December 22, 2016 / Perspective
Zach Czaia examines Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me from the perspective of a Catholic high school English teacher.
October 1, 2015
Reggie L. Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, TX: University of Baylor Press, 2014).
The fact that today the “black Christ” of a young Negro poet is pitted against the “white Christ” reveals a destructive rift within the church of Jesus Christ.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As Charles Marsh read from his biography, Strange Glory, at a Bonhoeffer conference in 2012, I sensed that the focus and ethos of Bonhoeffer studies might be in flux. Later that weekend, that sense swelled when I first heard Reggie Williams share from his new work, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. While many of the other presentations at the conference tended toward a now-popular Bonhoeffer trope that renders Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a white, suburban moderate through a cheap engagement with The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, Williams resisted that prevailing narrative. Williams aimed to let Bonhoeffer’s movement toward radical resistance speak for itself, perhaps for the first time.
Bonhoeffer’s year in Harlem has, for some time now, remained a sort of abysmal void—Bonhoeffer himself spoke of a conversion experience at Abyssinian Baptist, yet theologians in America have largely overlooked this period of his life. This sort of reception is no surprise given that the ideological foundation which frames contemporary Bonhoeffer studies is the same as the foundation which grounds the broader field of moderate theology: we simply fail to recognize the radical transformation in the politics and theology of a white European man in light of his encounter with black bodies in Harlem, even at this crucial point in history.
In Harlem, Bonhoeffer participated in a postdoc of sorts at Union Theological Seminary, and he was quite active at Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of the most historic black churches in the country. Perhaps the real crux of Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem, though, was that he found himself in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. Williams shows that Bonhoeffer’s language and metaphors begin to shift under the influence of Countee Cullen and W. E. B. Du Bois. He was taught to see that systemic powers and forces function according to race, both in America and abroad. His encounter with and experience of blackness on the margins, its place in society at the expense of a certain theological mythology, served to expose him to and confront him with his own whiteness. And his time at Abyssinian Baptist offered an alternative theology, a Jesus who was decidedly marked by powerlessness and fidelity to the oppressed. Far from being a parenthetical notion, as contemporary scholarship appears to have treated it, Bonhoeffer’s exposure to these ideas made him work toward overturning racial inequalities and injustices, and these injustices, he found, were largely prevailing in the name of the white Jesus put forward by the European theology he was trained in. This work was at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s new conception of the Christian task. And it led him to confront the Jewish problem in the Nazi threat; he was certainly one of the few theologians to address such a racial problem head on from within Germany. For Williams, Bonhoeffer’s highly celebrated, much-revered resistance to the Third Reich was only possible in light of his experiences in Harlem, which have been overlooked for far too long.
Williams spends a good portion of Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus trying to paint as realistic a picture of the early Bonhoeffer as possible. In so doing, he makes a convincing case for the inherent links between Bonhoeffer’s earliest theology and European ideologies of imperialism and colonial domination. He sets this position up with the following argument:
Bonhoeffer received his theological training within the Western European theological community that was still operating in a continuing history of imperialism and colonial domination. . . . To understand the implicit social assumptions that influenced and shaped the Bonhoeffer who came to experience Harlem and to understand the theological and social assumptions that were influencing the Harlem Renaissance that he was about to experience, understanding of the conflict between colonialist and postcolonialist cultural frames is necessary. (41–42)
Williams’s work is so important and timely because of this very argument. He demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s economic tendencies and his theological dispositions are interrelated. Williams notes that “The story of a victorious, superior Germany and the gospel of Jesus the Stellvertretung [sic] fit together awkwardly; they were tethered to each other by nationalism that supplanted content from the gospel and turned Jesus into a fetish of German cultural longing” (12). He sheds light on the interrelatedness of economics, national ideology, and theological formation, both in general and in the particular development and reception of Bonhoeffer. These seemingly disparate schools of thought, he demonstrates, are merely different threads on a singular strand.
