Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: A Review

“Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus” is a marvelous addition to the growing literature on Bonhoeffer’s theology. The author, Reggie Williams, provides us with a perspective on Bonhoeffer that highlights the influence Bonhoeffer underwent during his time in New York as a foreign student at Union Theological Seminary. While it has been known that Bonhoeffer’s exposure to black Christianity as he frequented Abyssinian Baptist Church did significantly impact him, it has been never thoroughly investigated what this impact consisted of or what effects it resorted. This makes sense since the margin is always filtered out as trivial, and black thought still often plays only a marginal role in white academic theological discourse even when it comes to Bonhoeffer studies. Reggie Williams’ book is a worthy read for the following reasons:

Analysis of the “black situation”

The book paints a picture of the Harlem Renaissance, the nascent movement of black consciousness and intellectual self-analysis that provides the backdrop for Bonhoeffer’s exposure to black Christianity and black criticism of imperialist white-privileged culture. Many thinkers who identified with the Harlem Renaissance were not averse to Christianity, even though it presented itself in a form that condoned and sanctioned oppression of blacks, but redefined it in terms of the presence of God in Jesus with the oppressed: a black Jesus. In order to make his point Williams provides a developmental account of how Euro-centric imperialism and bias against color went hand in hand. He shows how Western theology was part and parcel of this cultural outlook and contributed to it in the form of (a) the imagination of a white Jesus who sides with the colonizer and imperialist, and (b) the creation of a distance between theological thought and praxis in order to soften the obvious discrepancy between the praxis demanded by the Gospel on the one hand and the white imaginary Jesus of the dominant culture on the other. He applies Dolores Williams’ model of theological engagement with racism (horizontal encounter, vertical encounter, transformation of consciousness, and epistemological process) to Bonhoeffer’s development during his time in Harlem. Reggie Williams’ book may as such serve as a meaningful introduction to black thought and literature and may help to see important aspects of 19th century Western history in a different framework.

Analysis of Bonhoeffer’s situation

“Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus,” though highly readable and accessible, makes a strong and academically sound case for the importance of the influence of the Harlem Renaissance on Bonhoeffer. Williams argues that Bonhoeffer’s pre-New York theology, although having very strong christocentric tendencies, still lacked both a theoretical account of why (and an application of how) the consequences of discipleship should manifest themselves in theology and the life of the Christian. In fact Bonhoeffer’s theology was impaired by the widespread national malaise in Germany as the result of losing World War I. Bonhoeffer shared the romantic nationalism that sought a restoration of the German “Volk” in its glory and openly confessed that any ethical demand from the Gospel could be set aside for the sake of attaining that nationalistic goal. Williams points out that it was not Union Seminary itself that changed Bonhoeffer. In fact he was quite critical of the American theology he encountered there. No, it was the encounter with black Christianity that afforded him a look at the world from “behind the veil” as Williams, following Du Bois, calls this. Being with Abyssinian Baptist Church helped Bonhoeffer see the world from the perspective of the oppressed black individual. It was the place where he saw a church in which “Christ existed as community” in ways he had not seen before. It provided him with (a) an understanding of the plight of the marginzalized in the world who are not able to participate in the narrative of the center—Bonhoeffer came face to face with the Black Christ of the black Christians—, (b) a critical perspective of the main (white) narrative of the center that one can only gain from not being in the center, and (c) a hands-on approach of how a church ought to conduct itself in a context of marginalization. This understanding and approach would help him later to take a decisive stance, right from the beginning, against the nazi oppression of the Jews in Germany.

I do not believe this is all that can be said about Bonhoeffer’s development in terms of the integration of discipleship in his theology—and I do not suggest that Williams is of that opinion. Luther’s theology and phenomenology play important roles as well in Bonhoeffer’s world and action affirming theology. I do think, however, that with the introduction of the black perspective in Bonhoeffer’s theology as an important factor we have an important piece of the puzzle that was missing thus far. In my own research into the theological method of Bonhoeffer, I have gained a few important insights (I hope), but I was still puzzled how Bonhoeffer’s theology was both innovative and academic while at the same time being infused with a very strong emphasis on a socially oriented discipleship. I think, with this book, Williams has provided important clues to solve that riddle.

