Living out the reign of God

An interview with Professor John de Gruchy

Jeanette Harris

John de Gruchy is the Robert Selby Taylor Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Cape Town. For many years he has been at the forefront as a religious leader and theologian in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He currently heads up the Research Institute on Christianity in South Africa (RICSA). John is also an ordained minister of the United Congregational Church of South Africa.

Before this interview I had read John's book, Christianity and Democracy, and also listened to him give a talk on democracy not long after the book was published. Some of my questions were based on what he said in his book, and others came out of my observations of life in SA today.



Because I'm interested in what lies behind public profiles, I started off by asking John about his own personal journey, the influences and the route to where he is today. As a young person he was involved in Scripture Union and some of the other things that young Christians are influenced by. There was no crisis experience through which he came to see the need for Christians to be involved in the society around them. The church in which he grew up was always socially involved. There was no separation of church and culture. For him this was the norm. His later theological education in preparation for the pastoral ministry led him through a time of self-evaluation. He became even more convinced that the Christian faith and social engagement belonged together. During these years he was very moved by the biography of Albert Luthuli, 'Let my people go', becoming more aware of the specific dynamics of the South African situation. Other strong influences were Dr Beyers Naudé of the Christian Institute (of which John was one of the founding members) and the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Further studies followed in Chicago. From 1968-1973, John was involved in the South African Council of Churches.

I asked John about his church involvement at grass roots level and whether he felt this was important. I was not disappointed in his response. Directly after his training he pastored a congregation, never imagining that a life in academia lay ahead. Throughout the years of his university career he has always been on the staff of the church as a pastor or assistant pastor, taking his turn at preaching and being involved with the life of the congregation. He feels strongly about this, knowing that he had a calling into the church. "Theology is related to the life of the church. Sometimes it is a critical relationship, but it is always a relationship. Academia and the local church can be unrelated, but that is not how it should be."



'Democracy is an open-ended process in constant need of broadening and deepening, and therefore of debate and clarification.' Christianity and Democracy, pg 7.

As are many South Africans, I'm excited about all that has happened in our country, but disturbed by the lawlessness and violence we're experiencing. The above statement really helped me in my thinking, and I asked John to expand on it. "We need to see democracy as process as well as system, and to have the notion of democracy constantly changing. Issues keep surfacing, expanding horizons. People have a closed vision of democracy. Democracy needs to be broken open. It is here that the prophetic tradition of the church plays it's role in bringing dignity and equality to democracy. Democracy requires a secular society. It cannot be theocratic. In a democracy the constitution is the law, therefore religious law in a democracy is not possible. Apartheid, in fact, is an example of theocracy, as are Muslim fundamentalist states. There is a place of prophetic tradition that lies behind the law in democracy. There is freedom to witness, not supported or favoured by the state. The prophetic role is to keep the state accountable to the constitution i.e. in issues of equality. The church must be calling the state to be accountable to its espousal of democracy."

Can Christians really make a difference? "We are to live out the reign of God. Many of the most important developments in democratic theory and practice have come when Christians have been true to their own revelation of God." Studies in Calvin and of church tradition have helped in the development of John's thinking. It is essential to have a correct understanding of what the Kingdom of God really means. For many the kingdom is about perfection at some future time in heaven. They withdraw from society and become more and more involved within the confines of the church in the narrowest sense. There needs to be a constant breaking open of what exists. Everything is in need of renewal.

So does this mean that when things go wrong it is not because democracy is a failure? "Democracy can never be perfect. Corruption is always there. In a totalitarian society it is not published, it is not talked about. It is kept hidden and people suffer unjustly. Democracy must deal with issues openly. The way forward is to make democracy work. There must be stability in society, and the society must be legitimate. Democracy is about broadening legitimacy. The broader the base, the more security there is Democracy protects the common good of all."

We cannot have a democracy unless we're continually grappling with making it work, John said. There is a need for the development of civil society. These are the forces in society that balance the state. There must be continual policing of the corruption embedded in society.

John has said that democracy is not about individualism. However, I have noticed a tendency for Christians to say, "My church is addressing the issue". What they mean is that a committee has been formed of a few people who will then carry the weight of what is decided. We need to be responsible Christians in the democracy we believe in. I asked John for suggestions as to how individual Christians could be involved and make a difference.

His response: Christians have a responsibility to participate in civil society. They should become involved in issues affecting the local community, i.e. School committees and governing bodies, ratepayers' associations, neighbourhood watch, and be available for political structures. It is vital that we be well informed about what is happening around us. The Kingdom of God must be lived out in the community around us.

'Democracy as a system is intended to protect certain liberties (of speech, of assembly, human rights, and so forth) which are ours by right. But if democracy is to expand and become inclusive, if it is to realise it's vision more fully, then the notion of freedom has to include being responsible for others. This is not something which democracy itself can produce: it is a spiritual virtue of redemptive love that no political system can manufacture. For such reasons Christianity must be critical of a democracy which encourages an individualism free of social responsibility ... It is a sign of the crisis of modernity and a symptom of human sinfulness.' Christianity and Democracy, pg 244.

For more insights, read the book quoted here, and reviewed elsewhere in this issue. It was a very enlightening experience to talk to the author of a book one has read, especially a book as relevant to one's own life as a Christian, and one in SA today, as this one is. I am grateful to John for fitting this interview into his extremely busy schedule.


More books by John de Gruchy:

The Church struggle in South Africa (1979)

Bonhoeffer and South Africa (1984)

Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis (1986)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (1987)

Liberating Reformed Theology (1991)

Christianity and Democracy (1995)


Christianity, Art and Transformation


The Big Picture Volume 1 Lent 1999