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  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
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Wednesday
Dec172014

On reconciliation - Nico Koopman and Oodgeroo Noonuccal

My colleague Prof Nico Norman Koopman's column on reconciliation in today's Burger newspaper reminded me of this piece of poetry:

I could tell you of heartbreak, hatred blind, 
I could tell you of crimes that shame mankind, 
Of brutal wrong and deeds malign, 
Of rape and murder, son of mine; But I’ll tell instead of brave and fine 
When lives of black and white entwine 
And men in brotherhood combine— 
This I would tell you, son of mine.
~ Oodgeroo Noonuccal - Son of Mine, 1960

A prophet of hope in our time!

Here is Nico's column from Die Burger for 16 December 2014:

Steeds op soek na helende versoening

Die 1996-Grondwet van die Republiek van Suid-Afrika pleit vir die heling van die wonde van die nasie. Op Versoeningsdag fokus ons uitdruklik op hierdie helingsproses.

Drie interaksies bied riglyne vir hierdie proses. Gedurende die negentigerjare is ek en Vader Courtney Sampson van die Anglikaase Kerk kapelane op die kampusse van die Universiteit Wes-Kaapland, en die destydse Skiereilandse Technikon en Bellville Onderwyskollega. Courtney verduidelik op ‘n keer aan my dat sy bediening gedurende die verloop van ‘n jaar die moeite werd was as hy een bruin en een swart student kon help om vriende te word, en as hulle buite klasverband sosiaal met mekaar kan verkeer!

Sampson het toe al besef studente en personeellede kan saamwerk oor kleurgrense heen, maar hulle ervaar kleurgebaseerde skeiding buite die amptelike studeer- en werksituasie.

In een van my heel laaste gesprekke enkele weke voor sy dood met prof Russel Botman praat ons oor die wyse waarop sosio-ekonomiese klowe wat meermale langs kleurlyne loop, dit moeilik maak vir baie van ons studente om buite die klas-situasie oor kleurgrense vriende te word en blywende verhoudinge te bou.

By die onlangse gradeplegtighede van die Universiteit Stellenbosch pleit ons kanselier, dr Johann Rupert, telkens vir, wat ek wil noem, die heling van ons land se mense. Hy is besorgd oor die stukkendheid wat die geweldsoptrede van die apartheidsmagte, onder meer die moordbendes, in Suid-Afrika gebring het. Hy verwys ook na die stukkendheid wat die geweldsoptrede van sommige elemente in die anti-apartheidsbeweging meegebring het, onder meer deur middel van halssnoermoorde.

Hierdie geërfde geweldskultuur dra by tot ons afgestomptheid vir die wreedheid en verontmensliking in ons samelewing. Verlede week se moord van ses jongmense in Kraaifontein kry byvoorbeeld nie die prominensie en ontlok nie die skok wat dit verdien nie. Hy is ook besorgd oor talle mense wat sosio-ekonomies stukkend is.

Rupert daag gegradueerdes en akademici uit om meer aktivisties te wees, om meer daadwerklik op te tree, om meer te praat teen alles wat stukkendheid meebring, en om meer te soek na heling en menswaardigheid vir almal.

Sampson leer ons helende versoening beteken dat mense oor grense heen vriende word. Botman pleit vir die oorkoming van sosio-ekonomiese ongelykheid as ‘n weg na helende versoening. En Rupert pleit vir aktivistiese individue en instellings om helende versoening, menslikheid en vrede te bevorder.

Versoeningsdag kan ons dalk help om opnuut te ontdek dat die aktiewe optrede van elke individu uiteindelik ‘n groot verskil maak. Om weer die woorde van ‘n ou gesang in herinnering te roep: Kleine druppels water, kleine korrels sand, vorm die oseane, bou die vasteland. Vriendskappe soos dié van Courtney Sampson se studente los nie alle probleme op nie, maar dit bied hoop vir die oorkoming van stukkendheid en sosio-ekonomiese klowe, onmenslikheid en geweld.

