Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Pentecost Sunday: Come Holy Spirit!

1On the day of Pentecost [a] all the Lord’s followers were together in one place.   2Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind! It filled the house where they were meeting.   3Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there.   4The Holy Spirit took control of everyone, and they began speaking whatever languages the Spirit let them speak.   5Many religious Jews from every country in the world were living in Jerusalem.   6And when they heard this noise, a crowd gathered. But they were surprised, because they were hearing everything in their own languages.   7They were excited and amazed, and said:

Don’t all these who are speaking come from Galilee?   8Then why do we hear them speaking our very own languages?   9Some of us are from Parthia, Media, and Elam. Others are from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia,   10Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, parts of Libya near Cyrene, Rome,   11Crete, and Arabia. Some of us were born Jews, and others of us have chosen to be Jews. Yet we all hear them using our own languages to tell the wonderful things God has done.

12Everyone was excited and confused. Some of them even kept asking each other, “What does all this mean?”

13Others made fun of the Lord’s followers and said, “They are drunk.”

14Peter stood with the eleven apostles and spoke in a loud and clear voice to the crowd:

Friends and everyone else living in Jerusalem, listen carefully to what I have to say!   15You are wrong to think that these people are drunk. After all, it is only nine o’clock in the morning.   16But this is what God had the prophet Joel say,

17“When the last days come,

I will give my Spirit

to everyone.

Your sons and daughters

will prophesy.

Your young men

will see visions,

and your old men

will have dreams.

18In those days I will give

my Spirit to my servants,

both men and women,

and they will prophesy.

19I will work miracles

in the sky above

and wonders

on the earth below.

There will be blood and fire

and clouds of smoke.

20The sun will turn dark,

and the moon

will be as red as blood

before the great

and wonderful day

of the Lord appears.

21Then the Lord

will save everyone

who asks for his help.”

22Now, listen to what I have to say about Jesus from Nazareth. God proved that he sent Jesus to you by having him work miracles, wonders, and signs. All of you know this.   23God had already planned and decided that Jesus would be handed over to you. So you took him and had evil men put him to death on a cross.   24But God set him free from death and raised him to life. Death could not hold him in its power.   25What David said are really the words of Jesus,

“I always see the Lord

near me,

and I will not be afraid

with him at my right side.

26Because of this,

my heart will be glad,

my words will be joyful,

and I will live in hope.

27The Lord won’t leave me

in the grave.

I am his holy one,

and he won’t let

my body decay.

28He has shown me

the path to life,

and he makes me glad

by being near me.”

29My friends, it is right for me to speak to you about our ancestor David. He died and was buried, and his tomb is still here.   30But David was a prophet, and he knew that God had made a promise he would not break. He had told David that someone from his own family would someday be king.

31David knew this would happen, and so he told us that Christ would be raised to life. He said that God would not leave him in the grave or let his body decay.   32All of us can tell you that God has raised Jesus to life!

33Jesus was taken up to sit at the right side [b] of God, and he was given the Holy Spirit, just as the Father had promised. Jesus is also the one who has given the Spirit to us, and that is what you are now seeing and hearing.   34David didn’t go up to heaven. So he wasn’t talking about himself when he said, “The Lord told my Lord to sit at his right side,   35until he made my Lord’s enemies into a footstool for him.”   36Everyone in Israel should then know for certain that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, even though you put him to death on a cross.

37When the people heard this, they were very upset. They asked Peter and the other apostles, “Friends, what shall we do?”

38Peter said, “Turn back to God! Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins will be forgiven. Then you will be given the Holy Spirit.   39This promise is for you and your children. It is for everyone our Lord God will choose, no matter where they live.”

40Peter told them many other things as well. Then he said, “I beg you to save yourselves from what will happen to all these evil people.”   41On that day about three thousand believed his message and were baptized.   42They spent their time learning from the apostles, and they were like family to each other. They also broke bread [c]and prayed together.

43Everyone was amazed by the many miracles and wonders that the apostles worked.   44All the Lord’s followers often met together, and they shared everything they had.   45They would sell their property and possessions and give the money to whoever needed it.   46Day after day they met together in the temple. They broke bread [d] together in different homes and shared their food happily and freely,   47while praising God. Everyone liked them, and each day the Lord added to their group others who were being saved.

