11 October 2019 | Story Eugene Seegers | Photo Eugene Seegers
Tutu-Jonker Prestige lecture
Ingrid Mostert and Nathlene van Wyk, both from the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, with guest speaker, Prof Nico Koopman (SU), and the Dean of Theology and Religion, Prof Rantoa Letšosa.

The “rich Christian logic of Luther tells us this: ‘Forgiveness is the first word.’ It invites, facilitates, anticipates, and comes to fruition in contrition.” With these words, Prof Nico Koopman, Vice-Rector: Social Impact, Transformation, and Personnel at Stellenbosch University (SU) sought to reach the hearts of those who attended the UFS Faculty of Theology and Religion’s annual Tutu-Jonker Prestige Lecture on 19 September 2019. 

Prof Koopman’s chosen theme was No Future without Justice: The Forgiveness-Logic of Desmond Tutu and Willie Jonker, which focused on these ‘prophets of forgiveness’ as well as the praise and critique they received as a result of their actions.

On Forgiveness

Delving into the history of the relationship between these two prominent theologians, Prof Koopman first revisited the emotional scene when, in 1990, Prof Willie Jonker pleaded for forgiveness on behalf of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Afrikaner nation at an ecumenical conference in Rustenburg, describing it as personal, yet representative. This confession spoke of justice versus injustice, saying that injustice is a stumbling block to reconciliation. Later, Prof Jonker would be criticised for making this confession ‘on behalf of’ the church and white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, yet even some of his former critics and others defended his actions. Jonker also maintained that a confession of guilt, of sin or wrongdoing, was necessary to enable reconciliation and forgiveness; action was needed to overcome these stumbling blocks. According to Prof Koopman, Prof Jonker’s logic of reconciliation follows that of the apostle Paul, in which justice is essential to the at-one-ment or atonement, reconciliation.

Next, Prof Koopman reviewed Archbishop Tutu’s unequivocal, representative, and vicarious forgiveness, for which he, too, was criticised. Prof Koopman equated this forgiveness with Lutherian tradition, as mentioned at the outset. This belief is grounded in the scriptural principle found in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12: To forgive others, just as we have been forgiven. Prof Koopman said this amounted to passing on and sharing our forgiveness as received from God to those who have sinned against us in some way.  

Drawing from the Christian parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, Prof Koopman said the road is paved for real restitution, forgiveness is available. In the parable, the father of the prodigal son ran to him and greeted him even before he could make his confession: “In the space of the hospitality of forgiveness, justice flourishes,” said Prof Koopman. “Tutu granted forgiveness with justice in mind.”

 On Justice

Justice is known as Summum Bonum, or ‘Highest Good’. Archbishop Emeritus Tutu’s message is still: ‘Seek justice’. According to Romans 14:17 and Isaiah 65:17-25, future blessings in God’s kingdom, such as peace and joy, flow from justice.

Referring to the South African Constitution, Prof Koopman said dignity is a foundational value. Recalling the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests, he said this highlighted how essential it is for dignity to be linked with justice in practice.

 Concretely seeking justice

Prof Koopman mentioned several areas in which one could ‘seek justice’ now, everywhere, and concretely ‘next door’, saying: “Human rights need right humans.”

“Firstly, break rape culture as a quest for justice NOW!” Prof Koopman described rape as oppression, cruelty, barbarism, ‘thingification,’ and dehumanisation; a violation of the most precious, cherished gift — a fellow human being.
Second, he said, is to oppose racism and racial determinism, especially in the field of research. Third, seeking socioeconomic liberation and fulfilling socioeconomic rights, such as access to healthcare, housing, and education.

Lastly, seeking wise hospitality and association with other races, nationalities, and cultures. Following the Tutu-Jonker Logic involves advancing justice as embracing, not alienating. 

 Porcupine Journey (‘Ystervarkpad’)

In conclusion, Prof Koopman related how porcupines need to huddle close together to conserve their body heat during cold winter nights. However, every time they get close to another porcupine, their quills prick each other, causing them to pull away. Yet, their survival depends on their overcoming those small injuries in order to benefit from each other’s body heat. 

He compared this to the situation in South Africa: There are old and new sores that require continuous confessing and offering of forgiveness. He concluded: “Embracing justice means drawing closer together to survive and thrive. Don’t seek to be right all the time; what is most important is to be forgiven. This makes our joint quests for justice sustainable.”

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