Review: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014)

[1] This book reestablishes Williams’s doctoral dissertation work at Fuller Theological Seminary, entitled: “Christ-Centered Empathic Resistance: The Influence of Harlem Renaissance Theology on the Incarnational Ethic of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Williams’ exploration is a welcome journey into a domain of praxiological substance in a contemporary age where vain ideologies, boisterous pathologies, and impotent philosophies have become normative impersonations of meaningful commitment. His historical framing is invaluable, as he refreshingly covers the development and depth of Bonhoeffer’s thought.

[2] The work captures a time period leading up to and including the church resistance movement in Germany, prior to Bonhoeffer’s arrest in 1943 and subsequent death in 1945. During his year of study in America, Bonhoeffer served first as visitor and later as a lay leader with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Tapping into the richness of the African-American religious and cultural experience and its often diminished and disconnected formative impact on modern theological systems, Williams provides an insightful offering to theology and ethics today, both from an historical and sociological concern. New York’s Harlem community flourished during the time of great economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression, continuing Southern reconstruction, and complicated urban migration realities. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the south was a “Black exodus saturated with hope and religious significance.” (84) Though the trek was also accompanied by “disappointment and despair,” (86) it is widely accepted and echoed by Williams here that the Harlem Renaissance was truly a “Communal transformation of consciousness” occurring throughout the period, (81) and hence fertile ground for a great mind like Bonhoeffer’s.

[3] Whether understood in terms of Alain Locke’s New Negro movement or James Weldon Johnson’s Harlem Renaissance, Bonhoeffer discovered personally through friendship with African-American classmate Albert Fisher a “counter-narrative to the white racist fiction of black subhumanity.” (23) “The reaffirmation of [the Black community’s] marginalization meant that a black experience of the political transition included the conversation not only about peace and democracy after the war but also about black humanity. The Harlem Renaissance refigured black identity politically, socially, and spiritually on an international scale, as well as in the United States.” (50) Bonhoeffer’s education would have integrated exposure to numerous cases of miscarriages of justice and lynchings in southern states, and the organized violence of white supremacist contamination even in urban contexts, and so would have planted seeds of discontent to be later reconciled. Williams extrapolates later: “When Christianity offers acceptance rather than resistance to injustice, it becomes sycophantic to white racism and a theological justification of black subhumanity. Sycophantic Christianity is little more than a metaphorical painkiller in a society that is psychologically, intellectually, and physically violent toward black people.” (74) Because of his participation in the social life of the Harlem community with the Black church as the center of that Black social life, and wider exposure to pathos and genius of Harlem Renaissance literature, Williams cites Paul Lehmann’s claim that Bonhoeffer had “thoroughly interrogated the African-American experience.” (78)

[4] Bonhoeffer derived his theology from his Christological exploration and these themes are present in his doctoral dissertation Sanctorum Communio at the beginning of his theological career, remaining core to his theology thereafter. Williams argues that the Black Christ, or the Black encounter with Jesus, and the serious engagement relative to sin and suffering, grace and the hope of salvation embodied in that urban African-American community gave further anchoring to Bonhoeffer’s trajectory. This weighted and incarnated struggle undoubtedly had tremendous influence on the working out of his theological system and practical pursuits. Williams is astute to describe the tremendous influence of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. as representative leadership and his language of “creeds and deeds,” consistent with how the Black church historically has been poised, particularly in urban areas, to impact the lives of marginalized people. (99) “Christian virtue is not only an internal condition; it is also politically and socially a source of hope in the pursuit of freedom and justice.” (99) Williams perceives the “Black dialectical ecclesiology” exhibited by Powell where the relationship of priestly and prophetic functions of Black church life provides a balance of internal worship life and external activism and advocacy. Black church activity became the intersection of conservative theology and liberal politics,” (90) and for Bonhoeffer a compatible expression with his emerging sense of authentic Christianity and Christian community.

[5] Bonhoeffer’s pre-New York theological system remained beholden to a German nationalism supported theologically by the rigid concept of orders, even while early dissonant rumblings within his spirit of his emerging sense of the ethical mandate of Jesus were inevitable. Williams also observes how the formative influences of German theologians Hull, Seeberg, von Harnack, and Barth shaped his theological perspective with a harmonized sense of justification by grace, Christ present fully in community, the historical concreteness of the gospel, and the centrality of Christ. Perhaps areas of further exploration for Williams could have included more critical conversation with the many voices of modern liberal thought and how Bonhoeffer’s interpretation presents an unavoidable critique of the arguably abstract systems of the likes of Tillich, Niebuhr, and Barth. The relationship of other significant Black thinkers and theologians Albert Cleage and later James Cone may also have provided fodder for consideration of the Black Christ and the existential traditions of the Cross in Black suffering which Bonhoeffer embraced. Also of interest to the ethicist would be deeper engagement with Lutheran ethical interpretation and communal ramifications of simul justis et peccator. Still Williams notes:

