Reflections on Bonhoeffer and Politics in Our Time – Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams

ThomasLinda sittingDr. Reggie Williams is going to be a guest on my seminary campus today – sharing some of his insights into Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his interaction with white supremacy. To help get the conversation started, Dr. Williams has shared this blog post with us, helping to give a bit deeper bit of history into Bonhoeffer’s context – a reflection that has uncanny resonance in today’s political climate, even though it was originally written almost one year ago. Read, comment, and share, friends!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”

In the summer of 2015, I visited Germany for research and to speak with German Bonhoeffer scholars about my study of Bonhoeffer’s year as a post-doctoral student in New York, 1930-31. The German Bonhoeffer scholars were eager to know about Bonhoeffer’s encounter with white supremacy in America, and my time with them was inspiring. While there I learned that white supremacy remains a problem in Germany long after the fall of the Third Reich and the end of efforts by the Deutsche Christen (Nazi sympathizing German Christians), to unify the protestant church in Germany under the Führer, giving Hitler authority to enforce a pure-blood Aryan Germany by power extending from the government into the church.

This propoganda photo depicts Hitler as a pious Christian, hat in hand as he leaves church, standing under a cross. Hitler needed Christian support in Germany for his Nazi party to gain majority power in government.

Yet broadly speaking, Germans appear to have responded differently to the history of their overtly racist Nazi government than America has to its overtly racist history of slavery and Jim Crow laws. For example, it’s unlikely that one would find streets, schools, buildings, or monuments named for Nazis, the Nazi government or its military, as one would find streets, schools, buildings and monuments to confederate soldiers, members of the KKK, and historically notable overt racists in America. Indeed, the longing in America for bygone days of greatness is nostalgia for the history of Americas overtly racist past, and sounds eerily familiar to the yearning that helped fuel the mobilization of Hitler’s regime in the wake of WWI. Joblessness, economic insecurity, and the aftermath of war were part of the soil from which the overtly racist Nazi government grew, helping to dismantle and berate the outgoing Weimar democratic government for it’s supposed immorality and failure to address the economic crisis in Germany that was actually impacting the whole world in the global Great Depression, and not Germany alone. What is most relevant for understanding the struggle that Dietrich Bonhoeffer waged in Germany was his attention to the Deutsche Christen, German Christian Nazi loyalists who were Christian conduits of hatred, and co-laborers with Hitler in efforts to secure an ideal community populated with ideal humans.

Bonhoeffer was an outspoken member of the Confessing Church Movement. To say “Confessing Church” is to say a “creedal” church, which is to say, a movement committed to the creeds of the faith. This movement stood in opposition to German Christians who sought political oneness with the Nazi government. Yet in the confessing Church movement, Bonhoeffer was more radical than his peers. It is one thing to claim devotion to the creeds and demand the traditional separation of church and state, which is what most in the Movement were doing. It is quite another to declare oneself in direct opposition to the government in general, for it’s treatment of its citizens. That is the position that Bonhoeffer found himself in, and it put him at odds with many members of the Confessing Church Movement. Bonhoeffer was politically outspoken, which was highly uncommon for a German. He was an untypically political, outspoken German Lutheran pastor and theologian. He came to recognize that the lordship of Christ over all of life to means concrete obedience to God by paying as much attention to his neighbor’s needs for justice as his own.

In October of 1941, Nazis began deporting Jews from Berlin to the Lodz Ghetto, which was a halfway stop on the way to the concentration camps. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Fredrich Justus Perels Documented that very first deportation of Jews in a public letter, publicizing Nazi racist hostility. This photo is of the memorial site, Track 17, in Berlin. It is the train station from where Jews were deported. The deportation that Bonhoeffer publicized in that first letter is identified at the memorial as the first deportation.

Bonhoeffer was indebted to his time in Harlem, New York for developments in his theology that had him valuing social justice as a core component of the way of Jesus, leading inevitably to speaking up for his neighbor against a politically oppressive government. The way of Jesus and the person of Jesus were not separate for Bonhoeffer. Hence, seeing needs and acting on behalf of those needs just as Christ acts on our behalf describes who Jesus is as Stellvertretung, our vicarious representative before God, and the one who is for us. Stellvertretung also describes what Jesus does; Christ responds with action, to the needs of others. To claim to be a Christian and live comfortably in non-action as your neighbor is disparaged and abused is to rely on cheap grace, rather than the costly grace of discipleship.

Bonhoeffer picked up this extensive bibliography of Harlem Renaissance literature from the Schomburg Library, at 135th and Lennox, in Harlem. IT is an extensive list of the popular works that he no doubt was reading, while he was also attending Abyssinian Baptist Church, in Harlem. He brought this bibliography back to German with him, where it remains among his papers in Berlin.

Bonhoeffer opposed Christians in Germany who were enthusiastic about Hitler’s efforts to make Germany great again by reviving the splendor of Germany’s past. In the process of reviving the past, people became scapegoats for their current problems; humans became rubbish to discard, or symbols of the nations greatness. In either case, everyone’s humanity was distorted by the dream of the ideal community. Bonhoeffer argued that because Christ is the vicarious representative for all humanity, in every social encounter we have, we interact with Christ. Other persons are not objects that can be discarded, nor are they symbols for boasting; human interaction represents the site of our concrete obedience to Christ.

