‘What made it possible for him to see?’

‘What made it possible for him to see?’ July 18, 2017

In an essay on “Why Bonhoeffer Matters,” theologian Stanley Hauerwas takes a mighty swing at a vitally important question … and whiffs completely. Here is what Hauerwas correctly identifies as “a crucial question”:

A crucial question that needs exploration in order to gauge Bonhoeffer’s continuing importance for the church in our day is what made it possible for him to see the character of the regime Hitler represented when so many others did not.

Yes, that’s the crux of the matter. Alas, after identifying it as such, Hauerwas races off into abstraction, looking for some theory of a theory that Bonhoeffer must’ve theoretically theorized as the explanation for “what made it possible for him to see the character of the regime Hitler represented when so many others did not.”

It’s a long essay, and an interesting one — even if much of it seems like an attempt to say “Hey, if you think about it, Life Together is a lot like Resident Aliens …” But I think it largely misses the point. Hauerwas looks for an answer to his question in the academic theology that a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer studied while a student at Union Seminary. And thus he’s looking in the wrong place. The answer to his question can be found several blocks to the north.

Hauerwas’ essay is an example of what Larry Rasmussen calls “thinking about Bonhoeffer” as opposed to “thinking with him.” That distinction comes from his review, for the Bonhoeffer Center, of Reggie L. Williams’ 2014 book, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance

That book also provides the answer to the question Hauerwas raises. In the black church — in Harlem, and in his travels in the American South — Bonhoeffer encountered the Ananias who would remove the scales from his eyes. “Because he was exposed to American racism from the perspective of Christians who were subjected to it,” Williams writes, “Bonhoeffer was equipped with prophetic insight that his white German colleagues in the church and the academy did not have.”


That’s quoted in Alan Bean’s excellent discussion of William’s book: “The African-American roots of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity.”

In Harlem and elsewhere in the black church, Bonhoeffer encountered and fell in love with a “black Jesus.” He returned home with a transformed understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus meant — bringing with him, as well, “dozens of recordings of African-American spirituals” which he repeatedly played for his students in an attempt to introduce them to the Jesus he had come to know, a very different Jesus than the one they had been taught to follow.

That is “what made it possible for him to see the character of the regime Hitler represented when so many others did not.”

Bean writes that most of Bonhoeffer’s allies in the anti-Hitler “Confessing Church” in Germany were “primarily concerned with the Nazis’ re-writing of Christian theology; the plight of Hitler’s non-Christian victims was strictly secondary.” That wasn’t true for Bonhoeffer because, Williams argues, he had learned from the black church that it was among those victims that Jesus was to be found.


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