Nico Koopman is dekaan van die fakulteit teologie, Universiteit Stellenbosch

 

Sunday
Dec072014

Speaking truth to Power - even addressing ourselves

Last week a senior minister in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa was Honoured for the role he played in serving South Africa during the apartheid struggle. He also happened to be a senior member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) during his life.

The event at which he was Honoured was held in a Methodist Church, and the prominent display of ANC banners on the stage has caused some concern and a lot of discussion on the matter.

I can understand why! Because of our history in South Africa we are very sensitive about the relationship between the Church and the State. As you may recall 'apartheid' ideology in South Africa had a strong theological underpinning. A particular Christian Denomination supported, endorsed and informed the apartheid Nationalist government from the early 1900's until the collapse of apartheid in the mid 1990's. In fact the Dutch Reformed Church was scathingly known as the 'National Party at Prayer' - thankfully that Church had bravely acknowledged their error and is doing a great deal to work towards a free and just South African society.

However, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa seems to be falling into the same trap! Somehow it was easy to see how problematic such a tie between the Church and the State was when it was 'their Church' and 'their political regime'. Now, however, it is 'our Church' (and its members) that occupy positions of power in business and the state (they should be positions of service, but I seldom see such an attitude among the powerful). It is 'our political party' that is in power. Even though we can see that all is not well - the government is unjust, it is subverting justice and covering up wrongdoing and unethical behavior. The ANC is engrossed in party political agendas rather than working for the freedom of all. And... The Church is silent. We found it easy to speak prophetically to others, but far more difficult to speak truth to power now. Perhaps it is because we are the ones in power!

So, it was the memorial to this prominent colleague that has caused public debate. In the Church ANC banners and colors were displayed behind the pulpit. The Secretary General of the ANC sat on the stage, and was listed as a key speaker, alongside the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

This goes against our Church's polity (as presented in our 'Book of Order'), and so many of our members were unhappy and voiced their concern on a Facebook post.

Of course there were those who tried to silence the conversation - some saying how much good a partnership between the state and the church has done for the community. Others trying to say that such critique should be done in private and not on a public platform - it reminded me so much of the struggles we had with conservative white Christians during the apartheid struggle!

This morning in my devotions I read the following passage:

Ambrose of Milan (339 – 397): A provincial governor in fourth-century Italy, Ambrose was drafted to serve as bishop before he was even baptized. Reluctant to serve the church at first, he took the task seriously when he finally accepted the call. Ambrose gave away all of his possessions, took up a strict schedule of daily prayer, and committed himself to the study of Scripture. Called from the world of politics to serve the church, Ambrose was a leader who spoke truth to power and did not back down, insisting that “the emperor is in the church, not over it.”

(from 'Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals, 7 December).

Indeed, we would do well to remember that the emperor is in the church, not over it.

Please pray for us. We need courage to speak loving truth to power, particularly when it is ourselves we must address.

By the way, the book that my friend Dr Wessel Bentley and I wrote called 'Between Capital and Cathedral: Essays on Church and State relationships' has a chapter in it written by the Rev Prof Peter Storey entitled 'Banning the flag in our Churches'. It is well worth reading in the context of this debate - please follow this link (copy and paste it into your browser) to get a copy of the book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B008YSKUG4/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?qid=1417935998&sr=8-1

Thursday
Nov272014

San Diego - American Academy of Religion (AAR)

As I write this I am sitting in a rather comfy seat in the JetBlue terminal at JKF airport in New York - it is thanksgiving, the busiest travel day of the year! In hindsight it might not have been all that wise to travel home today! Still, as I told a friend, I have flown through Lagos airport in Nigeria, which on a normal day makes JFK on Thanksgiving look like a quiet country airport! It is 5am here and the airport is bustling with people heading all over the USA to be with family and friends.

