A life lived with integrity and deep commitment to ordinary people

2014-04-04 00:00

LIVING with integrity during this momentous time period required a remarkable person. Gunther Wittenberg was such a person.

Born to missionary parents in what was then Tanganyika, Gunther grew up within the post-colonial struggles of southern Africa. He was to make these struggles his own, identifying with and working with those on the margins. Throughout this journey he was accompanied by his wife Monika (née Teichler), a true companion and comrade. Having met as children in the internship camp for German families outside what was then Salisbury (Rhodesia), Gunther and Monika were to reconnect in Germany in the mid-fifties, where Gunther was doing postgraduate theological studies. They were married in 1961.

Gunther’s many contributions to the struggle for liberation in South Africa were shaped by his deep commitment to prophetic Christianity. From his undergraduate studies in Pietermaritzburg to his postgraduate studies in Germany, to his first parish ministry in Belville in the Cape, to his involvement in the Christian Institute, and the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community Social Action (Pacsa), prophetic Christianity provided the parameters for what he did and how he did it. Gunther, a quiet and gentle person, was a person who did a great deal.

Because Gunther recognised the ambiguous role of Christianity in apartheid South Africa, he was committed to forms of theological education that would nurture what the Kairos Document (1985) referred to as “prophetic” forms of Christianity. He set about this project, what was to become the central project of his life, with careful consideration and planning. He spent three years preparing himself in Germany, and then returned to what was then the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg in 1973, with a vision to establish the first theological education programme in prophetic contextual theology at a university. This project would consume his life, and the life of Monika and their four children, Martin, Inge, Gertrud and Reinhild.

The residents of white Scottsville and sectors of the church did not respond positively to this non-racial initiative, but Gunther remained resolute. Slowly, under his leadership, what was to become the School of Theology (now part of the School of Religion, Philosophy, and Classics) emerged in 1985, a nationally and internationally recognised pioneer in the area of prophetic contextual theology. And some years later, Gunther’s vision for a truly ecumenical theological education project was realised when the Pietermaritzburg Cluster of Theological Education was established in 1990, bringing together the many theological seminaries in the area, including the newly formed Lutheran Theological Institute.

But Gunther was not content with a form of theological education that remained restricted to educated elites. And so he began work on a related project, one that would forge an interface between socially engaged biblical and theological scholars, and ordinary Christians in poor and marginalised communities. Having visited the base-community projects of Brasil in the mid-eighties, Gunther established a South African equivalent, the Institute for the Study of the Bible (what is now the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research), in 1989. The Ujamaa Centre worked (and continues to work) with local communities, using biblical and theological resources for social transformation. Through this work, Gunther was able to engage directly with the changing contextual landscape of South Africa.

And still Gunther was not done. Having retired and having been recognised by the University of KwaZulu-Natal as an emeritus professor for his accomplished scholarly career, Gunther embarked on yet another related project, the formation of a religious community, known as the Kenosis Community.

Through this community-based project, Gunther continued his work in the field of HIV/Aids, and began yet more pioneering work in the field of ecological justice.

Throughout this long and full life, Gunther remained a family man, revelling in his children and many grandchildren. He also mentored many, nurturing another generation who continue to walk and work in the trajectory he charted. Everything he did he did with a gentleness of spirit, serving others with care, and a deep commitment to justice. He died, like the biblical Job, surrounded by his family and friends, “old and full of days”. We mourn his passing, and we celebrate his life. Hamba kahle, baba.

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