that keeps unfolding in theHoly Land.  

 There were many reasons why apartheid was defeated.  But two are particularly worth recalling by way of conclusion.  In the end, apartheid collapsed when it became clear to those whites in power that it was not in their own self-interest to perpetuate by force what was clearly an unjust system of oppression, and when black leaders took extended the hand of reconciliation to their former oppressors, recognizing that without this there could be no lasting peace but only increasing hostility and violence.  The pathway from those heady days of transition which began with the release of Mandela has not always been easy, and there is no guarantee in this life of eternal peace, but the alternative was, as one South African president declared, “too ghastly to contemplate.”  Whatever the faults of the Palestinians, or the justified fears of the Israelis, it should surely be obvious to all but the most stubborn and blind, that as the Hebrew prophet Hosea told ancient Israel that if “you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.” 


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