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.