I arrived on an overnight cross-country flight from San Diego (we left there at 9pm last night). My next flight leaves JFK at 11am for Dakar, then from Dakar I go to Johannesburg and then from Johannesburg to Cape Town and home with my darlings!

The reason for this trip was to participate in the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) which took place in beautiful San Diego this year. I participated in three 'streams' of the AAR/SBL. Primarily I was in the Wesley Studies stream - on my first day I sat next to Douglas Meeks (who I have known for some years since first meeting him at Christ Church College, Oxford University in 2007), behind Randy Maddox (from Duke Divinity School, who I have also known for some years - probably as long as Douglas Meeks), and in front of Ted Campbell who I met while he was President of Garrett Evangelical Seminary in Chicago in 2005. The Wesley Studies sessions were great and it was wonderful to be a part of them and share a bit of a perspective from South Africa. I told the group about my research on Nelson Mandela and the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and it looks like this group may consider focussing on Wesleyan Public and Political Theology around the world as a result of that. I hope to be able to participate in that group in 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. The point of interest is how John Wesley's theology in its various forms has made an impact on Public Theological discourse in different places in the world. Just this year I have seen how it has been received in Malaysia, in Brazil and of course in South Africa. I'm sure that it will make for some fascinating papers and discussion!

The other group that I participated in was Joerg Rieger's discussions on religion, economics and class (as part of the Theological Ethics stream). Joerg and I had dinner together on the 24th of November, it was great to catch up and hear of his work in Dallas and he new projects. His book 'Occupy Religion' was a point of discussion, and of course the reception of Liberation Theologies in his context and in ours.

One of the issues that I want to reflect on a lot more is the notion of class as a social differentiation. In one of the sessions there was a discussion on class, religion and economics and the point was made that in the United States (and so I guess in South Africa as well), we often collapse race and economics into one another. For example, if one were to do a demographic study of South African society it would be true to say that black South Africans are generally poorer than white South Africans because of the legacy of apartheid. Moreover, the wealthiest members of South African society are almost all white (of course that is changing rapidly with Black Economic Empowerment, but by and large it is still the case that white South Africans are among the wealthiest persons in the country, what the 'Occupy movement' have called the 1%). However, because we tend to associate and differentiate by race the middle class, or those with limited privilege tend to associate with their counterparts in the 1%. However, if we consider class, rather than race, as an economic differentiator we would very quickly see that the average white South African has more in common with his or her black South African counterparts than with the 1% (whether they be white or black). The illustration used in the sessions was that an American who earns $200 thousand per year has more in common with a poor person than with Bill Gates - simply stated they are in closer solidarity with the poor than with the 1%. This 'deep solidarity' as Joerg puts it requires a certain kind of response from the faithful Christian. When we are in solidarity with persons of our class it allows us to use our limited privilege to support people in our class and engage oppressive social and economic systems from a point of relative power (or at least more power than those who are less powerful than we are). This was an important thought for me.

I find it particularly poignant since we are launching a new movement in South African on the 2nd of December called the AHA movement (a movement of hopeful action that will facilitate creative and engaged conversation and thought around issues of poverty in South Africa).

Lastly, I participated in the Matthew studies group. It was wonderful to catch up on the most recent developments in Matthew Scholarship - even though there were no papers touching on the topic of my second PhD (Matthew 18 and forgiveness, intergroup contact theory). I had a chance to meet with my Doctoral Supervisor / Promotor, Prof Jan van der Watt from Radboud University. Ben Whiterington was also at that meeting.

Among the other persons that I met at this AAR/SBL meeting were Miroslaf Volf (I had a chat with him about the most recent research that I had been doing on faith and work. He was very kind to listen, comment and offer encouragement. Like many others who I met, however, he was most excited to know that I am from Stellenbosch University - people sure to love that beautiful place and are always keen to find an excuse to spend more time in beautiful Stellenbosch). I also met Prof Darrell Guder from Princeton who is visiting Stellenbosch in February 2015 for a missional theology conference we are hosting. It was also wonderful to spend some time with my friends Prof Wentzel van Huyssteen (also from Princeton) and Elizabeth Gerle (from Upsala, who is also a STIAS fellow and is keen to be back in Stellenbosch).

