It might be hyperbole to say that Reggie Williams’ book on Bonhoeffer’s black Jesus changes everything… and yet it does.
Most books on Bonhoeffer approach everything through the hermeneutics of Bonhoeffer himself. The world is reframed in the light of Bonhoeffer’s theology and personality.
Reggie Williams also loves Bonhoeffer, but he takes a different approach. Instead of framing everything through a constant Bonhoeffer lens, with the reader experiencing Harlem, or theology, or what have you, through Bonhoeffer’s eyes, Williams imitates the deep empathy of Bonhoeffer himself by going all the way, sometimes abandoning Bonhoeffer for pages at a time in order to mediate the community or place with which Bonhoeffer was empathic.
The result is a revelation. Bonhoeffer’s freedom to confess faith in Christ over against National Socialism is explainable by reference to his theology alone, but his freedom to confess faith in Christ even over against the compromised confessing church, which frequently went only half way in its resistance to the Nazis, was inspired by his time in Harlem. It is his experience of the black church, his becoming part of and embodying the black church of Harlem, that makes him who he is upon return to Berlin and the years of his confessing.
What is frequently overlooked in contemporary theology is the extent to which race has become an ontological category co-opting all or most of Western thought. “As a result of this distortion, God’s gift of salvation was now commingled with a social principle and a racial optic; social value and moral proximity to God were radicalized and measured by the likeness to an idealized humanity, the white European male body. Israel was replaced by Europe as the community of God’s chosen people, and Christ became a European white man” (47).
The theologian who makes this argument with the greatest breadth and rigor is J. Kameron Carter, in his Race: A Theological Account. I recommend that book for all those who would like to work through the geneaology of race in western theology.
But for those with greater interest in Bonhoeffer, or simply anyone more interested in a specific account of how this plays out in the theology of one person, perhaps the most influential theologian of the 2oth century, well, then Reggie Williams’ is the place to begin.
What we discover is the extent to which Bonhoeffer was influenced by Harlem and the black church experience. Even though there are many theologians who keep attempting to re-appropriate Bonhoeffer for their white theology (the worst transgressor being Eric Metaxas in his excruciatingly painful biography), the truth is Bonhoeffer has “disdain for the white representation of Christ and Christianity” and was drawn to the “more attractive conversation about Christ that he encountered among the ‘Negroes’ [and their] transitional discursive space and moment that was occurring on the underside of the color line” (51).
“The man-made white Jesus disallowed them from recognizing the real Christ, who they wanted to avoid. Racism turns white Christians into idol worshippers, and disallows authentic Christian discipleship” (57).
It isn’t simply that racism is a slight moral failure that can be corrected on the surface while maintaining a form of faithful Christianity at the core. The point is, our very faith, right down to our discipleship, has been co-opted by white power structures. To become faithful followers of Jesus Christ, all those co-opted by racist ideologies need our theologies reformed.
Two points are worth attending to. First, Bonhoeffer meets a Jesus who empathizes with the minorities. “Jesus is found among the victims of systemic and structural oppression, repeatedly rejected, and finally killed by its guardians, because of his empathic identification (Stellvertretung) with all victims of injustice” (62).
But Bonhoeffer also meets himself in his encounter with this Jesus, and out of deep empathy is able to change. “Bonhoeffer was a white aristocrat, a theologian, and a junior faculty member at the University of Berlin. But identity did not prevent his entering into Abyssinian [in Harlem] as an engaged learner. By practicing empathy in Harlem, he opened himself to exploring and revising the way he saw the world from with a community that was foreign to him” (79).
Interestingly, when Bonhoeffer later returns to Berlin, his empathic experience in Harlem draws him to inner city ministry in a “tough” neighborhood of the city. He tells stories to rowdy confirmands in a working class part of Berlin about his time in Harlem, and they pay attention.
Bonhoeffer is drawn to ministry of this type because, as I have mentioned, he sees in Jesus an empathic resister to oppressive systems. Here is Bonhoeffer in his own words:
The proletariat actually disassociates Jesus from his church and its religion. When the proletariat says that Jesus is a good human being, it means more than the bourgeoisie means when it says that Jesus is God. Jesus is present in factory halls as a worker among workers, in politics as the perfect idealist, in the life of the proletariat as a good human being. He stands besides members of the proletariat as a fighter in their ranks against the capitalist enemy” (DBWE 12:90).
Reggie Williams directs our attention to an aspect of Bonhoeffer of which we have always been aware, his willingness to resist an oppressive regime–but he directs our attention also to the deep racial aspect of this willingness. Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the African-American church in Harlem is the direct energizing force of his resistance.
And so: “The nature of the obedient church is faithfulness to Christ on behalf of others in the moment of crisis… the least that the faithful church should do is care for the vulnerable: ‘Speak out for those who cannot speak out.’ Who in the church still remembers that this is the very least the Bible asks of us in such times as these?” (124)
I keep quoting this book, but it is because it is so good. So we have again,
“Bonhoeffer’s theology after New York included developments in his understanding of the theologia crucis in regard to the social role the church must take in response to oppression. Theologia crucis came to be defined as theology done from the recognition of God’s hiddenness in suffering with the outcast and the marginalized–as Bonhoeffer had experienced God in the hidden African American communities and now among the suffering Jews” (129).
Notice that God standing with the suffering is quite different than, for example, the stand your ground culture of much of Christianity in North America today. In the United States, white theologians have co-opted God’s solidarity with the suffering and think that God “stands with” the establishment, those ensconced in power, those carrying guns. This illustrates the extent to which racist categories continue to co-opt real Christian faith for heretical ends.
For so much more on this point, consider reading Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas.
So Reggie Williams concludes:
“Access to the perspective from below clarifies the quality of Christian discipleship by revealing that a supposed moral life is not the key to a good Christian life; Christlikeness is. People may be labeled as essentially immoral by racialized definitions of humanity, and a moral life may be determined by adherence to doctrines in isolation from others or doctrines that favor an idealized community. But Christlikeness is determined in concrete daily interaction with and for others. One cannot claim to ignore Christ and ignore injustice. As Bonhoeffer indicates, Christ is hidden in suffering and marginalization. To see the world from the perspective of those communities where outcasts are labeled and shunted grants vision of the nature of God in Christ. To volunteer as one who shares the load of suffering and marginalization creates participation in what God is doing in the world, and, thus, the burden-bearer becomes a disciple of Christ” (134).