Race logic trains the racist to see humanity in the ideal only, and others as objects of derision. That is the history of whiteness, and the creation of race. The superior race is the template of ideal humanity. Christians who espouse racism despise Christ in concrete encounter with others.

This photo taken in the memorial at the Floessenburg Concentration Camp, depicts the signage worn by prisoners in the camp, indicating their crime. It is an indication of the various offenses that would cause one to be incarcerated by the Nazis: Political prison, career criminal, emigrants (foreign forced laborers), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Homosexuals (sexual minorities), and asocial (this black triangle included Roma, Pacifists, mentally ill, vagrants, anarchists, etc…). Bonhoeffer spent one night in this camp. He was murdered in the morning.

That was the danger that Bonhoeffer saw in the Nazi worldview that made it’s way into the church in Germany. Within weeks of his return from New York in the summer of 1931, Bonhoeffer penned a catechism with his Jewish friend, Franz Hildebrandt, for the training of young Lutherans in the faith. Together with Hildebrandt Bonhoeffer borrowed from the worldview he was immersed in, in Harlem, to describe Christian social responsibility. Bonhoeffer claimed that “ethnic pride” is sin against the Holy Spirit, and argued, “as much as the Christian would like to remain distant from political struggle, nonetheless, even he re the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for his neighbor.” The concept of the ideal person and ideal community is courier of the “ethnic pride” inside of the concept of the Aryan. In Germany ethnic pride included the language of “blood and soil,” the loyalty to Volk, and the Nazi concept of the Aryan, or Herrenrasse, master race. In America the concept of the Aryan was simply the understanding of humanity that accompanied white people, only. Ethnic pride, or white supremacy, keeps Christians from being able to love their real neighbor, which is to say, from loving Christ who is vicarious representative. Bonhoeffer saw racism as a singular problem for Christians. Indeed, Bonhoeffer described ethnic pride as an unpardonable sin because it is concrete opposition to the presence and work of God in the world, in Christ.

Remains of the special barracks at Floessenburg concentration camp where Bonhoeffer spent his final night.

In our current political climate we’ve faced a similar employment shortages, financial insecurity, and war, in the wake of the worst financial crisis since the great depression. Acerbic rhetoric about racial, national, and religious others heightens loyalties to the slogan “make America great again” and fuels practices of dehumanization, turning real human beings into scapegoats of American white supremacy. In this climate we find many Christians energized by the rhetoric and endorsing the politics that it supports. One might say that the effort to “make America great again” has them giving their devotion to a god who resembles the embodied symbol of that national greatness, idealized white humanity, in pursuit of the ideal community, rather than practice concrete service to God by loving their real neighbor. In this climate, following Christ is not popular. Indeed it has never been popular. Not everyone who claims to be a Christian is actually willing to pay the cost of discipleship.

reggiewilliams-cropThe Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams received his Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He earned a Master’s degree in Theology from Fuller in 2006 and a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Westmont College in 1995. He is a member of the board of directors for the Society for Christian Ethics, as well as the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society. Dr. Williams is also a member of the American Academy of Religion and Society for the Study of Black Religion. Dr. Williams’ research interests are primarily focused on Christological hermeneutics, and Christian morality. He has a particular interest in how the Western-world understanding of Christianity has been calibrated to a false ideal that corresponds with racialized interpretations of humanity, morality, and Jesus. Dr. Williams’ book Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014) was selected as a Choice Outstanding Title in 2015, in the field of religion. The book is an analysis of exposure to Harlem Renaissance intellectuals, and worship at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist on the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during his year of post-doctoral study at Union Seminary in New York, 1930-31. Reggie lives in Flossmoor, Illinois with his wife Stacy. They are the proud parents of a son, Darion, and a daughter, Simone.


4 thoughts on “Reflections on Bonhoeffer and Politics in Our Time – Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams

  1. fatima bass thomas

    Dr Thomas,
    i thank you so much, this is real an eye opener to me, why am saying this, because i came from culture of silent where women are voiceless and i heard my aunty always says the God of women is death because the situation of women be subject to violence and suffering especially the black bodies and at that time i am a teenage and i don’t understand what she mean by then.


  2. Smitha Das Gunthoti

    Thought provoking and encouraging words. Bonhoeffer’s life encourages many to stand strong in any circumstances even at the point of death. May God help us to think and act ‘to make our neighbor great again’ by killing our pride.


  3. Jess Peacock

    Bonhoeffer is a fascinating historical figure to examine in these times. I actually just purchased the biography by Metaxas and am slowly working through it. The reason I think he is so interesting for this place and time is the struggle he went through figuring out the equation of faith and action. Obviously his struggle was one I doubt any of us will face (whether to assassinate a tyrant or not), but I find his internal struggle prescient. It was one that sought to manifest his faith in the real world, a messy faith with, perhaps, messy consequences. Versus a pie in the sky, everything is in God’s hands and will be fine, faith. Not to make light at all, but this is a faith story I saw played out in the first season of the show Daredevil on Netflix, and it was endlessly fascinating to me.


  4. Karl Anliker

    Insightful reading, for me, as a follow-up to Dr. Williams’ lecture concerning Bonhoeffer and white supremacy.

    Dr. Williams pushes the boundaries which confine the Bonhoeffer that my (white) social circles usually entertain. Furthermore, Dr. Williams provides an insightful lens through which to better understand the work of Bonhoeffer.

    Thank you Dr. Williams for your devotion to the historical and theological insights into Bonhoeffer and relevant message for our church today.


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