Then, it was so awesome to be in San Diego with my long time friend and colleague, Dr Wessel Bentley (and his son Matthew - such an amazing young man!) It was wonderful to have breakfast and catch up on the days events with Wes and Matt. They also seemed to have a blast. I am so encouraged by Wessel - not only is he a brilliant theologian and scholar, he has maintained great balance as a dad, bringing his son along to experience America and the AAR.

Then I attended papers by my good friends Dr Charlene van der Walt (in the feminist Biblical interpretation group - she is doing incredible work that is going to be a huge help to me in finishing this second PhD I am busy with), and Dr Retief Muller (in the African studies group). They were both fantastic. Profs Julie Claassens, Jeremy Punt, Lious Jonker and Elna Mouton were also there from Stellenbosch, as were Prof Ernst Conradie and Christo Lombaard from UWC, Jonathan Draper, Smanga Kumalo and Gerald West from UWC. It was also great to get to know Dr Jacob Meiring (from Pretoria) better. I also got to meet, for the first time, two friends that I have only known via social media - Dr Curtis Holtzen and Lisa Beth White. Curtis did his PhD at UNISA many years ago and we connected online around the institution. Lisa Beth is a United Methodist minister who has been very kind and encouraging over the years! She is completing a PhD in Mission at Boston - it was wonderful to finally meet her in person.

Another highlight was hearing former US President Jimmy Carter talking about religion, women and issues related to the environment. His basic message is that religion has an important role to play in shaping society for the better, and that two critical issues in our time that require our positive action are environmental stewardship and engaging gender inequality around the world.

So, all in all it was a wonderful opportunity to connect with old friends, make new friends, and think deeply and learn a lot!

One less good memory of the trip will be the darn cold I contracted on the flight over! My goodness, I felt poorly for most of the week and still don't feel great. However, that didn't stop me from grabbing a bicycle from the Kimpton Hotel Solamar where I was staying (a beautiful hotel!) and going for two rides around San Diego. On Sunday morning I did just over 30km's along the San Diego Harbour front from the Island to the mainland. The second ride was around 20km (on that day I was really not feeling well), where I rode up to Balboa park, it was so beautiful up there. I am impressed with the city of San Diego - beautiful people and a beautiful place.

All that being said, I cannot wait to be home with Megie, Courtney and Liam. I find that it becomes more and more difficult to travel without them! So, enough typing, time to find where my next flight boards and get home!

I have uploaded a few photographs from the trip with this post. I'm afraid they are not formatted since I am typing this post on my iPhone.

Sunday
Nov232014

Faith and work in South Africa - Do Churches adequately care for their members?

Does the Church in South Africa adequately support members for their daily work life?

My most recently published research discusses this question and shares some statistical data gained from the broadest and most recent empirical research on faith and work in South Africa.

The article is entities 'Called to work: A descriptive analysis of Call42's research on faith and work in South Africa'. You can read, or download, a copy of the research article here: http://koersjournal.org.za/index.php/koers/article/view/2143

Here is the abstract for the article:

Very little empirical research has been conducted into faith and work, particularly as it relates to the experience and expectations of Christians in the world of work in South Africa. This article discusses the most recent research of this kind that was conducted by Call42. Call42 conducted an empirical research project on faith, calling, and the world of work between 2011 and 2012. The findings were released to the public after July 2012. Not only is this the most up to date data on this subject at present; the research findings and research process are also worthy of academic consideration. The Call42 research was initiated and commissioned by a group of young Christian professionals (mainly engineers) and as such it brings a perspective on faith and work from within the primary context of the world of work, rather than the theological academy or the church. The findings of the research have implications for the church and its officers (priests, pastors and leaders). It also arrives at some conclusions for Christians in the world of work, students who are contemplating a vocation or career path, and companies and organisations that have an explicit or implicit Christian orientation.
Wednesday
Nov192014

Evangelism and Public Theology

Last week I was asked to write an article for the Lausanne Global Pulse on Evangelism and the Christian response to Global (and local) Corruption and its relationship to poverty. I shall add a link to it here when it is published.