As Williams’s careful read demonstrates, the European academy that was responsible for training and producing the young Bonhoeffer was also inextricably related to modern colonialism. Williams illustrates this idea in two points:
First, the history of European colonialism contains the story of what Willie Jennings describes as a diseased social imagination. The infection occurred when theology was merged with the colonial system to provide religious authority for centering the world on a European imagination, making Christ a white European man, and to offer an apologetics for domination and authoritarianism. Second, the imperialist European imagination, dispersed throughout the world in the practice of colonialism and sanctified by a white Christ, also theologically justified the European invention of what W. E. B. Du Bois called the color line that belted the planet, subjugating people of color to white-only power structures. Close analysis of his history demonstrated that the Western theological academy was not left out of this distorted relationship, but the whole Christian intellectual tradition in the West, including Germany, was impacted by the centering project of European colonialism, and the identity of the world’s population was impacted by the Europe-as-center color line. (44)
It is precisely this twisted, conflated history that Williams recognizes as having such an affective influence on Bonhoeffer’s theology. Williams’s relentless look into the heart of Bonhoeffer’s earliest theology sheds light on some typically overlooked concepts, few of which are acceptable. Williams notes, “Jesus fit [the] German narrative by providing Christians with grace to help advance the hopes of a renewed German society, in full support of the German Volk. For the sake of the Volk, war could be justified, murder could be sanctified.” (14). This is the sort of comment that disrupts the all-too-common tropes and debates on the legitimacy of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism in light of his involvement with a conspiracy to murder Hitler. Williams is asking his readers to delve into new depths of Bonhoeffer’s work, and this book is leading readers down the wormhole.
Williams’s interest in this topic obviously stems from his time with Glen Stassen, who was constantly at work critiquing ideologies whose powers were grounded in a certain co-opting of a particular characterization of Jesus. But Williams’s work on Bonhoeffer also represents a crucial methodological stance, one that takes seriously interdisciplinary examination. This sort of interdisciplinary methodology is arguably the most appropriate interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s own theology, a testament to the univocity of all things, to a singular reality confronted by and held together in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This grounding warrants Williams’s examination of the economic aspects of Bonhoeffer’s earliest theology, but it also reveals how powerfully Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem affected his thought.
Williams’s work, then, represents an important shift in Bonhoeffer studies, but it also throws a gauntlet of sorts into the way most of us do theology today; it is time we start having these kinds of conversations across the spectrum of disciplines. As Bonhoeffer’s story demonstrates, economics and theology are both fundamental parts of the oppressions that we as theologians must address. Economics is a test case for ideology; it exists as the answer to the question “How might these truths play out on the ground, in concrete systems?” And the driving force behind such examinations is that value—that is, conceptualizations of goodness—undergirds economic theory.
Of course, Bonhoeffer’s allegiance to bourgeois economic tendencies, which Williams reveals were at play in his earliest theology, was not permanent. It was through his engagement with those on the underside of power that Bonhoeffer’s ideological fidelities were truly revealed to him; his time in Harlem served as a corrective, of sorts. His experience of difference served as a disruptive sort of political force. Williams elsewhere explains that “Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem demonstrates the power of that historical reality; Jesus appropriated for domination and authoritarianism in Germany meeting Jesus identified in the marginalized and oppressed in Harlem, resulting in a transformative effect upon Bonhoeffer’s Christian identity.”
In this strange, new world, Bonhoeffer encountered Jesus again, though perhaps for the first time. It is precisely here that we find Williams most in his element. This reality in Bonhoeffer leads Williams to a sweeping critique of the construct of whiteness, which is made concrete in American history. Williams radicalizes Bonhoeffer’s encounter with Jesus at Abyssinian, ultimately arguing that the rupture of the Eurocentric figure was the lynchpin in Bonhoeffer’s conversion. The Jesus Bonhoeffer encountered in Harlem at Abyssinian Baptist was not the white Jesus of mythic descent or of the German ideological machine; rather, this was a Jesus of weakness. The black Jesus that Bonhoeffer came to know demanded that he be in the world differently, demanded a shift in his thinking and being (37, 79). Through his time in the black communities of Harlem, Bonhoeffer began to recognize this new Jesus as the only legitimate reality, and that new reality enabled him to see the world differently. The Christology that Bonhoeffer encountered in Harlem flew in the face of his Germanic ideological complex—this was a Christ suffering with black Americans in the face of systematic injustice and violent racialized realities. This was a black Jesus at work in the church, suffering with the oppressed and motivating an ethic of resistance.