Acts 2  Contemporary English Version.  I’ll reserve commentary for a post tomorrow. Today, let the Word speak.


June 12, 2011 Posted by | Church, diversity, economic justice, Holy Spirit, mission, nonviolence, peace, Pentecost, Pentecostals, race, sexual orientation | Leave a comment

Snapshot of Local (Kentucky) Politics

I first arrived in Kentucky in January of ’86.  The state as I found it then was culturally conservative, but politically moderate.  Like much of the South, it had a tradition of voting Democratic, but most KY Dems tended to be on the conservative side.  Sitting at the intersection of the upper South and the Midwest, KY’s history MOSTLY reflects the Southern story, but with interesting twists: Catholic missionaries came in with Daniel Boone in the 18th C., so, whereas a large Catholic presence is a recent development in much of the South, it has been a dimension of KY life since we were a large western county of Virginia!  As Louisville became a major port city with massive riverboat traffic in the 19th C., we attracted numerous Jewish merchants.  In much of the South, Jews are still a tiny minority, but in Louisville, KY’s largest and most prosperous city, there has been a significant Jewish presence (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform) since the 19th C.  I was raised in FL, but most of the Jews I knew there were secularized. I had to come to KY to meet numerous practicing Jews.

Other historical features:  Slavery existed in Antebellum KY, but on a much smaller scale than in the Deep South–and there was a prominent abolitionist movement as well.  Because of this, KY didn’t secede from the Union–until the South had already lost the Civil War.  KY was a site of many prominent Civil War battles, but it was truly conflicted.  Later, it did become wholeheartedly segregationist–but there was a strong resistance movement, too. Numerous Civil Rights campaigns of the ’60s took place in KY. (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s younger brother, Rev. A.D. King, was a Louisville pastor and leader of the Louisville chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)  Kentucky ratified the Equal Rights Amendment–and then tried to take it back even though the U.S. Constitution doesn’t provide for states UN-ratifying amendments.

Like Ohio, our neighbor to the North, Kentucky has been the destination of many refugees from global wars settled in the U.S.–which has given us a larger immigrant population than most Southern or Midwestern states.  It’s still relatively small, but at least in Louisville and Lexington, it makes us more diverse than many assume.

When I came here in ’86, this meant that registered Democrats FAR outnumbered registered Republicans, but that the state was beginning to vote Republican nationally.  We had a woman Gov., Martha Lane Collins (D-KY), one Democratic Senator (the late Wendell Ford) and one Republican Senator (Mitch McConnell, now the Minority Leader) and Democrats held 4 of the 6 U.S. House seats.  But that was beginning to change.  By the end of the ’80s, Republicans held 3 of the 6 U.S. House seats and KY had voted for Reagan as Pres. twice and then voted for Bush I.  Bill Clinton only partly stemmed that tide: KY voted for Clinton twice (’92 and ’96), but there was a large indep. Ross Perot vote each time–and in the GOP wave of ’94, Republicans held 4 of 6 House seats–and captured the state senate which they’ve held ever since.  In ’96, McConnell protegé Ann Northup (R-KY-03) captured the Democratic stronghold of Louisville, leaving KY only 1 Democratic House seat.  When Wendell Ford retired in ’98, McConnell helped former baseball all-star Jim Bunning (R-KY) pick up KY’s other U.S. Senate seat. And when popular KY Gov. Paul Patton (D-KY) left office in a sex scandal in ’03, Republicans even voted in a GOP Gov in Ernie Fletcher (R-KY)–another McConnell protege. And KY voted overwhelmingly for Bush II twice.

So, by 2005, KY seemed to be moving solidly in a Republican direction.  Voter registration was still more Democratic than Republican, but voting patterns were Democratic only in local elections.  The KY Democratic Party seemed old and worn and in-bred.  If you were a KY Democrat, much less a KY progressive or liberal, things looked increasingly grim.