In my reading I came across this wonderful quote by the eccumenical theologian Lesslie Newbigin. It was quite challenging and profound:


It is not so often acknowledged that evangelism means calling people to believe something which is radically different from what is normally accepted as public truth, and that calls for a conversion not only of the heart and will but of the mind. A serious commitment to evangelism, to the telling of the story which the Church is sent to tell, means a radical questioning of the reigning assumptions of public life. It is to affirm the gospel not only as an invitation to a private and personal decision but as public truth which ought to be acknowledged as true for the whole of the life of society.

Lesslie Newbigin Truth to Tell (p.2).

I was left with the question, can the Christian's response to issues of justice be considered as the work of evangelism?

I think it can, particularly if one understands 'evangelism' as facilitating the reality of God's good news (and 'goodness') for the world (rather than just preaching the content of the good news, or Gospel). I am convinced that our proposition of what the Gospel is, finds fullness of meaning when persons (and creation) begin to experience something of what God's goodness is.

Some years ago I wrote an academic article entitled "Prophetic witness and social action as holiness in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa's mission" which locates this argument within a historical and missional context. You can download the article here and follow my line of reasoning. I also attempt to argue for the location of mission and evangelism as activities of Christians and the Church within the public sphere (to use Martin Marty's terminology). In this sense evangelism as social action (or even social action as evangelism) is a form of Public Theology.

Saturday
Nov152014

The joy of Christian marriage

On the 29th of January 2015 Megan and I will be married to one another for 21 years. This has been a period of such immeasurable grace. For both of us this will make the point in our lives where we have been together for as long as we were alive before marrying one another. My experience of marriage has been as a means of grace - in fact at times I have wondered whether it was not in fact a sacrament which communicates God's grace. We have rejoiced together, shared struggle, we have grown in our love and in maturity, we are blessed with children, we share our faith. It is a great blessing indeed. I found this letter below which was written by Tertullian a second century African Bishop to his wife. It is expresses so much of how I feel about Megan and our married life.
How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake of God’s Banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts. Unembarrassed they visit the sick and assist the needy. They give alms without anxiety; they attend the Sacrifice without difficulty; they perform their daily exercises of piety without hindrance. They need not be furtive about making the Sign of the Cross, nor timorous in greeting the brethren, nor silent in asking a blessing of God. Psalms and hymns they sing to one another, striving to see which one of them will chant more beautifully the praises of their Lord. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present; and where He is, there evil is not.
Tertullian, Bishop of Carthage (c.160-225)
Monday
Oct272014

Public Lecture: Dr David Field - John Wesley as Public Theologian

UPDATED 28 October 2014.

Last night Dr David Field delivered a wonderful lecture on John Wesley as a Public Theologian under the auspices of the Beyers Naude Center for Public Theology in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

Some friends asked that we record the lecture since they were not able to attend.  David kindly agreed.

You can download an MP3 copy of the lecture here.  You can download a copy of David's Powerpoint Slides from this link.

Please only use these slides and the recorded lecture for private use.  If you would like to make use of them in any other way please contact me and I will put you in contact with David to get his permission.

Details on the lecture and on David Field are found in the original post below.

