Reggie Williams on Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

Publication Year: 2014

Jermaine McDonald: What was your inspiration for Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus?

Reggie Williams: There are at least two things that inspired me to write this book. This first is not a thing, but a person: my mentor the late Glen H. Stassen. I studied Bonhoeffer with Glen, and for Glen, Bonhoeffer’s time in New York was the key to understanding his resistance of the Nazis and advocacy for the Jews. Glen reflected on Bonhoeffer’s life as a key resource in his own work as a theological ethicist, particularly Glen’s description of the historical problem of a “thin” Jesus that is stripped of his social commandments, turning the gospel into doctrines and ideals. For Glen, the problem of a thin, emaciated Jesus was best illustrated by the transatlantic slave trade, where the gospel was thinned down, stripped of social imperatives in order to make it compatible with slavery. The mating of the gospel with practices of domination and authoritarianism distort the gospel and infect it. This problem persists even today as authoritarian Christians employ rather thin interpretations of the way of Jesus in order to promote doctrine over people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued for concrete obedience to Christ, leading him to resist social injustice. Bonhoeffer had a thicker Jesus. Glen was certain that Bonhoeffer had encountered this Jesus at the black Baptist church he attended in Harlem. This Jesus wasn’t co-opted by the needs to accommodate slavery as a Christian practice but, to paraphrase Howard Thurman, was understood to identify with the populations whose backs were historically pressed against the wall by political oppression and social injustice. Glen’s observations about the initial source of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the evils of Nazism intrigued me.

The other inspiration for this book was my general interest in the Harlem Renaissance. When I was an undergrad, I’d read Langston Hughes’ poems in my free time. My wife and I included a Langston Hughes poem in the order of ceremonies for our wedding. When I learned that Bonhoeffer was studying at Union Seminary, and attending a church in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, I was fascinated. I was also surprised that there was not much mention of the Harlem Renaissance in connection with Bonhoeffer’s time in New York. I wanted to know what he thought about that movement that was happening while he was in the neighborhood.

Why should the general public be interested in this work?

I think the book is relevant today, for a variety of audiences for quite a number of reasons. To begin, the way we understand what it means to be human is a recent occurrence in the West, and it is tied to European economic interests in Africa, and European imperialism. That history still shapes how we see our nation and communities today. It shapes what we think of morality, Christian faithfulness, humanity, and sin. Because of that recent history, we can actually work against real Christian faithfulness while believing ourselves to be moral, God-fearing, followers of Christ. How does that happen?

But even if you’re not a Christian, the history of Christianity in the western world is a very salient factor in shaping how we understand humanity, culture, civilization, and our collective hopes for the ideal community. Bonhoeffer’s story is one that occurs in unusually trying times, but it is also one that many people can relate to in one way or another. He was open and vulnerable to learning from communities different than those in his own formative world. We can learn from him in order to help one another in our current, very trying political times.

You write that Bonhoeffer was even more radical than his Confessing Church colleagues in his articulation of why Nazism must be resisted. How so?

Bonhoeffer’s colleagues were concerned with the government intruding into space traditionally belonging only to the church. For the German Lutheran, the church is the right hand of God and the government is the left hand. The two may work together, but they are not to be confused; they must remain distinct from one another. Most members of the confessing church movement that Bonhoeffer participated in were concerned about the wrongful blending of church and government advocated by Nazi-sympathizing church leadership. Generally speaking, confessing church members wanted a traditional German Lutheran separation between the German protestant church and the government. Bonhoeffer was concerned about more than that. He was concerned about Nazi racism and committed to Christian resistance to injustice. In short, Bonhoeffer was concerned about the government treatment of its citizens, many of whom were being marginalized and maligned with Christian cooperation. Bonhoeffer’s colleagues who did not share his concern for the oppressed often frustrated him.

What were some of the sources, people, and places Bonhoeffer encountered in New York that gave him a sense of an ethic of resistance that would stay with him for the rest of his life and ministry?