The slow road back began with VT Gov. Howard Dean’s tenure as Chair of the Democratic National Convention (Jan. 2005-Jan. 2009). Dean’s 50 state strategy to rejuvenate the Democratic party nationally, and think beyond single election cycles, didn’t pay the immediate dividends in KY that it did elsewhere, but it did inject some new life. Also, the entire 2nd term of the Bush presidency hurt the Republican Party and created new young, progressive activists in KY just as elsewhere. These young turks weren’t immediately welcomed by the KY Dem Party machine, much less listened to, but they refused to go away.  In the banner Democratic year of ’06, KY Dems reclaimed a House seat: former alternative newspaper publisher John Yarmuth, a man the pundits said was too liberal for the district, knocked off Ann Northup for 3rd district.  Yarmuth has been a true progressive champion, too. We had 2 Dem. House seats again. In ’07, Dems took back the governor’s mansion–as Ernie Fletcher was found to be involved in several ethics scandals (and possibly even crimes).

This wasn’t a perfect comeback: People weren’t thrilled with Gov. Steve Beshear (D-KY) who campaigned only on one issue–putting casinos across the state. (Quick, think of the fastest way to unite 2 traditional political enemies: KY’s horseracing industry and the Kentucky Council of Churches. You guessed it. They teamed up to squash Beshear’s gambling bill FLAT!) Kentuckians, including myself, voted for Beshear only because he wasn’t Fletcher. And those ’06 and ’07 victories were not to last:

’08 was an amazing year for Democrats and KY could’ve caught that wave.  Had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee, I believe KY would’ve been colored Democratic blue on election night ‘o8. But Barack Obama was culturally too distant from the state–and still is. Had his name been “Frank Jones,” and he been born in the South, KY MIGHT have overcome its racism and cultural conservatism to vote for him, but not with his name and birth in Hawai’i, time spent in Indonesia, education at Columbia and Harvard Law, and political home in Chicago.  Even apart from the rightwing smears about Obama as a “secret Muslim,” “born in Kenya,” etc., he was simply too “other” for the rural parts of this state–which is most of it.  So, most Democrats in KY didn’t really hope for Obama to win this state–we just wanted him to get close enough to help downticket races.  Our big target was Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whose polls had never been lower, and who was in line to be Minority Leader–and obstructionist in chief to the agenda that Obama and the Democrats were elected on in ’08.  We had a very real chance of knocking McConnell off, too–Lt. Col. Andrew Horne (D-KY), a Louisville attorney and U.S. Army reservist was an Iraq War Vet against the war and he was running a grassroots campaign that could’ve destroyed McConnell. Louisville businessman Greg Fischer (D-KY), now our mayor, was also running a credible campaign.  But the KY Dem machine forced both of them out and annointed the wealthy Bruce Lunsford (D), who had run and lost many, MANY, state races simply because Lunsford could self-finance.

Even then, Lunsford started out ahead of McConnell in the polls, but McConnell outspent him, ran ads touting McConnell’s many earmarks (no friend of John McCain) and pork for KY and ran other ads painting Lunsford as a carpetbagger (he has homes in several states) and linking him to Obama and the dreaded liberal Speaker (now House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Lunsford’s responses were slow and clumsy and even with Bill and Hillary Clinton stumping for him, Obama at the top of the ticket did him no favors and McConnell won re-election again. And used his “leadership” with Senate Republicans to block most efforts to reverse the Bush-Recession.

In 2010, a terrible year for Democrats, Democrats failed to take the open Senate seat of retiring Jim Bunning–with Atty. Gen. Jack Conway (D-KY) losing to Tea Party nutcase Rand Paul (R-KY).  John Yarmuth (D-KY-03) and Ben Chandler (D-KY-06) barely kept their House seats and Dems make no gains elsewhere in the state.  It looked like KY was moving back in a Republican direction.

But grassroots activism and Republican overreach seems to be reversing this in 2011. Gov. Steve Beshear is no progressive. He frustrates the hell out of us–letting coal companies continue to rape our mountains, spending no political capital to stop the legalized loansharking of payday lenders, lending no hand to gay rights efforts which have paid off in Louisville, Lexington, and Bowling Green (and soon in Berea?) to go statewide with protections against bullying, hate crimes, and employment and housing discrimination. Plus, Beshear has violated the separation of church and state by spending tax money to help fundamentalists build a Creationist Museum, and now theme park–which will be a waste of money as well as make the state the laughingstock of the nation.  But for all his flaws, Beshear has grown with his job–Upon election he found that Fletcher had embezzled billions and drained the state’s coffers. With the legislature killing his plan for casinos, Beshear had to find some way to raise revenue–and pulled off the minor miracle in this state of getting a tax hike on alcohol AND TOBACCO. Because of that, and because most of the budget cuts came BEFORE the national recession, KY has weathered the storm better than most states–without cutting teachers, cops, firefighters, or social services too grimly.  (He doesn’t want to admit it, but Beshear also used every bit of Obama stimulus money he could, too.) He’s successfully kept some major employers from leaving (and some are actually expanding) and is slowly attracting new business.

