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Neoinklings: Bonhoeffer, Coetzee and more

3 March 2017

Yesterday we had our 13th Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch and today (3 March) it’s a year since we started, and we had a new member, Sheila du Plessis who has written a number of booklets on family life, and has ideas for writing several novels.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Tony McGregor had been reading books by and about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian murdered by the Nazis, and that led to several spin-off topics. Among other works he had been reading Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I had read some 45 years before, when Eberhard Bethge visited South Africa.

Bethge gave a series of lectures at the University of Natal in Durban, which I was unable to attend, being banned at the time, but I did get to meet him when he came round to the place where I was staying, and talked ot a smaller private gathering. Here is my diary entry for 12 February 1973, perhaps worth recording:

Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s friend, came for lunch. He is here to give a series of lectures on Bonhoeffer’s life and work. I talked to him about the Confessing Church in Germany, and was amazed to discover how free the church was in many respects. The Nazi regime, one thinks, was so repressive that one is amazed to hear of pastors at work and life going on. I suppose it’s similar to the Juds’ reaction, coming here. They expect everything to be consistently bad. Bonhoeffer was banned from Berlin, but later was allowed back to visit his parents, provided that he didn’t preach. I can’t imagine the Minister of Justice giving me permission to go down to the Transkei to see my mother. Some of the similarities are remarkable. Bethge also said that there were notable differences: the press is relatively freer here, while in Germany it was much more harshly controlled. He said that in Germany they had had more hope, because they felt that Hitler couldn’t last. Here we have had the Nats for twice as long, and the end is not in sight. He said that he was, however, under the impression that there was a gradual improvement, and that things were getting better. But I told him that is not so. Every year more and more repressive legislation is added to the statute book, and none of it has been taken way. Practically every change has made it more repressive, and not less so.

He and his wife Renate were a fantastic couple, and it was great to talk to them. I told him a little of my experience of the Lutheran Churches in South West, and how their attitudes had changed dramatically after the World Court opinion in 1971. They stayed for lunch of toasted cheese sandwiches, and I gave them a copy of my banning order.

One of the things he mentioned was that he found South African audiences very different from those in Europe and North America. In those places they were most interested in Bonhoeffer as a daring radical theologian, changing theology to bring it up to date in the modern world. But South African Christians were most interested in the Confessing Church, and resistance to the Nazi ideology. He had not been aware of that before he came, and so had not prepared his lectures to deal with those issues. Audiences in Europe and America were not interested in the Confessing Church other than as a background to Bonhoeffer’s life and thought, whereas in South Africa it was the other way round — South African Christians were interested in Bonhoeffer precisely because of his role in the Confessing Church, and the light it could throw on that. First World boss-nation theologians were interested in the man because they saw him as changing theology. Oppressed and downtrodden people were interested him because they saw him changing the world.

Bethge dealt with this very point in his biography, when he wrote:

The concern of the Western ecumenicals was largely determined by practical — that is to say, political — considerations; consequently, when the struggle became a tedious contest for the confession, their interest flagged, to flare up again as soon as there was any sensational news of police action in Germany. Holding the political views he did, Bonhoeffer could easily have won over ecumenical sympathy. Instead he began his campaign against ‘heresy’ and thus found himself in notable isolation. There were very few people — and one of them was Bell — whose minds he had really been able to prepare for this crisis; in the eyes of the rest he merely seemed to have an awkward disposition to orthodoxy.

And this was one of the points that we discussed.

Until about 1968, South African Christian opposition to apartheid was largely based on practical political considerations. It was applied in an unjust way, it caused suffering, and therefore needed to be opposed. Only a very few in South Africa thought like Bonhoeffer, in terms of apartheid as a heresy. Tony said that one of them was his father, who had grown up in the Dutch Reformed Church as the son of a dominee. But when he saw an article claiming that apartheid was biblical, that was the last straw, and he left.

But in Germany it was the other way round. Before the oppressive nature of Nazi rule became apparent, people like Bonhoeffer saw that it was ideologically incompatible with the Christian faith. In South Africa, people like Trevor Huddleston attacked the theological underpinnings of apartheid in the 1950s, but they were lone voices.

The problem with this “practical” opposition to apartheid was that it left open the possibility that it would not be objectionable if it were implemented in a “just” way. The theological objection said that there could never be a just version. It was evil in its fundamental presuppositions. The theological objections were finally made explicit in A message to the people of South Africa, made public in 1968. The “Message” went further than calling the apartheid ideology a heresy; it said it was a pseudogospel making a false offer of salvation by race, not grace.

One of the difficulties we (and many other South Africans) had in understanding the Confessing Church in Germany was, as Tony said, that Bethge wrote of the Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Church as if they were different entities. It seemed that the “German Christians” (who supported Nazism) were a faction or party within the state church, rather than a separate denomination, but it was not clear from Bethge’s biography, whether the Confessing Church was likewise a party within the state church or a separate denomination.

There is perhaps material for a doctoral thesis in the notion of a Confessing Church in South Africa in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. There was quite a lot of talk about it in that period, and in 1968 there were reports of several “obedience to God” groups being formed, but they seemed to vanish. Perhaps someone has already written a thesis on it.

One of the branches of the conversation was that Tony told us more about his father who had left the Dutch Reformed Church. His McGregor ancestors had been Scottish ministers who had been brought to the Cape Colony when it came under British rule, and Dutch Reformed clergy could no longer be got from the Netherlands, so the governor, Lord Charles Somerset, brought them from Scotland instead. The towns of McGregor and Robertson in the Western Cape were told after his ancestors.

He told a story of when his father, when he was about 5 years old, was made to wear a kilt by his grandfather. Tony’s grandfather was then the dominee at Sea Point, and they went in to Cape Town on the bus, and Tony’s father was complainimng about having to wear the kilt, and was told that that was what Scotsmen wore, and he said “Ek is nie Skots nie, ek is Afrikaans”, which made everyone on the bus laugh.

Sheila said he should write such stories down, and we talked a bit about such family stories, and why they should be recorded before they are forgotten. Blogs are good for that.

I had recently been reading books by J.M. Coetzee, who has won several international literary prizes, mostly overseas. None of us found his novels particularly good or inspiring, and we wondered if his reputation outside South Africa was higher than his reputation within the country. I’ve written more about that here.

Sheila asked for some comments on the design of the cover for one of her family life booklets, and I hope our advice was good.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    4 March 2017 10:30 am

    what a service Bethge did for us. I doubt his biography has peer; subsequent attempts (e.g. Metaxis) have fallen short.

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