“The Ethiopian Bonhoeffer” The life, works and witness of Gudina Tumsa and Tsehay Tolessa

By John Potter Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is an ELCA pastor in the

Slovak Zion Synod, the editor of the theological quarterly Lutheran Forum, and a visiting professor with the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France. With Samuel Yonas Deressa, she co-edited The Life, Works, and Witness of Tsehay Tolessa and Gudina Tumsa, the Ethiopian Bonhoeffer (Fortress, 2017), a collection of writings by and about the martyred Lutheran couple. Living Lutheran spoke with Wilson about these

two figures who may not be familiar to many Western Lutherans, but who played an important role in global Lutheran history.

Living Lutheran: What drove you to put together this new collection on Gudina Tumsa and Tsehay Tolessa? Wilson: There’s a growing interest in global

Lutheran theology. … Here we have primary writings by one of our most important African theologians and the firsthand account of their lives by his extraordinary wife. In fact, it’s incredibly rare to come across a married couple who are equally remarkable Christian witnesses and so articulate about their faith. Gudina and Tsehay are the Martin [Luther] and Katharina [von Bora] of the 20th century.

How would you describe the couple? Gudina and Tsehay were among the most

remarkable Lutherans who ever lived—despite the fact that so few Lutherans have even heard of them. We are hoping to change that with our book. Both of them came to Christianity as young

people through encounters with Lutheran missions. Gudina was ordained a pastor, and Tsehay joined him on some of his preaching tours, a powerful evangelist in her own right. Gudina … won a scholarship to study at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, Minn.) in the 1960s. When he returned [to Ethiopia], he was appointed general secretary—for all intents and purposes, the bishop—of his church, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.

28 JANUARY 2018 Not long after taking office, the [Ethiopian]

emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed and replaced with the Communist Derg regime. … [Gudina] went from criticizing the imperial regime to criticizing the communist regime, and ultimately paid for it with his life. He may have been the lucky one, though: Tsehay was imprisoned without accusation, trial or sentence. She was tortured and then left, forgotten, in prison for 10 years before her release. Both Gudina and Tsehay were persecuted for their refusal to [kneel] before worldly powers.

What impact did Gudina and Tsehay have on Lutheranism today? In North America we still have the idea

that Lutheranism is a northern European phenomenon that followed immigrants to the U.S. Certainly that’s where Lutheranism originated and has deep roots, but if you want to see where it’s growing by leaps and bounds, you have to look to East Africa. … If we look just at the example of Ethiopia, it’s clear that Gudina is the Lutherans’ inspiration, role model and ideal. He managed to hold together what so often gets put asunder: proclamation of the gospel of faith in Jesus Christ with service to the neighbor; personal piety with social activism; charismatic worship with political protest.

Why is Gudina called the “Ethiopian Bonhoeffer”? Gudina was being called the “Ethiopian

Bonhoeffer” quite soon after his death. Like [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer, Gudina was a Lutheran pastor, deeply rooted in the Lutheran theological tradition, an impassioned preacher and deep thinker. Like Bonhoeffer, Gudina was forced to reckon with an abusive and idolatrous government demanding abject loyalty of its citizens. Like Bonhoeffer, Gudina was executed not simply because he was a Christian, but because he was a Christian who challenged the state’s absolutism. His confession of a Lord greater than the state was intolerable to the pretensions of the state.

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