Last summer I had the opportunity to visit Germany and spend time in places that were relevant to Bonhoeffer’s life, including the place where he was killed. My time there also included a visit to the library that houses his papers. I looked through the materials he brought with him from his time as a student at Union and among the items that he brought with him on his return to Germany was a bibliography of Harlem Renaissance authors that he picked up from the Schomburg library on 135th and Lennox avenue in Harlem. I was excited to see the titles of works by prominent Harlem Renaissance writers that Bonhoeffer knew about. His biographers mention him reading works by black scholars and they guess about whom he may have been reading, but the existence of Bonhoeffer’s Harlem Renaissance bibliography had yet to be acknowledged, as far as I could tell. That bibliography, as well as the Schomburg library must be mentioned as important resources for Bonhoeffer in New York. Other key factors that most likely informed his ethic of resistance include his stint teaching Bible study to black women at Abyssinian Baptist Church and his travel to Cuba at Christmas in 1930. That trip took him through the U.S. south where he witnessed such tremendous racism that he felt inclined to extensively write about it to his brother Karl Friedrich. Additionally, the case of the infamous Scottsboro nine compelled him to write home in 1930 in order to have an official record of a German church official condemning the obvious racism against the nine young black men wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. Bonhoeffer’s encounter of Jim Crow racism and his participation with black resistance to it most certainly shaped his radical commitment to Christ for the remainder of his life. In fact, he was still thinking about his Harlem experience, particularly the Scottsboro case, in 1942 while writing his book that was posthumously published as Ethics.

Your work shows that Bonhoeffer’s one-year Harlem experience had a dramatic, life-changing impact on his theology and ethics, yet heretofore, that experience has been downplayed in previous Bonhoeffer scholarship. Why do you think that is?

The experience of Harlem haunted Bonhoeffer and helped him to develop and deepen what was already there for him theologically. No one in the Bonhoeffer family supported the Nazis. In fact, one of his brothers was also executed by the Nazis for the same reason as Dietrich. Bonhoeffer also had his contradictions with which he wrestled for the remainder of his life. What’s unique about Bonhoeffer is the theological trajectory within his life of Christian discipleship that led him to the gallows at the Flossenburg concentration camp; a theological commitment that he articulated in an extremely well-documented life. The Nazi government was constructing a society specifically for the well-being of the Aryan race, of which Bonhoeffer was literally a card-carrying member. Yet, Bonhoeffer chose a course of action that led him into solidarity with people who were being marginalized, oppressed, and murdered in that very society that was being constructed for his benefit. The question I pursued was simply, why?

Some Bonhoeffer scholars have mentioned the impact of Harlem on Bonhoeffer’s developing Christian identity. Years ago, Ruth Zerner taught us that Bonhoeffer had four close friends in Harlem, and that one of them was an African American student at Union seminary along with Bonhoeffer. Not too long ago, Hans Pfieffer made the argument that Bonhoeffer’s mental condition before his trip to New York was vastly different upon his return which clearly indicates the impact that trip had on him. Clifford Green gives a very rich overview of Bonhoeffer’s time in New York in the introduction to volume 10 of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English edition. Josiah Ulysees Young also describes Bonhoeffer’s time in New York, emphasizing what Bonhoeffer brought to New York as a theologian. Nevertheless, taking into account the sheer volume of writing that has been done about Bonhoeffer over the years, Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem has been virtually overlooked.

Bonhoeffer interacted with black Abyssinian Baptist Church, and a black intellectual literary movement in Harlem (and in Washington D.C.). That move into black spaces is not what white scholars are accustomed to doing, even today. It is typical that a student of color within the predominately white theological academy must become familiar with scholars whose theological work is constructed within social locations that differ from their own, scholars who espouse a hermeneutic that is set within white experiences of the world. That is theologically alienating for people of color. Bonhoeffer’s move into black Harlem for learning and developments in his Christian self understanding had him learning something that he would otherwise not have been able to see as a white aristocratic German man. Bonhoeffer’s move into black spaces demands that the theological academy that values him do the same in order to keep up with him. To this point, Bonhoeffer scholarship has simply not valued the contribution of black scholars and black religious institutions, certainly not as Bonhoeffer himself did. As a consequence, scholars of Bonhoeffer’s life and ethics have ignored Bonhoeffer’s time spent in black Harlem. Hopefully, this book will inspire any future Bonhoeffer scholarship to take that time and those experiences more seriously.

About Reggie Williams

Dr. Reggie Williams is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. His research interests focus on Christological hermeneutics and Christian morality, particularly how the Western-world understanding of Christianity has been calibrated to a false ideal that corresponds with racialized interpretations of humanity, morality, and Jesus.

About Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society from Emory University in the Spring of 2015.

Jermaine M. McDonald

Dr. Jermaine M. McDonald is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He completed his PhD in Ethics and Society at Emory University in the Spring of 2015. Jermaine researches interesting convergences between race, religion, and politics with the aim of analyzing how various groups bring their religious ideas of the common good to bear in U.S. society.

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