Original Research - Special Collection: HTS 75th Anniversary Maake Masango Dedication

(Re)constructing God to find meaning in suffering: Men serving long-term sentences in Zonderwater

Christina Landman, Tanya Pieterse
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 75, No 4 | a5520 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v75i4.5520 | © 2019 Christina Landman | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 29 April 2019 | Published: 29 October 2019

About the author(s)

Christina Landman, Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Tanya Pieterse, Department of Psychology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

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Offender populations experience their incarceration through different lenses and often as a spiritual journey of suffering. During 2017 and 2018 a study was conducted by the authors with 30 men serving long-term sentences in Correctional Centre A, Zonderwater Management Area in the Gauteng province of South Africa. Following interviews and focus group sessions, the authors report on participants’ representations on how their (re)constructed views of God assist them to find meaning in suffering while incarcerated. Narrative inquiry as a philosophical framework was applied, which presupposes equality between the researcher and the participant, the unmediated representation of words as data, the researcher as auto-ethnographer and respectful submission to subjectivity. Participants’ views of God are thematised according to sets of God-images, firstly, as identified by Van der Ven in his book God Reinvented? (1998), adapted by the authors to suit the contents of the participants’ God talk. Secondly, the ‘God-images in Africa’ were applied. The participants’ (re)constructed God-images are divided into two categories: images that feed on the binary between divine and human (transcendence) and images that function in the dialogical spaces between divine and human where the incarcerated have internalised an external God (immanence). Binary images of God are presented by the apathetic God, retributive God, controlling God and the purifying God. However, a significant number of participants expressed their belief in God through the dialogical image of the compassionate God, and the suffering God as co-sufferer. The role of Africanness in constructing these God-images constitutes a special point of inquiry in this article, as reflected in the images of God defined by God the Great Ancestor and Divine Spirit, and God with whom a mystical union is formed.


God-images (re)constructed; meaning in suffering; narrative inquiry; co-suffering; mystical union with God; Africanness and God


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