For all these reasons, Beshear appears poised to completely wallop his GOP challenger, state senate majority leader David Williams (R-KY) this November. See the poll here. Sure, November is months away, but 21 points is a CRUSHING lead! Williams is the least liked elected official in the state.  And he has praised the GOP plan to kill Medicare–something Beshear will hang around his neck like an anchor!

More than this, KY Dems look in a position to win EVERY statewide race this year. See here.  Fresh off his 2010 defeat to nutcase Rand Paul (R-KY), I was afraid that Atty. Gen. Jack Conway (D-KY) might have trouble come re-election time. But he is leading McConnell pawn Todd P’Pool by 26 points! (That’ll close because McConnell will spend tons of money on P’Pool in an attempt to end Conway’s political career.) Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY), a proud progressive who isn’t afraid to call herself “liberal and progressive” and to push progressive policies, is running for Secretary of State and is ahead of some dude named Bill Johnson (R-KY) by 11 points.  Incumbent state treasurer Todd Hollenbach (D-KY) has a 17 point lead over his closest competitor in a 3 way race.  Bob Farmer (D-KY) running for Ag Commissioner, has a 25 point lead over his competitor. The only race which is close is that of state auditor.  Incumbent State Auditor Crit Luallen (D-KY), the most popular statewide elected official, is term limited and neither of her would-be replacements is well known. Still, Democrat Adam Edelen (D-KY) has a slight lead over Republican John Kemper (R-KY), 38-35% with the rest undecided.  Luallen and other KY Dems need to campaign hard for Edelen.

No one has polled state legislators, but I hope if KY Dems do this well in November, we can also take over the state senate while keeping the state general assembly.

This puts KY Dems in better shape than we have been in a long time.  If Conway wins big, he could be in a position either to challenge McConnell in ’14 or to wait and try for governor. (Beshear’s Lt. Gov., Dan Mongiardo, resigned to run against Conway in the primary in ’10 for the open U.S. senate seat eventually claimed by Tea Partier Rand Paul.  His new Lt. Gov., is former Louisville mayor, Jerry Abrahamson, who spent way too many years as mayor and whom NO ONE sees as a potential governor.) Or, if Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY-06) wins reelection in ’12 easily with a large campaign chest left over (and Chandler plans to tie his opponent firmly to Republican plans to kill Medicare), then he might take on McConnell in ’14.  Outgoing State Auditor Crit Luallen (D-KY) needs to be kept in the public eye. She’s hugely popular and could be a future governor or senator.  Alison Lundergan Grimes (D-KY) is also a future governor or senator–and maybe the best hope of KY Democrats for a viable future candidate for U.S. President.

KY Dems cannot take anything for granted. Even if we win big in ’11, as we did in ’07, Obama will be on the top of the ticket in ’12.  Elsewhere, that’s a downticket advantage for Democrats–but not in KY. Still, in ’12, KY has no U.S. senate seats up for grabs.  But every KY Republican House member voted to kill Medicare while both our Democratic Reps voted to keep it. I figure that means, with the right candidate recruiting and campaigns, KY Dems should keep both our incumbent House members and pick up 1-3 more.  And, although not across the board, we are starting to grow and elect BETTER Democrats and not just more of them.  We may even push enough electoral reform to allow the KY Green Party to become a viable force.

There is also a strong spirit among KY progressives–environmentalists taking on King Coal for the sake of the remaining Appalachian Mountains; alternative energy entrepeneurs attracting green businesses; organized labor resisting attempts to strip collective bargaining rights (which would surely be in trouble if Williams were to become governor!); gay rights activists–blocked by the ’04 state constitutional amendment from seeking marriage equality, but still working strong on other fronts and making progress, city by city, town by town; community organizers against pay day lenders, for drug courts; advocates for the homeless; public transportation and light rail advocates;–and many more.  We have many setbacks, but we are here and getting stronger.  I wouldn’t have bet that the shape of things would look like this when I looked around after election day ’04 or election day ’11.

