Community of Foreigners: Bonhoeffer’s Theses for a Time of Resurgent Nationalism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) knew the grief of love for an embattled nation. He lost family members in the war and then watched punitive measures from the Versailles treaty contribute to a decade of economic hardship for the German people. Bonhoeffer sought to bring these homeland struggles to the attention of an ex-patriate community that he pastored in Spain at the end of the 1920s. His lectures from that period show how deeply love for his people ran, even to the point of disregarding the lives of others in the pursuit of national interests.

Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer’s love of the Christ-community ran deeper still, a commitment that caused him to turn sharply against many of his earlier views. In 1933, when the National Socialists had taken power and suspicion of foreigners had reached a critical juncture, Bonhoeffer nailed his theses to the church door. At issue was the ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’, which included a paragraph that entailed demotion for civil servants of Jewish descent. Bonhoeffer opposed the enforcement of this law against the church’s ministers, writing and contributing to several statements of which the most succinct was his ‘Theses on the Aryan Paragraph in the Church’. Today, as nationalism surges across Europe and North America, straining commitments to refugee persons, Bonhoeffer’s claims deserve another hearing.…
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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.…
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Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

This is a review of Reggie Williams’  Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014), the early form of a submission to Political Theology

In a 1939 essay, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflects on a stark divide in America: “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.” (DBWE 15:456-7). The poet to whom he refers speaks from the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic movement that flourished in the 1920s and deeply impressed Bonhoeffer during his post-doctoral fellowship at New York’s Union Seminary from 1930-31. Bonhoeffer also refers to the movement in an earlier essay on “New Negro” literature, the loss of which is mentioned in a 1933 letter to Reinhold Niebuhr. In its stead, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus provides a vivid primer on representations of Christ by African American writers in Harlem as well as the social conditions that surround the Renaissance. Reggie Williams extends their protest by drawing stark lines between black and white Christs for an “ethic of resistance,” if not probing more deeply into Bonhoeffer’s critique of the racialized rift.…
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© David Robinson, 2018