Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

RACE & THE GOSPEL When you think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, what immediately comes to mind? Perhaps costly discipleship, German prophet or Confessing Church. Only rarely would someone think of the Black church in America, Black theology, Harlem or of him being antiracist. Bonhoeffer became the hero, prophet and discipleship leader that we know today precisely […]

RACE & THE GOSPEL

When you think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, what immediately comes to mind? Perhaps costly discipleship, German prophet or Confessing Church. Only rarely would someone think of the Black church in America, Black theology, Harlem or of him being antiracist. Bonhoeffer became the hero, prophet and discipleship leader that we know today precisely because of his time worshiping, serving and learning with the Black church. In fact, when Bonhoeffer reflected later on the state of his discipleship prior to his sojourn in New York, he bluntly stated, “I had not yet become a Christian.”

Bonhoeffer spent a year of his theological training studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Unfortunately, he described his predominantly white seminary and church experiences as insipid and uninspiring—with a notable exception. He became quick friends with Al Fisher, an African American classmate descended from a lineage of Baptist clergy. Bonhoeffer went with Fisher to visit Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and never left. He marveled that he was “increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality among the Negroes,” and furthermore, that he had “only heard a genuine proclamation of the gospel from a Negro.”

While Bonhoeffer experienced the fresh spiritual power and joy of the black church, he simultaneously made salient observations about the American church as a whole. As a foreigner, it was much easier for him to spot serious contradictions. He warned: “For American Christendom the racial issue has been a real problem from the beginning … and [it is] a grave problem for the future.” In a country that touted freedom, equality and opportunity for all, Bonhoeffer was deeply disturbed by America’s widespread blindness to its own double standard for people of color.

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Bonhoeffer wrote about two incompatible versions of Jesus in America—a “Black Christ” and a “white Christ” who were pitted against each other in a destructive rift. It was clear that Bonhoeffer related far more profoundly to the Black Christ—not as a recrafting of Jesus into a man of African descent, but in understanding Jesus to identify as a co-sufferer with the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. It was in the Black church that Bonhoeffer began to understand discipleship to include costly suffering in solidarity with disenfranchised people. And it was in the Black church that one of his friends surmised that they may have witnessed “a beginning of his identification with the oppressed which played a role in the decision that led to his death.” It’s time for us to learn more about Bonhoeffer’s enlightening journey with the Black church—Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance by Reggie L. Williams is an outstanding place to begin.

We are living in a time of unprecedented racial upheaval and racial awakening. As we do, we must consider why believers should deepen their understanding of racial realities and injustices. Like Bonhoeffer, we should do so as a matter of discipleship, to experience more of Jesus Christ, who so deeply identifies with those who suffer. We also should do so to open our eyes to all kinds of injustices everywhere that we might otherwise miss.

Unlike so many of his German colleagues, Bonhoeffer applied what he learned about American racism back in Germany in a surprising way: through his advocacy for the Jewish people and his resistance to the Nazi regime. As you go deeper in your own racial discipleship journey, may you also be surprised by how God works—both to bring you closer to him and to bring greater shalom to the world.

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