If only we can keep thinking longterm and not just to the next election cycle.  Growing progressive power for the purposes of progressive causes takes time and effort–youthful energy and older wisdom.  I can’t predict the future–but I like the current political snapshot of the Bluegrass State.

June 12, 2011 Posted by | politics | Leave a comment

To Dream the Impossible Dream

I love the fact that for $8 per month, you can get numerous movies through Netflix instantly through your Wii as well as on DVD through the mail. Last night, I treated my oldest daughter to the classic 1972 musical Man of La Mancha starring Peter Toole and Rachel Welch.  It’s based on the Broadway musical of the same name which, in turn, is based on Miguel de Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote, but the musical shows Cervantes the playwright imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition–and so is a play within a play as Cervantes stages Don Quixote for the prison inmates as he awaits his summons by the Inquisition for daring to tweak the vanity of Holy Mother Church and being charged with heresy.

I love the major themes: “Madness” that insists on treating all men with honor and all women with courtesy is preferable to “reality” which treats people like dirt. Poets and playwrights can help change the world for the better by concentrating on how the world should be rather than how it is. (The imprisoned Cervantes claims to the “realist” prisoners that he, a former soldier who saw too many men die in his arms for foolish causes, knows “reality” all too well.)

Best of all: The struggle for a better reality for all is worthwhile even if one sees no discernable change–even if the forces of evil (and cynicism and “reality”) seem always to win.  Alonzo, the aging wealthy landlord who has gone mad and become Don Quixote, dies without ever seeing his dreams of knight errantry realized. He didn’t slay a giant, but merely tilted at a windmill–which broke his lance, bent his sword into a curlique, and dented his ancient armor.  Cervantes is taken away by the Inquisition to a presumably ghastly fate.  Evil seems to have triumphed.  But “squire” Sancho Panza cannot simply return to being a down on his luck peasant whose wife beats him and the kitchen wench/prostitute Adanda cannot simply remain a whore.  Don Quixote saw her as “his lady,” the pure and noble Dulcinea and while she cannot, in reality, become a highborn lady, she can stop being a whore and see HERSELF as the pure and compassionate “Dulcinea,” a being of worth.  None of the prisoners with Cervantes are freed, but they also begin to see themselves as worthwhile persons–infected with Don Quixote’s “madness.”

In a world in which the powerful are trying to hurt the poor and the elderly more than they already are, in which aid to tornado victims is held hostage for cuts in Medicaid, in which teachers and garbage collectors are demonized and their pension funds raided but CEO bonuses are considered “earned” and “deserved,” fighting for social justice can seem like madness. Better that madness than the “reality” of always giving into the forces of the great gods “marketplace” and “war.”  But Don Quixote himself says it better in the best song of the musical:

To dream … the impossible dream …
To fight … the unbeatable foe …
To bear … with unbearable sorrow …
To run … where the brave dare not go …
To right … the unrightable wrong …
To love … pure and chaste from afar …
To try … when your arms are too weary …
To reach … the unreachable star …

This is my quest, to follow that star …
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far …
To fight for the right, without question or pause …
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause …

And I know if I’ll only be true, to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie will lie peaceful and calm,
when I’m laid to my rest …
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach … the unreachable star …

June 5, 2011 Posted by | film reviews, the virtue of hope | Leave a comment

Further Reflections on John N. Jonsson (1925-2011)