But Bonhoeffer’s argument for the urgent significance of Christ and Christ’s ethical imperative was missing critical substance. At this point in his theological career, Bonhoeffer did not refer to the Bible for Christian discipleship. As a result of that glaring omission, it was easy to blend the way of Jesus with German nationalism, and to consider patriotism an element of Christian discipleship. With the Bible omitted as a source of concrete guidance for Christian moral living, the popular Lutheran language of the two kingdoms, replete with the nationalist notion of orders of creation, filled the void. (11)

[6] At Union Seminary Bonhoeffer was forced to grapple with the inadequacy of modern liberal American theology, exposure to white churches content to function as mere social corporations absent gospel, cross, sin, forgiveness, death, and life. Williams relatedly traces the impact, wounding and suffering of the World War I context on Bonhoeffer’s childhood psyche as having uniquely tilled the ground personally for his experience in Harlem. His was an urgent quest for something of worth beyond the Protestant cultural captivity and apathy of the day. “The transformation that was inspired by his incarnational experience in the ’church of the 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. Suffering and obedience carried new weight for Bonhoeffer from within his ‘rather hidden perspective’ of solidarity with blacks who knew Jesus as one the the oppressed.” (26) So Bonhoeffer came to know the Christ hidden in the suffering of the oppressed through his experience with the Black Christian community in Harlem, and with his understanding of Jesus’s Stellvertretung as “stepping into another’s shoes” and of “being with each other and for each other,” (Notes, 142) Bonhoeffer would identify Jesus as judged in humanity’s place and dying as sinner with his atoning sacrifice. This truth would not allow a continued conflation of Christ and Volk.

[7] Bonhoeffer ultimately practiced openness to the plight of others, not from a posture of subjugation, but truly learning in transformative experience with marginalized communities different from his own. Williams here advocates by extension for Christians who practice true empathy and social connection as the starting place for a “hermeneutic of Jesus” where “the gospel as narrative shapes Christian character,” as contrasted with an empty ethic that is merely self-serving, inauthentic and destructive. He notes further that, “Abusive empathy is prone to projection, in which the dominant, self-determining, autonomous persons within the social hierarchy bounce their image off the fungible body of fixed, commodified human subjects, only to see their own reflection returned to them.” (3, 4) Bonhoeffer demonstrated meaningful evolution towards true empathic relevance.

[8] Within Williams’s argument is the idea that one cannot minimize the weight of the experience and expression that emerges from the real lives of people with their “backs against the wall.” This is what Williams terms, “Christ-centered concreteness” depicting the unavoidable intersection of anthropology and ecclesiology with Christology, all grounded in the reality of community. All of life is sacred and every facet of life is connected to the Christ. Bonhoeffer would write that, “One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough… [But] we have spiritualized the gospel—that is, we have lightened it up, changed it.” (103) Bonhoeffer’s pioneering opposition is illustrated in his well-known rebuke and exhortation to Christians in Germany of “cheap grace” in contrast to “costly grace.” Cheap grace is “baptism without the discipline of the community; it is the Lord’s Supper without the confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living incarnate Jesus Christ.” (32) This became a critique of Christian apathy and a call to activism, world engagement and social transformation that further fueled Germany’s Confessing Church resistance movement and her stance against Nazi and social evil. One but wonders how this might have been articulated had Bonhoeffer not had the experience with with he Black Christ and Black people in Harlem.​

[9] Because Christianity was, for Bonhoeffer, community in and through Jesus and it was Christ existing as church community, the insistence on the concrete social expression of love for others was the direct result of faith in Christ. Conversely, sin involved the abdication of social concerns and apathy towards the neighbor in need. Their emphasis on a public, active faith in Christ as love-in-action on behalf of the oppressed was for both of them a cause for which they gave their lives. So Williams makes the bold assertion that, “Bonhoeffer remains the only prominent white theologian of the twentieth century to speak about racism as a Christian problem.” (139) This was undoubtedly the consequence of immersing himself in the lives of Black people in community. Bonhoeffer came to understand better and to communicate the Christ hidden in suffering as resistance to oppression. Williams argues throughout the book that this is an ethic, not of power and privilege, but of radical grace lived out in solidarity with the other.

Kevin Dudley

The Reverend Dr. Kevin Dudley is Director of African American Relations and Affiliated Professor of African American Studies at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.