Preaching Promise Within the Paradoxes of Life | Invitation to Stellenbosch, SA, 11-16 March 2016

In: 2016 Stellenbosch, important, invitation 09 May 2015

South Africa is a place of paradox, in fact, many paradoxes. There exists, for instance, the paradox between poor and rich, or rather, between extremely poor and extremely rich – South Africa being identified as the country currently in the world with the biggest gap between those that have, and those that do not have.[1] There is the paradox between luxurious mansions and affluent estates on the one hand, and, on the other, often just a few kilometers from that, struggling townships and dilapidated shacks. There is the paradox – in comparison to many other countries – between the highest figures of unemployment, and the lowest rates of life expectancies; the highest forms of educational inequalities, and the lowest forms of productivity rates; the most sophisticated technological advances in the world (for example the largest disk-shaped telescope, SKA, being constructed in the Karoo[2]), and a seemingly crumbling provider of electricity (Eskom); between being able to host, in the spirit of Ubuntu,[3] one of the most successful Soccer World Cups in history (2010), and experiencing some of the worst bouts of xenophobia ever (in 2008; and again in 2015); between indescribable natural beauty, and inexcusable waste and pollution; between having probably the best political constitution in the world, and some of the worst cases of poor service delivery; between having fabricated Apartheid, but also producing Nelson Mandela, etc.

Indeed, South Africa is a place filled with many paradoxes, contradictions, and tensions – but also possibilities. In the words of Beyers Naude, one of our “prophets” from the time of Apartheid:

South Africa is a microcosm of the contemporary world. Here white and black, East and West, rich developed First World and poor developing Third World meet as in no other country in the world: this sets a tremendous challenge, but it is also a unique privilege. In the melting‐pot of this meeting Christians who want to live out their faith have an incomparable opportunity to witness to justice, love of neighbour, truth and compassion.[4]

More than twenty one years after the democratic revolution took place in South Africa, the question of reconciliation is still an important one, also in and between churches. Concerning the voice of the churches in the transformation of the so-called post-apartheid society, there however seems to be a remarkable lack of a prophetic voice. Instead, in many churches in South Africa, a theology of wealth (i.e. prosperity gospel in its manifold forms) can be found – again, to a certain extent, providing the spiritual backbone for those in power, just as certain theologies provided the spiritual legitimization for apartheid. In short: South Africa urgently needs this conference of the Societas Homiletica on the role of preaching in our society, having a legacy of many vocal and gifted prophetical preachers, like Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, Beyers Naude, and many more. We are haunted by the fact that there currently seems to be a loss of moral leadership: “Where have all the prophets gone?”

It would seem however that quite a lot South Africa’s problems are not limited to this country, but can be discovered in many international contexts (e.g. the widening gap between poverty and wealth/privilege; meritocracy; and many other complex and confusing problems associated with transformation). Preaching in these contexts is always shaped by the prevalent image of God (e.g. as an omnipotent God; as the power of love, as the power of promise etc.) – and this is true for the form and the content of the sermons. At the same time, preaching is always somehow connected to a vision of “a good life”. In this aspect, it might be a challenge to reclaim even “prosperity” as a positive term in preaching – connecting it with God’s promise (of the reign of God, which is not automatically a comfortable promise, but which may provoke [pro-vovare] a new vision of life, church, and society) and with the hope for a better life.

In the discussions of the Board of the Societas Homiletica, held during January 2015 in Stellenbosch, South Africa, the interrelation of promise and preaching within the paradoxes of life became more and more important – and finally contributed towards the formulation of the title of the upcoming conference. The theme offers many nuances, for instance the promise given to preaching (what can we expect of preaching; what are the possibilities?), but also the (type of) promises that we preach, or should preach, within a world with many forms of “promises”- often broken or disillusioned, or as quick-fix solutions. The Board sees the theme as a strong possibility to link the specific context of the South African society to the international academic landscape. The theme for Societas Homiletica, 11-16 March 2016, is therefore proposed as follows: Preaching promise within the paradoxes of life
It is our privilege to invite all our members, and all other guests, to diarize this event, and join us in Stellenbosch to debate this important theme. Further detail concerning the program, registration, accommodation, the call for papers, etc. will be sent out within the coming weeks. For now, start planning your schedule to join us in sunny South Africa!

Johan Cilliers
President of Societas Homiletica


[1] According to data released by the United Nations. In 2011, the United Nations’ agency for human settlement, UN-Habitat, released its State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011 report. Subtitled ‘Cities for All: Bridging the Urban Divide’ the report examined income inequality in cities around the world and reported that South Africa has the highest levels of 109 countries, with all regions studied.

[2] SKA stands for Square Kilometer Array. The project is shared with Australia.

[3] Etymologically speaking, the term Ubuntu comes from the Zulu and Sotho versions of a traditional African aphorism, often translated as “A person is a person through other persons”.

[4] Translated from Pro Veritate, 15 January 1972, pp. 5‐7, 20. Quoted from Len Hansen and Robert Vosloo, Oom Bey for the Future, 1.