 I’ve been contemplating further memories of my teacher, John Jonsson.  We who studied with him in the U.S., at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or at Baylor University, were truly graced to have studied with him–and most of us didn’t realize it.  For one thing, he was a true polyglot.  His parents were missionaries to the Zulu, one from Sweden and one from Norway, so had three (3) “milk languages” Swedish, Norwegian, and Zulu.  He quickly added English and Sotha to languages in which he had conversational fluency. By the time I met him, he also had added reading competence in biblical Hebrew, New Testament Greek, and modern German and French. He was working to add Spanish so that he could read Latin American liberation theologians in the original.  South Africa itself is such a polyglot nation that I don’t think Jonsson ever quite got used to the fact that most Americans only speak English (and all the British, Canadian, South African, New Zealand, and Australian readers of this blog–if there are any now that blogging has become passé–are adding, “and you don’t speak English very well, now do you?”).  Jonsson had a profound desire to connect to people–and absolutely none of the American arrogance (that the British used to have during their imperialist days) that simply assumes that everyone else will learn OUR language if they want to communicate! I remember one student (from Alabama, no less!) who had the audacity to ask Jonsson to speak more slowly because he had a hard time understanding his accent! Jonsson simply smiled and said, “Please forgive me, English is only my 4th language and though I’ve been speaking it since I was in primary school, I may not be fluent, yet!”

Jonsson was born in Pietersburg, in the Natal Province, of South Africa.  At 18, he was baptized at Central Baptist Church, Durban, S.A.  With a B.Sc. from the University of Natal, he worked for a time as an electrical engineer for South African Railways, but he then felt God’s call into the ministry.  He traveled to London and initially studied for the ministry at Spurgeon’s College and earned a B.D. at the University of London.  A missiological theologian, he became utterly fascinated by the multiplicity of world religions and eventually earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative religions from the University of Natal.  After an associate pastorate in Johannesburg, and pastorates in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, Jonsson was tapped as Principal of the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa (1966-1971).  He was Lecturer in History of Religions at the University of Witwatersrand (1971-1975) and then at the University of Natal (1976-1981).  But Jonsson was no ivory tower academic.  He was deeply and courageously involved in the struggle against apartheid, but always nonviolently.  His strong preaching on racial justice led to confrontations first with church authorities, and then with the South African government. He had been involved in forming a non-racial college in S.A.

On a lecture tour to North America in 1980, Jonsson suddenly found himself exiled from his homeland–the South African government had suspended his passport and declared him persona non grata.   God works in mysterious ways and this is how we students in the U.S. were graced with Jonsson as a teacher. In 1982, Jonsson was appointed W. O. Carver Professor of Missiology and World Religions at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, staying until the fundamentalist takeover of that once-fine school in 1991.

I had only intended to take the required one class in world religions, but Jonsson was such a mesmerizing teacher that I ended up taking 5 classes with him during my M.Div. studies: “Survey of World Religions,” “Interfaith Dialogue in Global Contexts,” “Methods and Models in Missiology,” “History of Christian Missions,” “Survey of Liberation Theologies.”  I remember kidding Jonsson, however, that he really only taught one subject–JUSTICE.  Jonsson’s passion for biblical justice, for GOD’S justice as expressed in the Exodus, the Jubilee, the prophets, in Jesus. Justice–not as an abstract penal code but as God’s MERCIFUL intervention in the world to restore right relationships among the wandering children of humanity–was the heart and soul of Jonsson’s faith.  It was his passion and his calling–and he saw it as central to the very raison d’etré of the Church as the New/Renewed People of God. It radiated from him and spilled over into his students.  I was already captivated by the Anabaptist and Liberation traditions before meeting Jonsson.  My parents had been bit players in the Civil Rights movement and I had already been on one of two trips to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace before meeting Jonsson. So, I can’t say that Jonsson’s influence was all-determining for my involvement in work for peace and justice.  I was even interested in the struggle in South Africa before meeting Jonsson, but it was probably his personal influence (along with my friendships with Henry Mugabe of Zimbabwe [whose wife, Hermina, is from South Africa] and Moses Tsambo of South Africa) that was the catalyst for my decision to become involved in the U.S. strand of the global movement against apartheid. In 1989, I gathered 15 other students from Southern Seminary and we went to Washington, D.C. to protest the U.S. government’s continued support (and refusal to sanction) the all-white government of South Africa. (Special mention needs to be made of the efforts of one of those students, Ashlee Wiest-Laird, to find us free lodging with a D.C. church!) Two of us were arrested for civil disobedience in front of the White House.  It changed all of us in numerous ways. (Rev. Wiest-Laird later traveled to post-apartheid South Africa to witness the inauguration of her first African president, Nelson Mandela, elected in the first free and fair elections in which all races and ethnic groups had the franchise.)