Analysis of the current situation

Bonhoeffer’s legacy, including his encounter with the Black Christ, is more than something of historical interest. His move from an ethnocentric theology to a true christocentric one in which Christ was seen as belonging to the oppressed—one in which the call to obedient action was to be obeyed, one in which self and one’s own group were not elevated above others or spared suffering—is a move that has great relevance for our situation (and here the book review turns into a prophetic rant). When I take a hard look at the evangelicalism that forms my own background, and especially its North American version, I see a split personality, an unresolved theological tension, that is in some respects similar to Bonhoeffer’s pre-Harlem theology. German nationalistic liberal theology meets evangelicalism! This is the case in two ways.

Firstly, evangelical theology has a kind of abstraction that doesn’t seem to be able to meet people’s needs where they are at. It does so perhaps on an individual basis, but not at the structural level of culture, state, and international relations. Evangelical theology is premised on the idea that Scripture is the sole source for theological statements and theological construction. Many evangelicals envision the theologial task to consist of taking propositional statements from the Scriptures and use them as declarative divine statements about God, humanity, and world. The assumption that leads to this approach is itself not sufficiently warranted. It needs itself to be based on the idea that Scripture in fact works this way. All the right things are being said: the need to follow Jesus wherever he calls, the need for obedience, the need to love neighbor, etc. But somehow it seems to remain hanging in mid-air. Reality itself is not really touched by this kind of theology. Reality (that is: the reality of the oppressed and the question of our involvement in doing something about these particular oppressed today in this society or beyond its borders) is only allowed to participate in forming our theology to the extent that it conforms itself precisely to the “biblical situation” as evangelicals have interpreted it with their propositional method.

Secondly, we evangelicals, subconsciously use this kind of theology to insulate ourselves from true responsibility in the real world. The cost of discipleship would demand of us to come out of our comfort zone and address the truth of the inequality of black people in this nation, the economic oppression of millions in the non-Western world through Western policies, or the raping of nature by the incessant drive toward profit and corporate expansion. By personalizing faith as a private affair that affects one’s personal vertical relationship with God in Jesus, we evade the task at hand. By busying ourselves with the proclamation of a Gospel that has a predominantly other-worldy goal, we parade a Jesus that has nothing to say about lynching tree, concentration camp, or genocide. In fact, by our non-involvement we save Jesus from defilement with this evil world. But of course we really try to save ourselves from true discipleship and prefer to align ourselves with the main narrative of an affluent suburbia that has no interest in changing the status quo. Evangelicals rightly talk about the lordship of Jesus and his claim on our lives, but do so by means of a strict dichotomy by merging this lordship with a narrative that favors the political and economic powers that seek to preserve capitalism and imperialist policies, just as the early Bonhoeffer subsumed the christocentric theology of his dissertation to national aspirations at the expense of those who might have to suffer for it.

We evangelical christians stand in need of an encounter with the oppressed and need to ask them to provide us with a look from “behind the veil” at the world as it truly is. It is a world in which Christ does not triumphantly march on toward ever more progress in name of the nations of the Western world, but one in which Christ is the suffering servant, who dwells, oppressed, exploited, in the gutter of the world. Only when the primary locus for our theology becomes the place where Christ is in this world, will we be able to become true disciples of Jesus. Reggie Williams shows us how and where the transformation from a privileged to an engaged theologian is to be located in Bonhoeffer’s life. He convincingly shows how Bonhoeffer’s talk about cheap and costly grace comes straight out of the Harlem experience. We stand much to learn from the margin that was the Harlem Renaissance and is today (among other margins) the analysis of oppression, racism, bigotry, and dominance in black liberation theology.

As such Williams provides us a greater service than simply adding a new insight to Bonhoeffer scholarship. For those of us (“us” as in, let’s say, white theologians) who are willing to gain the perspective behind the veil and see the world with black eyes and gain an introduction to black thought, Bonhoeffer’s iconic status within theological scholarship and the wider Christian world, may, with the aid of Reggie Williams’ contribution, help us go through the theological transformation Bonhoeffer underwent in Harlem. If only we don’t shy away from the implications for discipleship it brings.

Back to Top
%d bloggers like this: