Confessing Race: Toward a Global Ecclesiology after Bonhoeffer & Du Bois

The fact that today the “black Christ” of a young Negro poet is pitted against the “white Christ” reveals a destructive rift within the church of Jesus Christ.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism Without Reformation”

Writing as a refugee in New York in the Summer of 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer uses W.E.B. Du Bois’s image of the “color line” to critique racial lines drawn between churches. The broader purview of Bonhoeffer’s essay, “Protestantism without Reformation,” places sociopolitical observations about the black church among American denominations into dialogue with German philosophical assumptions and ecclesial memory. His comments reveal that although a great deal of his deliberation during those two months is focused on an imminent return to Germany, he remains compelled by the witness of the Harlem community that had accepted him during his research fellowship at Union Seminary in 1930–31.

Bonhoeffer’s call for a transnational “confessing” church, developed through engagement with Du Bois, offers critical promise for addressing the problem of the global color line in the twenty-first century. This argument proceeds in three parts. First, Du Bois and Bonhoeffer are contextualized by their periods of exchange study in Berlin and New York, respectively. I show that their appreciative work with one another’s intellectual traditions proves integral to their race-critical standpoints, as illustrated by Du Bois’s work with G.W.F. Hegel and Bonhoeffer’s work with Du Bois and Harlem Renaissance writers. Second, I argue that Bonhoeffer’s critique of American denominationalism is not mere German paternalism but reveals a theologico-ethical concern over how atomized churches can mask racial segregation. In other words, a denomination can remain the “white-Christ existing as community” unless obliged to the memory of a united church, which Bonhoeffer locates in his own nation’s history and philosophical legacy. Nevertheless, his appreciation of America as a “nation of refugees” offers critical leverage against premature claims to unity. Third, although Bonhoeffer’s own experience of displacement is relatively short-lived, and the later Ethics returns to a concern with German arguments with the “West,” his confessing ecclesiology prioritizes intercultural and diasporic exchange over settled national identity. As a result, Du Bois’s creedal language and pan-Africanism can critically develop Bonhoeffer’s account toward a more truly global “form of Christ.”

The intersection of Bonhoeffer’s thought with Du Bois and Hegel offers several contributions to current ethical inquiry. With regard to Bonhoeffer studies, this essay draws on recent work on the influence of the Harlem Renaissance by Reggie Williams. Williams provides an important account of the significance of the fellowship year at Union while sketching the background of African American writers who influenced Bonhoeffer. Nevertheless, the focus of Williams’s inquiry on the fellowship year means that Bonhoeffer’s 1939 retrospective on race and American denominations is left untreated. Further, Williams tends to read Bonhoeffer’s Harlem influences over and against his German intellectual background, inviting research into the complex interrelation embodied in a figure such as Du Bois.

The question of post-Kantian philosophical resources is also important for recent discussion surrounding a theological account of race. As J. Kameron Carter argues, the Kantian legacy involves a problematic “mutual encoding of the racial and theological so as to yield the cosmopolitical.” Given Kant’s influence on international ethics, Carter poses an acute challenge for attempts to imagine the global future after the impact of idealism. Further work is now required on figures such as Hegel, who shares many of Kant’s prejudices but whose work is also adapted by race-critical theorists such as Frantz Fanon. This essay points to such a variegated reception of German idealism as a means of resourcing current attempts to identify and critique the “slippery yet tenacious nature of racism,” in the words of Susannah Heschel.

Exchange Students: Du Bois in Berlin, Bonhoeffer in New York

Du Bois’s study in Berlin furthered his engagement with Hegel’s work, while his writings in turn influenced Bonhoeffer’s study in America. These short but significant exchanges are part of the vivid biographies of two men who developed philosophically informed social critiques of their overlapping times. To that end, both traveled extensively, driven by their keen minds as well as experiences of political estrangement….

This is an excerpt of an article published in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 36.2 (Fall/Winter 2016). Access the full article online, or contact me at for a pdf version.

© David Robinson, 2018