But one should never get the idea that Jonsson’s passion for social justice made him sober-sided. Far from it. He had infectious laughter and could be downright silly. He definitely knew the biblical secret of finding joy and laughter “though having considered all the facts” in the midst of personal and global pain.  For instance, Jonsson liked to wear outrageously multi-colored socks and sandals with his beige suits–and prominently display this when preaching on Isaiah 52:7/Rom. 10:15, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News!” I can never read those verses without thinking of Jonsson and his silly, multicolored socks!

He came to love the United States–though he knew all our faults.  I think he saw echoes of the beauty and promise of South Africa, but also the history of injustice and oppression and ugliness, in the U.S.  He loved both lands–with open eyes.  He became a naturalized citizen of the U.S.–I remember how joyously happy he was to vote in his first U.S. presidential election in 1988–despite being very underwhelmed by the choice of either the sterile technocrat in Dukakis or the continuation of the horrid policies of Reagan in the first George Bush.  But he retained his dual citizenship in South Africa and retired there–in a free South Africa that still had numerous problems (a massive wealth gap and extreme poverty, AIDS, rising violent crime and gangs, huge threats to its fragile and beautiful ecology).  Jonsson was a patriot–but not a blind one.  He was also a citizen of the world–and first and foremost a citizen of God’s In-Breaking Rule.

Deeply biblical in his faith, Jonsson had an absolute distaste for fundamentalism, “biblicist” but falsely biblical.  When SBTS was finally taken over by fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist holy war of the 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson became Professor of World Religions at Baylor University (1991-2000). I kept in touch until his retirement back to Johannesburg when I lost track. I never knew he was ill until learning of his death last Friday from our mutual friend Henry Mugabe. (Dr. Mugabe was a Ph.D. student of Jonsson’s at SBTS and is now Principal of the Baptist Theological College, Gweru, Zimbabwe.)

Jonsson was an eclectic thinker, influenced by many different theological strands–interweaving them in his own creative fashion.  Among the major influences on Jonsson theologically were the Baptists H. Wheeler Robinson (1872-1945), Frederick Cawley (1884-1978), who was a former missionary to India and Principal of Spurgeon’s College during Jonsson’s time at Spurgeon’s,E.O. James (1888-1972) and William Owens Carver (1868-1954),  as well and the British-American Baptist philosopher theologian Eric Charles Rust(1910-1991); the Swedish Lutherans Gustaf Wingren (1910-2000), Geo Widengren (1907-1996) and Bishop Nathan Søderblom (1866-1931);  the German Lutherans Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945); the Church of Scotland missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin(1909-1998)  and the Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948). He was also a scholar on the life and thought of the Hindu Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), especially of the under-studied period of Gandhi’s work in South Africa (1893-1914), tracing the seldom noticed influence of Baptists and other Free Church ministers on Gandhi’s developing philosophy of nonviolence, and also the influence of the early Gandhian movement on the later struggles in South Africa against apartheid. (Jonsson was not very tech-savvy and it cost the world a major work on Gandhi. He spent 10 years collecting materials by hand for a major book on Gandhi’s South African period and finished the (typewritten) manuscript while on sabbatical in Germany in 1990. A thief stole his luggage, including the manuscript and the original materials on which it was based, and Jonsson had no back up copies. The loss to Gandhi scholarship is incalculable.)

The key to Jonsson’s theology is incarnation, God involving God’s Self in earthly and human affairs, especially in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  I remember Jonsson becoming impatient with a debate between 2 well-known American theologians over whether theology should be primarily “from above,” a theology of the Word, or “from below,” a theology of human experience meeting the divine Spirit.  He interrupted, “We do not need theologies primarily of the Word or of the Spirit. We need theologies of the Word Made Flesh and tabernacling among us!  God is not safe in heaven without us, nor do do theology based on general human experience. God is God meeting us humans in our concrete contexts–with all our sin and pain and oppression!”

