Luther, Bonhoeffer, Black Lives Matter, and the Role of the Church1

[1] The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd demanded a response from the church. Many churches including the ELCA responded, both locally and denominationally, by condemning the excessive and unwarranted violence of these events and the associated evils of white supremacy and racist violence.[i] While this was an appropriate response to the individual causative events, the BLM movement’s complaint goes beyond these events and requires a different response. Police brutality and white supremacy are clearly significant issues that must be addressed, but the response should encompass the underlying conditions of which these issues may be just symptoms, rather than primary causes.

[2] As we will demonstrate in this paper, racism may be categorized as either motivational, arising from racial animus, or situational, arising from the conditions in which a racial minority finds itself. There is a feedback loop by which one type of racism encourages the other. These two types of racism both require a response from the church, one from a pastoral and the other from a prophetic perspective.   We will show that this latter prophetic response is more challenging to the church but can be modeled in the Lutheran tradition.

[3] Racism has been described in a number of dualities such as individual/systemic,[ii] implicit/explicit and overt/concealed.  However, these descriptions lack precision, since they fail to delineate the underlying rationale behind the racism. In place of these terms, we propose that racism may be more helpfully divided into two modes which we will call motivational and situational. Motivational racism is that disregard, contempt and dehumanizing categorization of the “other” inspired by the sincerely-held belief that other races are genuinely inferior in all or some categories including intellectual ability, moral or ethical world view, or physical form.   This is the form of racism motivated by racial animus and hatred. While white supremacy is arguably the most frequent expression of motivational racism, such racism can and does also raise its head in other racial groupings. Motivational racism may arise in the context of state sponsored racism, such as that found in Nazi Germany and during the apartheid era in South Africa, but it may also appear in smaller, sub-state groups and as a personal stance taken by individuals.

[4] Situational racism arises from the circumstance in which a racial sub-group finds itself. It differs from motivational racism in that it does not require a racially discriminative intent and it is not necessarily inspired by racial animus. Thus, for example, there is a requirement in the US citizenship examination that the applicant be able to read, write and speak English. This could be understood as a morally neutral recognition of the need to comprehend the lingua franca of society, but it could also be understood as an attempt to exclude non-English speaking minorities from citizenship. Without a detailed examination of its origins, it is impossible to determine from the requirement alone which option is the case. Regardless of the motivation behind the requirement, the consequence is that non-English speaking minorities are subject to discrimination in this test. It is, in effect, a form of state-sponsored situational racism.

[5] Situational racism can generate motivational racism, and vice versa, in a feedback loop. To pursue the example above to one possible logical conclusion, an uninformed observer might note that applicants from South America more frequently fail the US citizenship test than those from Europe and might, therefore, conclude that South Americans are inferior to Europeans, transforming situational racism into motivational racism. More relevant to the point of this essay, legislators, prosecutors, and judges may observe that the vast majority of the accused in drug-related cases are Black and might, similarly, conclude that drug use is a problem located primarily in the African American community. Furthermore, they might conclude (as has been the case in many instances) that the African-American community should be singled out for harsher punishments in response to drug offenses, ignoring the fact that police forces are looking for drug offenders more intensely in inner city areas and that such offenders are more easily found in these Black communities than in leafy, predominantly white, suburbs. All this, even though it has been demonstrated that illicit drug use is evenly distributed between Whites and Blacks.[iii]

[6] The BLM movement has grown from a grassroots protest organization, responding to individual incidents, into a well-organized pressure group focusing on the plight of the African American community in American society. The objectives of the organization are presented in a vision statement on the BLM website,[iv] connecting the racism inflicted on the Black community with state-sponsored action. Further in the website, the organization lists its areas of concern and proposed activity, which include racial injustice, police brutality, criminal justice reform, immigration, LGBTQIA+ and human rights, environmental injustice, access to health care and education, and voting rights and suppression.   It is noteworthy that the majority of these issues reflect the interaction of the Black community with the state, be that local or federal. While the movement abhors overt racism, it is the role of the state that is the prime focus of the BLM’s goals. The question remains as to whether this state-condoned racism is motivational or situational.

[7] Michelle Alexander, writing in The New Jim Crow, addresses this question in the context of the war on drugs. According to Alexander, the first Jim Crow laws arose out of a need for the White community to control the Black community, following the emancipation and reconstruction eras. After the civil rights era, the war on drugs led to new laws that appeared to be colorblind, but in fact unfairly targeted the Black community, resulting in the mass incarceration of Black men. Alexander sees White supremacy as the prime motivation for the war on drugs, stating in the preface of the 2020 version of The New Jim Crow that “The politics of white supremacy, which defined our original constitution, have continued unabated – repeatedly and predictably engendering new systems of racial and social control.” Thus, for Alexander, the laws arising from the war on drugs are a form of motivational racism – the laws were intended to discriminate against the Black community. Alexander describes how these incarcerated Black men and their families then suffered further upon release since their felon status denied them access to housing, public assistance, employment and, in most states of the US, the opportunity to vote.   They became, in essence, a sub-caste of American society, denied the benefits afforded mainstream citizens without hope of reprieve.

