Back in June, at the conclusion of a week-long intensive for my doctoral studies, I attended a lecture from Bonhoeffer scholar Dr. Reggie Williams of McCormick Seminary. As a long-time admirer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was immediately interested in the lecture, but the result of Dr. Williams’ presentation certainly had a deep impact on the way I viewed the world as I left the lecture hall.
Of course, I needed to learn more about what Dr. Williams had to say about Bonhoeffer and how those of us in twenty-first century America could learn from his life and thought amidst our sociological and cultural realities. So naturally, I purchased his book, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. To say this book is a game changer for me is a massive understatement.
The focus of Williams’ work is to show how Bonhoeffer’s year-long fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in 1930-31, leading to his friendship with Al Fisher and subsequent experiences in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, cultivated the re-development of Bonhoeffer’s own worldview and theology, resulting in the radical prophet that many of us have come to admire. The prophetic trajectory which resulted in Bonhoeffer’s time in New York cannot be understated, as it provides a powerful testimony to what can occur when one challenges his or her own cultural assumptions when presented with the reality of a completely different socio-economic worldview.
Williams carefully details the theological transition of Bonhoeffer: one of affluence and German nationalism to one that exhibits the radical formation one encounters in Jesus as described in the Sermon on the Mount. Specifically, he observes,
“The transformation that was inspired by his incarnational experience in the ‘church of outcasts of America’ became the lens through which the Sermon on the Mount was seen, mobilizing it as commandments to obey from within the context of solidarity in suffering.”(p. 26)
Prior to Bonhoeffer’s plight with the suffering, his theology reflected the immanent frame of German nationalism reflective of the time and place he resided. As Williams recalls, from Bonhoeffer’s perspective, “A good Christian looked no different than a patriotic German, tethered firmly to Volkish, or German-centered, loyalties” (p. 12). But this ideology was beginning to drastically change. The Harlem Renaissance was an “intellectual and ideological mass migration” which desired “a fair representation of the black race to lead the way toward a new, global, black cultural and political identity for the twentieth century” (p. 37). What Bonhoeffer was experiencing in Harlem was an extension of the classroom at Union. In fact, his experiences within Harlem required a renewed engagement with the world around him. This world included “the people-making process of the Germany-as-center mentality included as a eugenics-based vision of a German society ordered hierarchically by race with genuine community membership based on racial purity” (p. 45).
Much of what was being pursued during the Harlem Renaissance was most certainly a response to a similar posture existing in America overall, and the American church in particular. Many of the Renaissance’s thinkers became very influential for Bonhoeffer, including W. E. B. Du Bois. In “Jesus Christ in Texas,” Du Bois uses parabolic imagery to explore how American Christology interacts with the historical background of Jesus. The conclusion, Williams describes, is a “tragic irony” where “in a white-centered world, Jesus becomes a frightening disruption, another sin to be eliminated when whites disregard Jesus’ embodied history as a member of the population on the unfavorable side of the color line” (p. 60). Pushing the ironic imagery even further, Du Bois’ parable reveals how the noose that served as a “symbol of white racist terrorism” became a representation of “Christ’s cosuffering, empathetic pursuit of justice” (p. 62).
The work of W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and other African American thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance had a lasting impact on Bonhoeffer, as Williams concludes,
“The combination of experiences in Bonhoeffer’s exposure to God hidden in the suffering black Christ included a revelation of the theological necessity of peacemaking and ecumenism.”(p. 73)
Bonhoeffer experienced this lived revelation under the pastoral leadership of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Among the many things Bonhoeffer learned during his stay at Abyssinian was Powell’s insistence that the church “cultivate a more sympathetic relationship between races” (p. 91). Sympathy does not mean accommodation. Accommodation was the approach adopted by Booker T. Washington toward white racism; however Powell adopted Du Bois’ resistance model. Williams explains,
“Resistance was the mentality of the self-assured who found their identity not in the common definitions placed upon them by the dominant socio-political systems.”(p. 93)
Additionally, Powell had a strong vision for what the model church should be, namely, a “soul-saving church” that reflects the church of Acts 2. It consists of a community that has a deep worshipful presence but also engages in the world. Williams indicates that when Bonhoeffer left Germany for his Sloane Fellowship at Union Seminary he was asking similar questions concerning the nature of the church. As will soon become apparent, it appears that Bonhoeffer adopted a similar ecclesiology upon his return home from his fellowship. Williams summarizes this ecclesiological vision,
“A Christian and her church must do more than clarify creeds and theology within the Christian community; a faithful representation of the gospel of Jesus Christ occurs in a community of obedient believers who act to engage the world, demonstrating their creeds by their deeds.”(p. 99)
When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer himself would describe his experience in Harlem as the moment he finally became a Christian. It would also be the moment when he realized that Germany was on the verge of turmoil; witnessing the economic impact of the Great Depression and subsequent rise of the National Socialist Party. It is at this point where Williams makes the connection between white supremacy in America to Germany’s own brand of white supremacy,
“In America, white supremacy manifests itself as the human norm: whites are perceived as normal, nonethnic, nonracial people…. In Bonhoeffer’s Germany, white supremacy was portrayed as Volkish racial purity…. The Volkish devotion to pure German blood, with its ethnic, nationalist, imperialist longings, was the German equivalent of normalized humanity from the American version of white Supremacy.”(p. 111)
The fact that the German church adopted the same ideology as the same became a major point of contention for Bonhoeffer. Even those who stood in opposition to the “Führer principle” still accepted Hitler’s government. They were able to still apply Luther’s two kingdom interpretation that saw Christian commitment to the life of the church as something distinct from the political and social realities of the day. Yet, Bonhoeffer absolutely rejected this in light of his theological shift, seeing it as a “fundamental distortion of the church and the nature of Christian discipleship” (p. 123).