Dr. David N. Field, the Methodist e-Academy - John Wesley as Public Theologian

A Critical Dialogue with a view to Contemporary Praxis

While John Wesley is primarily known for his work as an evangelist and founder of Methodism, towards the end of his life when he was a respected religious leader, he addressed a number of political issues taking on the role of what we would today call a public theologian. He wrote on economic policy, the American War of Independence, constitutional struggles in Britain and the slave trade. His pamphlet Thoughts upon Slavery provides fascinating example of public theology, which while deeply rooted in Wesley’s theology uses the language and ideas that seek to address a more pluralistic audience.  The presentation will provide a brief analysis of Thoughts upon Slavery, followed by critical engagement with both his ideas and the way he sought to communicate them. Finally it will make some proposals as to what can be learnt from Wesley for contemporary public theology.


David N. Field is a South African presently living in Basel, Switzerland where he is the academic coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy which is an online education project which provided supplementary education for people preparing for ordained ministry in Methodist Churches in Europe and further education courses for pastors and lay leaders. He is a research fellow at Unisa and at the Australasian Centre for Wesleyan Studies, a member of the Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies and the secretary of the Association of Methodist Related Theological Schools in Europe. He has represented the United Methodist Church’s Central Conference of Central and Southern Europe in ecumenical discussions on theological education and was a faculty member of the Global Ecumenical Theological Institute in Busan Korea in 2013. He is a graduate of the University of South Africa and the University of Cape Town. His Ph.D. research was on eco-theology in the Reformed Tradition.  He has taught systematic theology and theological ethics at the former University of Transkei and at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe. His main research interest lies in Methodist theology and ethics, and is he presently working on a long term project seeking to develop a contemporary Methodist political/public theology and a theological ethic rooted in the Methodist tradition. In addition he has research interests in eco-theology, the theology and ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and various theologies of liberation particularly those that have emerged in Southern Africa.<

Saturday
Oct252014

A prayer for peace

I have been reading some of the work of Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston in the last few weeks. I don't know too much biographical information about him, other than that he is an Episcopal priest and a Native American. I also know that he writes (and thinks) beautifully. Here is a beautiful excerpt from one of his prayers. I call it a prayer for peace:

God drive back the dark days of war, place your angels between innocent lives and the tread of advancing tanks, cool the political fires that burn for power and greed, let wisdom prevail and compassion increase….

- Bishop Steven Charleston

Wednesday
Oct082014

God is still weeping over South Africa - Archbishop Tutu's speech at the TRC reenactmen

 

Today Archbishop Desmond Tutu opened the reenactment of Truth and Reconciliation Commission conference in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.

The core of his message was that God is still weeping over South Africa. Even though our people were promised freedom, they still struggle in poverty, face oppression and are not truly free.

God is still weeping - the Churches and faith communities still have a critical role to play In working for the liberation of South Africa's people. God is still weeping - the Churches and faith communities must hold the servants and leaders of the nation to account for their leadership and stewardship of power and resources.

I recorded the speech (the recording was interrupted so it is in two parts). Please copy each link into your browser and you should be able to download the two recordings and listen to the.

Archbishop Tutu opening speech part 1
https://www.dropbox.com/s/vqf847oo9godzgk/Desmond%20Tutu%20TRC1%208%20Oct%202014.mp3?dl=0

Archbishop Tutu opening speech part 2
https://www.dropbox.com/s/1ij2evy4jn9r2pe/Desmond%20Tutu%20TRC2%208%20Oct%202014.mp3?dl=0

I would love to hear your ideas and feedback on Archbishop Tutu's opening address and the role of Christians, the Churches, faith communities and people of faith in the "re-humanization" of South African society?

I have the responsibility and privilege of representing the Methodist Church of SA at these hearings since our Presiding Bishop was unable to attend and asked me to participate on his behalf.

Saturday
Sep132014

A wonderful day in São Paulo - heading home from Brazil

We spent a beautiful day visiting sights in São Paulo with our friend Elaine from UCT and Roberta her school friend from here in Brazil.

