Reggie L. Williams begins his historical and theological evaluative book Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistancewith the provocative thought:
What type of Jesus inspires what kind of ethical life?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the beloved World War II theologian, activist, and martyr, was not always so endearing, passionate, and empathetic. In fact, pre-Harlem Bonhoeffer had blended Jesus with his nationalist hopes for his German Volk (nation or people). Jesus was there to provide German Christians with grace to advance a renewed German society. He said, “It is simply not possible to love or, as the case may be, to protect both my enemy and my people [Volk].” (page 14) Secondly, Bonhoeffer had amoralized the Christian life. For pre-Harlem Bonhoeffer, it would be prideful and Pharisaic to perform Christ’s commands in the Gospels. “Christianity and ethics have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There is no Christian ethic. From the idea of Christianity, there is absolutely no transition to the idea of ethics.” (page 13). Reggie Williams points out that the result of this deadly vision of Jesus and the ethical life was one in which, “For the sake of the Volk, war could be justified, murder could be sanctified; Christ demands the maintenance of no laws except the law of freedom justified by grace.” (page 14)
In 1930, Bonhoeffer had already obtained a PhD, written two brilliant dissertations, and obtained a professorship in Germany. But wanting to gain insight on how theology develops in a different setting, and so, begrudgingly, Bonhoeffer decided to do a one-year, post-doctoral fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
During his time in New York he became friends with his African-American classmate, Al Fisher, and went to Al’s church, Abyssinian Baptist Church, which was being pastored by the instrumental African American pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. During his time in New York, African-American culture was finding its own expression and voice in the Harlem Renaissance. Theology was no exception. Williams says, “The Christianity of the Harlem Renaissance was a theological manifestation, post-Civil War, pre-civil rights movement, that identified Jesus with the oppressed rather than the with the oppressors.” (page 2)
Bonhoeffer’s first semester at Union was frustrating. His liberal classmates saw their position as a middle way between traditional Christianity and atheism. Their faith in progress rather than in Christ was to Bonhoeffer an “ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that – who knows how – claims the right to call itself ‘Christian’” (page 24) But in Bonhoeffer’s second semester, he began attending Abyssinian Baptist with his friend Al Fisher. The Christians that Bonhoeffer met at Abyssinian Baptist had a Jesus who was the subject of worship, sin was recognized, and so was hope.
Bonhoeffer dove into the literature and theology of the Harlem Renaissance poets and storytellers. Their descriptions of a black Jesus were both ideologically provocative and theologically disruptive. Black Jesus was contrasted with the white Jesus of power, oppression, and violence. This white Jesus served as an opiate for the maltreated, teaching them to humbly accept racism and their subhuman status, meanwhile standby by and condoning the oppression of those in power. “Blackening Jesus helped the African Americans to reimagine him outside of the structures of white-supremacist religion.” (page 62)
Black Jesus was a cosufferer with the oppressed who empathically pursued justice. Christ was Stellvertretung (empathic, vicarious representation), who stood in for the sin, shame, and suffering of humanity. But Stellvertretung does not stop at Jesus; it is the ethical mandate for anyone who would follow Jesus in discipleship.
During Bonhoeffer’s time at Abyssinian Baptist Church, Adam Powell Sr. preached two consecutive sermons in the height of The Great Depression entitled, “A Naked God” and “A Hungry God.” “I kept praying to God to clothe the naked and feed the poor, but I could not get rid of the words, ‘Ye clothed me – ye fed me.’…if we fail to do this [give help to the poor] we should never again preach or read from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew – ‘I was hungry and ye fed me; I was naked and ye clothed me.’” (page 102) Bonhoeffer would return to Germany and make similar pronouncements in view of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews, “Only he who cries out for the Jews can sing the Gregorian chant.” (page 102)
What type of Jesus inspires what kind of ethical life? In Harlem, Bonhoeffer found a Jesus who was not compartmentalized but who was understood in concrete terms that encompassed all of life. “One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough….[But] we have spiritualized the gospel – that is, we have lighted it up, changed it.” (page 103) Bonhoeffer would go home to Germany and vehemently decry what he came to call “cheap grace” in contrast to “costly grace.” Cheap grace “is baptism without the discipline of the community; it is the Lord’s Supper without the confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living incarnate Jesus Christ.” (page 32)
It is not enough to be Christ-centered. What matters is which Christ is at the center. In Harlem, Bonhoeffer encountered Jesus who is Stellvertretung and who is hidden in the suffering of the oppressed. Before coming to Harlem, Bonhoeffer had mixed Jesus with Volk and stripped the gospel or its concrete ethical life, thereby misplacing his loyalties, dividing the body of Christ, and compartmentalizing discipleship. But he returned from Harlem to speak out against his people’s apathy in the face of injustice and call for Christian community as the presence of Christ in the world.
Reggie William’s Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance is one of the best books I’ve read in years. I highly recommend it to any reader, particularly students, pastors, and professors. My one critique of the book is the need for a section on Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on Jesus being “the risen Christ.” This I think would only add to the already strong arguments being made of Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on Jesus as Stellvertretung.