In contrast to his Confessing Church counterparts, Jesus for Bonhoeffer was Stellvertretung, meaning, “Jesus is both the source and the guide for Christian community and the mandate for empathic social interaction with those who suffer” (p. 125). This view of Jesus, the church, and discipleship all flowed from a renewed commitment to the Sermon on the Mount. Williams recalls a letter Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother Karl where he affirms, “…I think that I am right in saying that I would only achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously” (p. 110).
The result of Bonhoeffer’s commitment to an ethic of resistance and peace was his death on April 9, 1945, at Flossenbürg concentration camp just two weeks before it was liberated by the U. S. Army. Ironically, Bonhoeffer died as a traitor. Williams explains,
“…he gave up a bright future in the academy to struggle for the witness of the church against corrupting Nazi racism; as a blue-eyed, blond, wealthy, educated, prototypical Aryan German man, he chose solidarity with racial outcasts in America and Germany rather than a life of comfort within a society structured specifically to secure him privileges.”(p. 138)
As a blue-eyed, blond, middle-class, educated, prototypical male of European descent living in America, I too am the recipient of many privileges that this country offers. Sure, most of my American heritage began in the late 1900’s, and sure some of my ancestors experienced their own form of persecution upon arrival, but none of it rivals the sociological realities of American racism that my African American brothers and sisters experience on a daily basis.
Bonhoeffer’s legacy, as described through the pen of Dr. Williams, describes a man with a deep love for Jesus and a deep love for his people. Yet, when confronted by the radical ethic that pronounced through the Scriptural witness in the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer had no choice but to take serious Jesus’ claims. There is little doubt that Bonhoeffer knew that his resistance to the Third Reich would result in death. And while I believe Bonhoeffer intended to make a practical impact, I do not believe that he was a strict pragmatist. He may have presumed Hitler’s days were numbered and he could potentially fly under the radar for just long enough. But I am convinced that such speculations about the thought and life of Bonhoeffer is fruitless.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant man from a brilliant family. But the risks which Bonhoeffer took was not in the preservation of his German heritage, rather it was a faithfulness to the truth of the gospel. I am in no way a fraction of the intellectual that Bonhoeffer is. While our paths are separated by more than half of a century, our experiences have multiple parallels that if I were wise I would learn from his public and intellectual witness.
I do not live in a fascist society. But I do live in a country that is steeped within systemic racism and is existing in a resurgence of nationalism, including within the evangelical church. As I, likewise, tend to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as a foundation for Christian virtue ethics, I see an urgency to develop an ethic of peace in opposition to violence and resistance in opposition to oppression. Bonhoeffer died in obscurity in 1945, and his prophetic witness would not become noticed for over a decade. I do not think Bonhoeffer’s active resistance against the Reich was intended to make himself or his movement famous. What he learned in Harlem needed to be addressed in Germany as well. Likewise, as I listen to the stories of my black brothers and sisters about how they have experienced various forms of racial oppression and marginalization, I have the opportunity to provide a prophetic witness within my own sphere of influence. I learn from Bonhoeffer that the church has the mandate to take the words of Jesus in the Sermon seriously, by engaging on behalf of the suffering, in a posture of radical peace and resistance.