For Williams, the disruption Bonhoeffer experienced in Harlem was made manifest in his return to Germany. Williams argues that “Bonhoeffer helps us to interrogate the harmful connection between ideal humanity and ideal community as people who seek to live in the real world, in faithfulness to the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.” Bonhoeffer, then, is nothing short of a specter, haunting Christian identity, properly naming the current nature of things and confrontationally contrasting them with an alternative politic and economy, distinctly marked by the kingdom of God. As Williams concludes, “[Bonhoeffer] describes the cure to the problem of a diseased Christian imagination and the key to Christina discipleship as empathic, incarnational action on behalf of others” (140).
One of the most compelling aspects of Williams’s engagement with Bonhoeffer and his time in Harlem is the utter uniqueness of his claims. This is not a fanboy take on Bonhoeffer; rather, it is the honest story of how that historical figure was confronted by his own colonialist, bourgeois ideological tendencies. By attentively describing this internal conflict, Williams breathes new breath into Bonhoeffer studies, as his work grafts this monumental figure into new conversations and intersections of thought. His work also humanizes Bonhoeffer, allowing us to find our place in his struggles, in his downfalls, and in the reality of Jesus confronting those issues.
The underlying thread in all of this, however, is that we readers might be guilty of the very thing that perverted Bonhoeffer’s earliest thought. Williams provocatively, but subtly, turns the tables on us and asks us to consider whether we are creating Bonhoeffer in our own image, much like Bonhoeffer’s earliest work did to Jesus. Williams seems to ask us to weigh our ideological characterizations, to thoughtfully examine whether the way in which we see Bonhoeffer or, more importantly, Jesus looks more like our selves than we should be comfortable admitting.
My sense, though, is that Williams doesn’t push things far enough. The weakness of Williams’s work is his lack of engagement with Bonhoeffer’s later work. Williams highlights the shortcomings of Bonhoeffer’s earliest thought so that he can shed light on the immensely important, disruptive experience that Harlem was. He does not, however, extend his analysis of the Harlem experience very far into Bonhoeffer’s late theology, which is arguably the most ripe for this sort of investigation. Williams makes some passing remarks about Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, and he briefly covers Bonhoeffer’s Christological letters, yet Williams’s engagement with Bonhoeffer’s articulation of the age of silence or of Jesus Christ’s relevance for today as one who is born out of weakness and suffering remains underdeveloped. Williams is obviously aware of the connections here, as he briefly references them, but his analysis leaves readers wanting (129).
Nonetheless, this work addresses the strange mix of ideology and Christianity in the Western context. It properly signals the breadth of the theological address, revealing the interconnectedness and play of forces between politics, economics, and theology. It also marks a radical theological disposition at work in Bonhoeffer, one that remains uninhabited by his contemporary followers, a position of self-critical analysis in and through an encounter with the body of an other, of society’s other. Bonhoeffer’s entire ideological ecosystem was called into question through his encounter with blackness in Harlem, and he leaned into that experience, allowing it to properly shape and revolutionize his thought. As Williams writes, “Christianity as a life of discipleship must be lived with concrete attention to the needs for justice in another’s context, or it is distorted.” This story must be grafted into the Bonhoeffer canon alongside his walk to the gallows; for it is the disruptive forces he encountered in Harlem that led him down that path.
 Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); and Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014); note that citations to Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus will appear in the text.
 Valpy Fitzgerald, “The Economics of Liberation Theology,” in Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 252.
 “Reggie Williams on Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus,” interview by Key Wytsma, October 7, 2014, http://kenwytsma.com/2014/10/07/reggie-williams-on-bonhoeffers-black-jesus/.
 Williams, “Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus,” interview, Bible Study and the Christian Life, Williams, http://www.biblestudyandthechristianlife.com/bonhoeffers-black-jesus/.
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is a PhD student working in political theology in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt. He is also the editor, alongside Taylor Worley, of a forthcoming volume on theology, phenomenology, and film: Dreams, Doubt and Dread: The Spiritual in Film.