[8] Michelle Alexander’s book became a best-seller and was widely acclaimed as a landmark statement of the discriminative plight of the African American male. The title – “The New Jim Crow” – entered the lexicon of American race relations and was applied to multiple issues impacting the Black community.   Jonathan Sgro analyzed in detail the disenfranchisement of Black males and the failure of the Voting Rights Act, a matter of ongoing concern today.[v] Ellen Marrus analyzed the impact of the juvenile justice and foster-care systems on educational opportunities and outcomes for African American children, demonstrating that this group was disproportionally affected by these systems.[vi] These analyses were largely supportive of Alexander’s case.

[9] In a 2012 NYU Law Review article and a subsequent book, published in 2017, James Forman Jr. called into question some of the assumptions underlying Alexander’s book and other writing by those he refers to as the New Jim Crow authors.[vii] Firstly, Forman asserted that Alexander’s account focused almost exclusively on the War on Drugs and intimated that mass incarceration of Blacks was based upon non-violent drug offences, whereas in fact over half of all incarcerated Blacks are sentenced for violent crimes (however, it should be noted that many of these violent crimes are related to or consequential upon drug use).

[10] Secondly, Forman also noted that the New Jim Crow was a class issue, with incarceration impacting predominantly the inner-city Black poor as opposed to the middle-class Black community. Thirdly, and most significantly, Forman identified the Black community itself as a major driving force in calling for harsh penalties on drug crimes and tougher policing. Thus, mass incarceration of Black males was not an attempt by Whites to control Blacks, something that was done to the Black community, but was something done by the Black community to itself, albeit with willing White collusion. Thus, it can with justification be described as situational racism.

[11] In support of this claim, Anders Walker writes that both the old and new Jim Crow were not necessarily the acts of racist Whites but were frequently sincere and well-meaning attempts to provide opportunities for the colored communities in one case and to reduce crime and provide safe living conditions for the urban poor in the other.[viii] The outcome – mass incarceration of Black men – was not a deliberate act but an unintended consequence of well-meaning social actions.

[12] At around the same time that Alexander published The New Jim Crow, the ELCA began developing a social statement on criminal justice, culminating in the 2013 adoption of The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries.[ix] This statement was generally well received as a thorough review of the state of criminal justice in America at the time.[x] Hearing the Cries identified many of the issues highlighted by Alexander’s analysis and concluded with eleven resolutions, calling upon various facets of the ELCA to take action. As a thoughtful analysis and a study guide, Hearing the Cries was without doubt a milestone document, but the actions it called for were largely introspective and, as noted by one of the authors responding to the document, required “attention to a broader context…in a society plagued by economic and racial/ethnic disparities”.[xi] Hearing the Cries also predated Forman’s work and did not take into account the African American Community’s role in creating the situational racism that still afflicts it.

[13] Despite Forman’s critique, Alexander’s description of the plight of the Black community remains unchanged. Mass incarceration still disproportionately affects Black males. George Floyd, and many others, have been subjected to unwarranted and too-often-fatal police brutality. The Black community lives in a discriminative world. Forman’s work has highlighted that fact ascribing the problem to White supremacy is too simplistic – the analysis outlined by Alexander and, to a large extent, Hearing the Cries and the recent condemnations from the ELCA of recent events presents a naïve picture that needs to be nuanced by incorporating the role of situational racism. The problem of White supremacy still exists – writing in the declining months of 2020 it is impossible to deny this – but the problems of the Black community are more complex and require attention to the problem of situational racism. Without attention to this issue, the feedback loop to motivational racism will never be broken.

[14] This raises the critical question of how the Church should respond. If this were an issue of motivational racism alone, the response by the church would be focused on its familiar pastoral role, but for situational racism, a response requires the church to interact with the state in some way. It is no longer a matter of the church calling individuals to act justly and love mercy, but one in which the church must confront lack of these qualities in the state in which it resides. In this regard, the Lutheran church can call on models from its tradition – notably from Luther and Bonhoeffer.

[15] Luther and Lutheranism have been much criticized in the arena of racial and social justice.   Some of this criticism is justified, particularly noting Luther’s well-documented antisemitism.[xii]   However, much is less well placed, particularly that related to Luther’s understanding of the role of the church in society. Many have argued that Luther supported political quietism; this issue was notably raised at the end of WWII,[xiii] but also more recently,[xiv] with one commentator noting that “In contrast to the [social] dominance characteristically sought by Catholicism and Calvinism, Lutherans have generally seen themselves as participants, serving out God’s calling in the family, at work, as citizens, and in their congregations.”[xv] While this may be overstating the case, it is consistent with the ELCA inward (pastoral) focus on educating its members, rather than an outward (prophetic) call to justice.

[16] This is, in our view, a profound misunderstanding of Luther’s position in what has generally been called his Two Kingdoms Doctrine. While Luther may have, at times, preached quietism to the individual Christian – one possible interpretation of his writings to the German peasants in 1525[xvi] – he did not see a quietist role for the church and its pastors. In the same letter to the German peasants, Luther, representing the church, was critical of the princes and lords who were oppressing the peasants.   He speaks with even greater clarity in his commentary on Psalm 82,[xvii] where Luther describes the preacher who “stands in the congregation” as the one by whom God rebukes rulers.   For Luther, the preacher, whom we here identify with the church, is not only called to rebuke power, but by the nature of that calling, is required to do so. To fail in that calling, according to Luther, is to fall into sin.

[17] It would seem at first glance that Bonhoeffer’s writings on the relationship between the state and the church would direct Lutherans to an even more quietist stance than would those of Luther, even if Bonhoeffer’s actions during WWII would contradict that assertion. In the key texts,[xviii] Bonhoeffer, clearly influenced by Luther’s Two Kingdom thinking,[xix] states that the true church of Christ will “never interfere” with the functioning of the state, even to the extent of accepting the use of force by the state against its own citizens. However, although Bonhoeffer joins Luther in holding the state to be a God-given authority, he does not consider this authority to be absolute. The individual Christian, along with humanitarian organizations, should critique the state as conscience demands and the Church is only beholden to the state while it continues to act as a legitimate state, preserving law and order. As DeJonge notes, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between individual actions of the state, which the church should not critique, and the character of the state, which is a legitimate concern of the church.[xx]   Following Luther’s commentary on Psalm 101, Bonhoeffer identifies situations where there is either too much or too little law and order as those in which the church is no longer obligated to obey the state.   For Bonhoeffer, when the state is seen to fail, the church should intervene. By his actions regarding the Sofia statement and his opposition to the Confessing Church’s acceptance of the Nuremburg laws,[xxi] Bonhoeffer clearly demonstrated that he saw the National Socialist state as illegitimate, culminating in his actions against it and his ultimate execution.

[18] Both Luther and Bonhoeffer saw the state as the instrument of God, established by God to maintain law and order. Luther was clear, particularly in the Psalm 82 commentary, that the state was required to act for the benefit of its citizens and that, in response, the citizenry were obliged to obey the state and the church to stand aside while this balance applied. The complaint of the BLM movement and the evidence presented by Alexander and Forman has demonstrated that, for the African American community, the state has indeed failed in its role of providing law and order for the benefit of its citizens, creating a sub-class of citizenry. Since, then, the social contract is broken and the state has ceased to act as a legitimate state, both Luther and Bonhoeffer require the church and the individual Christian to take direct political action – in nuce to take up the prophetic mantle vis-à-vis the state.   Following Bonhoeffer, the church is called to not only “bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself.”[xxii]

[19] The mainstream denominations are typically much more comfortable in their pastoral roles. The care and cure of souls is a mission that the church understands, and it is in that pastoral context that much of its response to racism has appeared, attempting to convict individuals of the evils of racism and White supremacy. This is a bottom-up approach, implicitly rationalized on the basis that, if enough individuals are convicted of the need for change, change will occur. The mainstream denominations, including the ELCA, are less comfortable in their prophetic roles. In this role, the church is called to speak truth to power – a top-down approach demanding systematic change, the prophetic call modeled by Luther and Bonhoeffer. In a recent article, Myung Su Yang, reflecting on these issues and following Luther and Bonhoeffer, sees the church as the counterforce to the state, noting that “the church should take a prophetic position with spiritual and moral leadership.”[xxiii]

[20] The challenge posed to the church by the BLM movement, supported by the examples of Luther and Bonhoeffer, is for the church to find its prophetic voice. Social statements and academic papers are a necessary prelude to prophetic utterance, but these represent the church speaking to itself. As prophetic calls they are mere whispers in the desert. In finding this prophetic voice, the church must not lose sight of its pastoral role in convicting men and women of the evils of racism and White supremacy, but the pastoral role is not sufficient. Scripture and the Lutheran tradition call the church to speak truth to power, raising its prophetic voice in protest at the injustices inflicted on our racial minorities. To do so will require the church to conquer its fear of politics and recognize that, while a prophetic call for social justice may be political, but it is not party political. How the church can make that voice heard outside of the cloister goes beyond the scope of this essay, but it must do so.   To remain prophetically silent is to be complicit. Writing in 1940, Bonhoeffer lamented the silences of his church in the face of the Nazi regime. His confession serves as both his indictment of the church of the time and his prophetic word to the church of today.

“The Church confesses that she has witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred and murder, and that she has not raised her voice on behalf of the victims and has not found ways to hasten to their aid. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”[xxiv]




[[i]] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “ELCA reaffirms commitment to combat racism and white supremacy.” (accessed September 18, 2020).


[[ii]] Systemic racism has been used in a similar manner to situational racism as defined herein.   However, Merriam-Webster defines it as the “systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another,” thus incorporating an element of intent. (accessed 9/17/2020).

[[iii]] McCabe, Sean Esteban et al., “Race/Ethnicity and Gender Differences in Drug Use and Abuse Among College Students,” Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse 6, no. 2 (2007) 75-95 et loc. cit.


[[iv]] “Black lives matter began as a call to action in response state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism.   Our intention from the very beginning was to connect Black people from all over the world who have a shared desire for justice to act together in their communities. The impetus for that commitment was, and still is, the rampant and deliberate violence inflicted on us by the state.” (accessed 8/19/2020).


[[v]] Sgro, Jonathan, “Intentional Discrimination in Farrakhan v. Gregoire: The Ninth Circuit’s Voting Rights Act Standard “Results In” the New Jim Crow,” 57 Villanova Law Review 139 (2012).


[[vi]] Marrus, Ellen, “Education in Black America: Is It the New Jim Crow,” Arkansas Law Review 68 (2015) 27-54.


[[vii]] Forman, James Jr. “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration Beyond the New Jim Crow,” New York University Law Review 87 (2012) 101-146; James Forman Jr., Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017).


[[viii]] Walker, Anders, “The New Jim Crow?   Recovering the Progressive Origins of Mass Incarceration,” Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, March 6th, 2014.


[[ix]] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “A Social Statement on The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries.” (accessed August 19, 2020).


[[x]] Journal of Lutheran Ethics, March and May 2011 issues.


[[xi]] Levad, Amy, “Response to Hearing the Cries: Faith and Criminal Justice,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Article 230 (2011).


][xii]] Martin Luther, “On the Jews and Their Lies” in The Essential Luther, edited and translated by Tryntije Helfferich (Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indiana, 2018) 284-303.


[[xiii]] Peter F. Wiener, “Martin Luther, Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor,” (Hutchinson & Co., London, 1945); William McGovern, “From Luther to Hitler: The History of the Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy.”  (Houghton Mifflin, London, 1941); Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Nature and Destiny of Man: Volume II. Human Destiny.” (Charles Scribner & Sons, New York, 1943) 195.


[[xiv]] Alister E. McGrath “Reformation Thought: An Introduction,” (Blackwell, London,1999) 209.


[[xv]] Nestingen, James Arne, “The Two Kingdoms Distinction: An Analysis with Suggestion,” Word & World, 19 no. 3 (1999) 268-270.


[[xvi]] Martin Luther, “An Admonition to Peace: “A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the peasants in Swabia” trans. C. M. Jacobs in Works of Martin Luther Volume 4 (Books for the Ages, Albany, 1997) 152-157.


[[xvii]] Martin Luther, “An Exposition of the Eighty-Second Psalm” trans. C. M. Jacobs in Works of Martin Luther Volume 4 (Books for the Ages, Albany, 1997) 216-244.


[[xviii]] (a) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question” in The Bonhoeffer Reader ed. Clifford J. Green and Michael P. DeJonge (Fortress Press, New York, 2013) 370-378; (b) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Ethics” trans. Neville Horton Smith (Touchstone, New York, 1995) 327-347.


[[xix]] Michael P. DeJonge, “Bonhoeffer’s Two-Kingdoms Thinking” in ‘The Church and the Jewish Question’, in Christ, Church and World: New Studies in Bonhoeffer’s Theology and Ethics, ed. Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler, (Bloomsbury, London, 2016).


[[xx]] Ibid.


[[xxi]] Barnett, Victoria J. Barnett, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Relevance for Post-Holocaust Christian Theology,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, 2 no. 1 (2007) 53-67.


[[xxii]] Bonhoeffer, The Church and the Jewish Question, 373


[[xxiii]] Myung Su Yang, “A Sketch of Luther’s Political Theology on the Question of Church and State with Reflections concerning the Current Responsibility of the Church in Society,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Article 1312, (2020).


[[xxiv]] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, page 114.

William Wood

William W. Wood is a retired scientist and lay preacher, trained in chemistry and theology at King’s College, University of London, and at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and a member of Faith Lutheran Church, Andover MA.