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How Dietrich Bonhoeffer met the Black Christ in Harlem, NY

In Reggie Williams’ Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance he argues that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s protest against the Nazis was largely influenced by his experience in New York, where he met a Jesus who sides with the oppressed rather than the oppressor.

Title: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance

Author: Reggie L. Williams, PhD (Christian Ethics)

Publisher: Baylor University Press, 2014

Reviewer: Carl McRoy, ordained minister and MESSAGE magazine propagandist

What are the main concerns being addressed?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who is celebrated for his book, The Cost of Discipleship and revered for his resistance against the Nazis during World War II. Tragically, Dr. Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and hanged in a concentration camp shortly before Allied forces arrived. What led him to defiantly endanger himself when he had opportunities to escape and lead a comfortable life in the U.S.? Reggie L. Williams argues that a pivotal life experience came during Bonhoeffer’s fellowship at Union Theological Seminary, where he studied the Harlem Renaissance literary movement and was active in the Abyssinian Baptist Church, then under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. From there, he went back to Germany with a love for Gospel music and confronted Hitler’s Church with Harlem’s Christ.

Were these concerns clearly stated?

Yes. Dr. Williams, who is a member of the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society, documents the trends found in Bonhoeffer’s sermons, writings, and ministry activities before and after his time in America. An example of the Harlem Renaissance influence may be found in this excerpt from a 1932 Lutheran catechism that Bonhoeffer coauthored:

“God has arranged it so that all races of humanity of the earth come from one blood (Acts 17:26). Therefore, a defiant ethnic pride in flesh and blood is a sin against the Holy Spirit” (quoted on page 112).

Compare that to an excerpt from W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Credo,” which states, “I Believe in God who made of one blood all nations that on earth do dwell. I believe that all men, black, brown, and white, are brothers” (quoted on 56). 

What are the book’s strengths and contributions?

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus gives us a fuller picture of who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, along with some of the motivating factors and people in his life. Here was a German Lutheran theologian who found joy serving under the leadership of an African American Baptist pastor—in the 1930s! He was of aristocratic background, but his heart was moved by inequalities of various sorts, from New York to the Deep South to Mexico to Cuba, and then back to the poor and outcast in Germany. Williams also provides copious resources to better understand the settings of “Harlem’s Christ” and “Hitler’s Church” in the body of the text as well as the endnotes.

What do you wish the author would have added?

To add more would need another volume. The book is under 150 pages before getting to the endnotes, however it is weighty reading. What I wish Williams would consider is writing a less scholarly version, perhaps a middle or high school level biography, to reach a wider audience with his valuable contribution.

What do you wish the author would have left out?

Anything less and I think the author would have come up short of his goal. There wasn’t much duplication of phrases, ideas, or quotes. There wasn’t much fluff either. 

What were some good conscience quickening quotes from the book? 

Since Dr. Williams seeks to give voice to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in ways that others haven’t, I’ll simply share a few Bonhoeffer quotes that Williams has curated:

“Isn’t it downright cynical to talk about consolation in heaven because one does not want to give consolation on earth?” (104)?

“Things do exist that are worth standing up for without compromise. To me it seems that peace and social justice are such things, as is Christ himself” (110).

“The church is the church only when it is there for others” (128).

Speaking of his fellowship with African Americans, Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Here one gets to see something of the real face of America, something that is hidden behind the veil of words in the American constitution saying that ‘all men are created equal’” (75).

What was so liberating about the book?

It demonstrates that we can find allies from different backgrounds. It also shows that the dominant culture can learn a lot by considering the perspectives of the oppressed. Through Bonhoeffer’s example we know that we can break free of cultural restraints instead of simply being a product of the times. The cross of Christ provides a lens for us to critique and work towards correcting social ills.

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