We went to Páteo do Collegio (where the first Jesuits arrived and the city of São Paulo began in the 1600's), then to the São Paulo Cathedral, and ended the day at the modern art museum Icentário Pinacoteca. Now, Starbucks!

Tomorrow I head home to my precious family! This has been an amazing trip. I am so grateful to have visited, but I am very happy to be going home!

Wednesday
Sep102014

Was Nelson Mandela a Christian? Was he a member of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa?

In an earlier post I mentioned a research paper that I had worked on entitled "Mandela and the Methodists:  Faith, fact or fallacy?"  This paper was published at the beginning of this month in the academic journal Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae (40th Anniversary special edition).  You can find out more about the journal here.

The paper was originally delivered as the closing plenary address at the Theological Society of South Africa, and today I presented it at the International conference on Religion and Media at Faculdades EST in Brazil. I still am not at liberty to make the full text of the paper available.  However, here are my slides from today's presentation.

 

So, was Nelson Mandela a Methodist?  Indeed, he self-identified as a member of the Church, and my interviews with Bishops and ministers of the denomination confirmed that he was a loyal member of the Church.  See this quote from Presiding Bishop Zipho Siwa:

Madiba remained a committed Methodist throughout his life. As a church, we hail the qualities that confirmed him as a true son of Methodism - a life of faith in God lived in service to others.
Bishop Zipho Siwa

Here are Mr Mandela's own thoughts on the matter (just one quote of many from his writings, speeches and letters that I found).

The values I was taught at these institutions have
served me well throughout my life.  These values were strengthened during our years of incarceration when this church cared for us. Not only did you send chaplains to encourage us, but you also assisted us materially within your means. You helped our families at a time when we could not help them ourselves…  I cannot over-emphasise the role that the Methodist Church has played in my own life 

 Nelson Mandela

Was he a Christian?  I would conclude that he was an African Christian Humanist.  The paper describes the full detail of what that means.  However, here are some reasons why I believe this to be true.  The following list of descriptors of Christian Humanism come for John de Gruchy:

  • Christian humanism is inclusive. “Being human” names our primary identity.
  • Christian humanism affirms dignity and responsibility.
  • Christian humanism is open to insight into our common human condition wherever it is to be found.
  • Christian humanism claims that the love of God is inseparable from the love of others.
  • Christian humanism heralds a justice that transcends material and sectional well-being.
  • Christian humanism insists that goodness, truth, and beauty are inseparable.

 

Mr Mandela mentions in many speeches and his own writings (see for example his address to the Methodist conferences in 1994 and again in 1998, and of course his autobiography 'A long walk to freedom' (particularly the sections on his early life)) that he was deeply formed by two primary communities.  First and most prominent was the African traditional (Xhosa) world view (which I cannot discuss in detail here).  Second was the Christian faith and the institutions of the Christian Church.  These shaped his identity in a profound way.  There is little doubt that like all persons his faith identity shifted and changed at different stages in his life.  Moreover, it would be dishonest to say that he was a Christian in the simple sense that this phrase is used in popular theology.  But, he identified with the Christian faith and with the church.

The important point is to ask, of which “church” was Nelson Mandela a member?

We have already concluded that Nelson Mandela was a member of the MCSA (Methodist Church of Southern Africa). However, of which aspect or expression of church within the MCSA was he a member? The real question is what do we mean by the expression “church”? Dirkie Smit suggests (1) that there are three general forms of being “the church”. I shall briefly present these below.

The local congregation

For many Christians this is most likely to be their primary perspective of the church, a localised community of Christians, organised around regular common worship. Philander points out that this is the physical place, and social group, that people often think of when they answer the question of where they “go to church”, or what church they are members of. Certainly from what we have already established Nelson Mandela was a member of this form of church in his early life (up to 1958). However, we could not say that he remained a member of a local congregation in the years that followed that. As has already been suggested this would simply not have been possible, considering his imprisonment, and later public profile.