He could invent strange neologisms to convey his thought, not all of which were helpful. Instead of sticking with the terms “contextualization,” and “incarnation,” to describe his approach to theology in general and to witness and interfaith dialogue in particular, Jonsson coined the cumbersome term, “retranspositionalization,” (what a mouthful!) to describe the way God takes us out of our comfort zones and puts us on alien ground as the context in which we must bear witness to the gospel–and hear what God is saying to us through our dialogue partners, including dialogue partners who are non-Christian.  He used this wonderful concept with the cumbersome term to forge a non-imperial missiology.  He rejected both the exclusivist missiologies that thundered abstract formulas of salvation at non-Christians but were closed to learning anything of God from them, and relativist approaches (e.g., John Hick, Paul Knitter) in which all religions are equally true and disclose equally valid ways to God and approaches to dialogue which rule out conversion from the beginning. (Any true dialogue–on ANY topic–must include the possibility that one party will be converted to the other’s perspective–or that both will be converted to viewpoints beyond where either began.) I do not think he was a doctrinaire universalist, but I know that he lived in hope that God’s love would finally win past all barriers, including human freedom to reject God, and save/liberate/transform/heal ALL Creation. (Jonsson thought that both exclusivists and universalists showed too little in the way of epistemic humility.)

He was a strong proponent of a mission work from the Global South (Africa, Asia, Central and South America) to post-Constantinian Europe and North America.  Even supposedly “born again” Christians in the imperial/establishment ecclesiologies of Europe and North America needed ongoing conversion that would be aided by the witness of sisters and brothers in the Two-Thirds world.

I shall miss him and I deeply regret that I will not be at the funeral tomorrow (or later today given the time differences between Louisville and Johannesburg) where people from all over will comfort one another and pay tribute to this gentle and much beloved saint of God.  Thanks be to God for the life and witness of John Norman Jonsson. Soli Deo Gloria.

June 2, 2011 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, human rights, obituary, testimony | 3 Comments

Rest in Peace: John Norman Jonsson (1925-2011)

On Saturday, I received the news that my former teacher, Dr. John N. Jonsson, died at his home in South Africa. I’ve been waiting for more details and obituary since.  Here’s one from Associated Baptist Press:


by Lori Fogelman Wed. 01 June 2011

Waco, TX (ABP)

John Jonsson, an emeritus professor of religion and former director of the African Studies program at Baylor University, died May 26 at his home in South Africa after an extended illness. A native South African, Baptist pastor and scholar, Jonsson openly protested the South African system of apartheid from the pulpit, the classroom and in other public forums, including a run as an anti-apartheid candidate for the South African parliament.

Funeral services are scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Friday, June 3, at Rosebank Union Church in Johannesburg. Baylor’s department of religion and Seventh and James Baptist Church, where Jonsson and wife, Gladys, were members when they lived in Waco, will hold a memorial service for Jonsson at 5 p.m. Monday, June 13, at Miller Chapel.

Jonsson grew up in South Africa, where his parents were Scandinavian missionaries among the Zulu peoples.  He was actively involved in protesting apartheid, and in 1977 ran as an anti-apartheid candidate for the South African parliament. He lost by less than 1,000 votes.

In 1985, he was the only Baptist minister to sign the Kairos Document, which called on all churches to demand that the government give equal rights to all South Africans. As a result, the government took away his passport, and from 1985 to 1989 he was not allowed to enter South Africa. In 1989, he was one of the few white citizens of South Africa to be invited to attend the first Conference for a Democratic Future in South Africa, resulting in the release from prison of Nelson Mandela.

For more than two decades, Jonsson served in the Baptist World Alliance as a member of the Human Rights Commission.

Jonsson joined the Baylor faculty in 1992 as professor of religion and director of African Studies and held those positions until his retirement in 2002. Before that he taught missions and world religions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1982 to 1991, occupying the W.O. Carver chair.

In honor of Jonsson’s retirement, Baylor named a lecture series after him, prompting a letter of congratulations from Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Jonsson earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Natal and his B.D. from Spurgeon’s College in London. He was principal at Baptist Theological College, lecturer in history of religions at the University of Witwatersrand, senior lecturer at the University of Natal and acting head in 1981, when Professor Gunther Wittenberg incorporated the Lutheran Theological Institute into the University of Natal. He also co-founded Treverton College, a private interracial institution in South Africa.

Jonsson was preceded in death by his son, David. He is survived by his wife; three children, Lois, Sylvia and Sven; and seven grandchildren.

Lori Fogleman is director of media communications for Baylor University.

June 1, 2011 Posted by | Baptists, heroes, obituary | Leave a comment