Led through grief – Old Testament responses to crisis


  • Jeanette Mathews Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia




n July 1989, together with my husband David Hunter, I arrived in Cape Town to undertake masters’ studies in the School of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town. The programme was recommended to us by John de Gruchy whom we had met while students at an international Baptist seminary in Switzerland. The opportunity to live and study in South Africa at such a momentous time in its history was a great privilege, and an experience that significantly shaped our theological reflection and practice. We were able to participate in “the Struggle” in small ways: by attending protest rallies, funerals and prayer services; visiting prisoners on Robben Island and welcoming some upon their release; joining in Baptist Fellowship groups; and being present in the crowd welcoming Nelson Mandela in his first public appearance following his release (a notable highlight amongst my life’s experiences). We had deeply appreciated our studies, instructors and fellow students in the Baptist Seminary from which we had come to South Africa but studying in Switzerland had been a somewhat “ivory tower” experience, with very little interaction between our studies and the political and social context in our host country. Living and studying in Cape Town was an entirely different experience. There the context shaped both life and learning, and our lecturers and fellow students were exemplary models for theology engaging with the concerns of the day. We arrived not long after the release of the Kairos Document and were challenged by its expressed prophetic theology, where we found resonances with our own Australian context with its inherent disadvantage amongst its indigenous population. John de Gruchy’s writings on Bonhoeffer and the Anabaptist tradition were of particular interest for us as Baptist students and subsequently pastors. While in Cape Town we were involved with the Rondebosch Uniting Church where the De Gruchy family were members and we lived in a house belonging to John and Isobel. Although we only resided in Cape Town for 18 months, it was a time that made a huge impact on us, and the theological perspective embraced there continued to influence our life and work back in Australia in churches and theological institutions. In recent years I have shared another experience with John de Gruchy – that of grieving a loved one. Aside from the birth of our three sons, David’s death due to cancer in 2003 has been the event that has had the largest impact on my life. As so eloquently expressed in Led into Mystery, when one grieves the loss of a loved one, “the intellectual and existential dimensions of being human [are] brought together … in a new way.”1 Undoubtedly, sudden accidental death and slow deterioration due to disease affect those involved in different ways, yet there are universal dimensions to the death of a partner or close relative that create a sympathetic solidarity between those who have grieved such a loss. Moreover, watching someone one loves “struggle for the fullness of life” as they face the challenge of certain death gives a new dimension to the concept of “Humanity Fully Alive.” In the years that David lived with cancer he was also working on a PhD thesis entitled “Signs of Life” – a study of the sign narratives in the Gospel of John via the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur. The title is indicative of his desire to find resources within the Scriptures for “living life well,” even when life was threatened by illness. My academic work has been focused on the Old Testament, so I have naturally turned to its pages to seek offerings from the intellect of our spiritual forebears in the light of my existential experience. As I have explored the various genres and perspectives offered by Old Testament writers another sentence from Led into Mystery has been the impetus for further reflection: “not everyone ‘owns grief’ in the same way.”2 It occurs to me that Old Testament responses to tragedy are examples of contextual theology at work, where each discrete theological perspective is a response to its own unique context.






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