The institutional, denominational and ecumenical Church

Smit further points out that for many people the term “church” refers primarily to the organisational or institutional structures. When some people hear the word “church” they may think of the confessional community that they are a part of (e.g., Catholic, Orthodox or Methodist). Philander notes that often this expression of church is what people would point to in answer to the question “what does the church say about unemployment in South Africa”. It could also refer to collective groupings such as Evangelical Christians, or even more formal groupings such as ecumenical bodies (like the World Council of Churches, or the World Communion of Reformed Churches). From what was discussed above one could conclude that Nelson Mandela held his strongest link to this understanding of church – he was a member of a denomination. This type of understanding of the church is often the point at which members engage with issues of social concern and engage policy. Mandela certainly sought to identify with, and engage, the MCSA as a denomination (as was clearly shown in the 1994 and 1998 addresses he delivered to the Methodist Conference).

The church as believers, salt and light in the world

Smit points out that the third way in which people think of the church, is as individual believers who are salt and light in the world, each involved in living out their faith on a daily basis in their own particular ways. This is a very important way in which the church can participate in being an agent and bearer of hope in society. In reading Nelson Mandela’s speeches and writings one can credibly maintain that he saw himself as a person of faith who lived out his particular understanding of his task in the world in this manner. He often refers, as was shown above, to the fact that he “formed” for his work in early life (both through African culture and the ministry of the church).

Here are the references to the articles pointed to above:

1. Dirk Smit presented a more nuanced perspective on the Church sighting six variation forms, “gestaltes”, in Dirk J. Smit, “Oor Die Kerk as ’N Unieke Samelewingsverband,” Tydskrif Vir Geesteswetenskappe 2, no. 36 (1996): 119–29.

 2. Dirk J. Smit, Essays in Public Theology: Collected Essays 1 (AFRICAN SUN MeDIA, 2007), 61–68.

 

Wednesday
Sep102014

South South partnership - Brazil and South Africa / Public Theology

This week I have been in Sao Leopoldo in Brazil at Faculdades EST for the bi-annual conference (this year focussing on religion and the media).  It forms part of the South South partnership that exists between Faculdades EST and some Universities in South Africa (these include the University where I teach, Stellenbosch University, as well as UNISA, UKZN and even a colleauge from the University of Cape Town).

South Africa and Brazil share a number of similar aspects in our social, political and economic history and current reality.  Both have suffered under oppressive regimes.  In both instances the Church and religious organisations played a significant role in helping to end the oppression.  Liberation theologies, public theologies and post colonial theologies are common discourses in both settings.  Of course they are not the same - there are many obvious, and some less obvious, differences in the two contexts.  However, there are great opportunities for mutual enrichment and support.

Thus far the partnership has involved the exchange of academic staff, exchange of Masters and PhD students, and projects which have resulted in publications (such as the book that will be launched tomorrow evening, and the set of publications in English that will go into the Journal of Theology for South Africa JTSA).  Language is something of a barrier, since we only have one colleague from South Africa who speaks Portuguese, and only a few colleagues from Brazil that speak English.  I have committed to try and learn Portuguese in the years ahead so that we can serve the partnership better from our side.

It has been wonderful to hear the debates and inputs on public theology, liberation theologies, and a variety of contextual and post-collonial theologies.

On Thursday evening for fly back to Sao Paulo to have a meeting with the Vice Rector of International Affairs at USP.  USP and Stellenbosch have an institutional agreement that is now being developed into a South South partnership between the two Universities.  USP is one of the largest, and most prestigious, Universities in South America.

This post contains a few photographs taken on the trip.  One is of me and one of my former students, Ndikho Mtshiselwa.  It was great to see him here.  Among the other colleauges were Prof Nico Koopman, Prof Rothney Tshaka, Prof Rudolf von Sinner, Prof Reggie Nel, Dr Pieter Grove, and Dr Elaine Nogueira-Godsey.