Reggie L. Williams’s Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus is a deep look at how Bonhoeffer’s experience in New York, and more specifically in Harlem, shaped him as a theologian of resistance against Hitler. It’s not just that, though, as it also traces Bonhoeffer’s intellectual development, specifically about racism, both before and after this epochal change.
First, Williams outlines the early theological development of Bonhoeffer, tracing his early intellectual development as well as his struggles to find a church home while visiting the United States. Here, in the United States, Bonhoeffer first encountered white racial terrorism in the form of lynching. Later, he would appeal to a German theologian to speak out against the charade of trials against in Scottsboro, in which nine black men were falsely accused of raping two white women. Eight of them were sentenced to death and killed. This caused something of an awakening for Bonhoeffer to racial violence, though he still had to become aware of his own biases.
The movement of Bonhoeffer from a proponent of volk (the German word for “Folk) type nationalism to a race-conscious and anti-racist perspective is one of the most fascinating portions of Williams’s research. While Bonhoeffer retained several core convictions throughout his life, his thought about race was directly impacted by his time in Harlem. Germany had been a colonial power until the Treaty of Versailles assigned the nation’s colonies to the winning powers, and many German people longed for that Imperial power once again. Williams demonstrates that Bonhoeffer’s own thought was impacted by this, particularly when he surveys Bonhoeffer’s early sermons and discussions of the concept of volk.
Williams then draws an outline of the Harlem Renaissance, including major thinkers and themes, as well as how some of these thinkers and themes explicitly or implicitly show up in Bonhoeffer’s works. Unfortunately, at least one of the works that would provide more insight into this has been lost (a paper Bonhoeffer wrote on black thinkers while in the United States). Nevertheless, Williams demonstrates that the themes of the Harlem Renaissance, along with Bonhoeffer’s own time in Harlem, became deeply influential on his later life. It is in this section that Williams does the most to bring to light strands of thought in Bonhoeffer that might otherwise be missed. Specifically, he traces the constant theme of Jesus identifying with the marginalized as something that would lead to active theology of resistance in Bonhoeffer’s thought. This theme is highlighted both in the thought of W.E.B. Du Bois and the poem “Black Christ” by Countee Cullen, which Bonhoeffer was aware of. The latter is lain out in detail, and shows both how Harlem Renaissance theology could be linked to liberation theology and how Bonhoeffer’s thought developed along that direction as well. It was black thinkers who helped awaken in Bonhoeffer a truly great desire for resistance against racism.
Another major theme of Williams’s work is that of empathy. He argues throughout that Bonhoeffer’s move towards empathy was something that he found through observing segregation in the United States and the resistance to it in Harlem. This, Williams argues, developed into a “Christ-Centered Empathic Resistance,” which is the last part of Bonhoeffer’s life as he actively worked against the Nazis in Germany.
The bulk of Williams’s work focuses on Bonhoeffer’s time in the United States, supporting his theses with meticulous notes and documentary evidence. The endnotes are full of additional argumentation as well as sources and reading.
Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus is an essential read for those interested in Bonhoeffer’s theology of resistance. More than that, Williams provides here both an historic overview of Bonhoeffer’s thought and the ways in which one might develop him further. The unity of Bonhoeffer’s thought with Harlem Renaissance thinking and the movement of that into modern movements for societal justice is another major theme in the book. It’s a rare work that surveys the thought of a thinker while also offering insight into how modern thought might move forward along the same lines or go beyond its subject. Highly recommended.
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