It seems that the upheaval of the Donald Trump administration pushed Black History Month to the sidelines of America’s cultural consciousness. This is tragic, because we all need the time to reflect on what the African American has gone through in the United States.
All of us must understand the journey of coming out of slavery, suffering through the various Jim Crow societies of the south and elsewhere, the struggles of the civil rights movement to get a sense of who we are (white, black or other) and where we are as we grapple with race relations among us in the USA.
And so, on this last day of Black History Month, allow me to take a moment to recommend a book which is elegantly written and so helpful in teaching us how to be present to the plight of the Black community in America. It gives us the wherewithal to discern and respond to the new injustices at work in our world with the political forces at loose in our country. The book is Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus by Reggie Williams.
The book is about Bonhoeffer, his privileged upbringing in Germany as a white European, and his relationship with German nationalism. It traces his journey to Union Seminary in New York and his visit to Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem.
As he spent time there with African American people, working alongside them in their struggles, he was able to see a new Jesus, a Jesus not entombed by German nationalism, and, he went back to Germany a different man.
He resisted the sinister forces of the Deutschen Christen movement who had amalgamated their Christianity with the German nationalist Aryan agenda of Hitler. Bonhoeffer became a singular force in resisting the powers of evil and injustice of the Nazism infested culture.
Anytime I read about Bonhoeffer’s life I am immensely challenged. But this book, gives us insight into how to decontextualize ourselves from our own culture-bound Christianity, being with people of another culture (even those within our own country), and how that becomes the means of transforming our own church. This singular truth is why I am so committed to the study of contextual theology.
Following in the footsteps of J Kameron Carter, Willie Jennings and others, Williams tells the story of how Christianity becomes imbued with violence, racism, nationalism. He observes with careful eyes the social dynamics that enable this amalgamation. I offer two of his observations that can help us beware of repeating these same mistakes in our own churches.
I. ‘Created Orders’ and ‘Two Kingdoms’ Theology
Williams talks about how the doctrines of “created orders” and “two kingdoms” worked to create the conditions for Christian racism. Williams shows how these two doctrines, traditionally Lutheran, shaped an imagination for dividing the Christian’s inner life from his/her outer life.
The “orders of creation” argue that “certain structures of human life are not just incidental biological or historical phenomena but are deliberately ordained of God as essential and immutable conditions of human existence.” (Williams). And so things like marriage, economics, government, education become these places ordained by God for the purposes of God.
They take on an ontological permanence which justifies the existence of each order. This logic was applied by the German intelligentsia to legitimate Volk language. Now it is the German culture itself that is ordained by God. And so, in a footnote, Williams quotes the German National Socialists: “Above all the supreme order of creation is the people, race or nation to which one belongs ….”
This ‘orders’ language was used to legitimate the superiority of the white over Jewish or Black, the order of men over women. I think Williams gets at a huge issue here. Often, the argument that an order exists according to nature can become a serious tool of injustice, likening our social differences to biological differences. The argument that an order exists according to nature can become a tool of injustice. Click To Tweet
This all becomes especially dangerous when aligned with the two kingdoms doctrine which states that God rules the worldly or left–hand kingdom through secular means (the sword or compulsion) and the heavenly or right–hand kingdom through spiritual means.
The argument is that the church has no right to intervene in the affairs of the state and church members were legally bound to abide by the laws of the state. Meanwhile the state provided the legal protection for the church to proclaim its message without government interference (cf. note 50, p. 168).
This led to a passivity of the church towards challenging the government. Authority was given to the government by God and the church should support it (which sounds like many evangelical takes on Romans 13 today in regard to the present government).
Put together, these ideas set the stage to sit idly by while the government carried on its Aryan agenda. It enabled Christians to say it was Christian to stand by the Nazi government.
This, I contend, illustrates the theological challenges that we confront in many evangelical apologies for the Trump government.
II. Conceptualizing Doctrine
Second, Williams describes how Christian doctrine became conceptualized and divorced from its practice. As Christianity got compartmentalized from social life, via the two doctrines above, belief became internalized. It became doctrine we are only to intellectually believe, think about, write books about.
Indeed, this is what Christianity had become in Germany via its university system. Bonhoeffer would later say that all his work there in the university was as a non-believer. Because, after his Abyssinian church experience, he came to see that Christian faith cannot be extracted from concrete everyday life.
Williams quotes the words of Adam Clayton Powell, the great preacher of Abyssinian Baptist, “The best definition I know of saving faith (versus an intellectual faith) is the statement made by the mother of Jesus to the waiters in Canaan of Galilee when the wine gave out: ‘Whatever he saith unto you do it.’ Faith consists more in doing than it does in believing.”
The Western, European conceptualization of faith, the abstracting it from everyday life, makes it possible to divorce faith from the social worlds we live in. Faith becomes internal and intellectual which can lead to the assimilation of those abstract beliefs to a Euro-Aryan, Volk religion, an insidious belief that rests underneath today’s white-privilege mentality.
This is virtually how all ideology works, adapting abstract views to specific agendas. This is virtually how all ideology works, adapting abstract views to specific agendas. Click To Tweet
This, I suggest, provokes us to look with discerning eyes on what is happening in the evangelical endorsements of the Trump presidency. For instance, when certain evangelical leaders suggest that salvation is about a personal decision and since president Trump allegedly made that decision, now we can ignore the rest of his life and policies under the guise of ‘grace.’
This is a modern instance of the kind of divorce Williams describes. Since we believe our Christianity is purely personal, we don’t feel like we have an obligation to speak out against the inherent racism, misogyny and oppression of Trump’s policies.
What to Do with All This?
In Williams’s book, we see Bonhoeffer at odds with a propagandized German church, a church that imbibes its culture’s racism and bigotry. But the book does not leave us there. Instead the book presents us with the testimony of Bonhoeffer as a way forward, a cure to cultural passivity.
Bonhoeffer went to be with the people of Abyssinian Baptist Church Harlem. He became present to them (a practice I describe in ch. 6 of Faithful Presence). There “the practice of incarnation moved him beyond emphasis on right doctrine as the sole indicator of Christian identity to the healthy expressions of intimate joining and a faith that is social and participatory rather than primarily conceptual and abstract.”
It was there that Bonhoeffer discovered a living faith, a real Jesus, His living presence at work among a people working out the gospel on the ground. From here Bonhoeffer went back to Germany to plant community’s that are centered in Christ’s presence. (Read this!)
For Bonhoeffer, this is where Christ shall meet the world, engage the world, and even resist and overcome the world (Williams). Sadly, by the time he returned to Germany, the truth had almost totally disappeared, having been absorbed by the counterfeit, German Volk religion.
And so, on this last day of Black History month, can we extend the practice of Bonhoeffer in the coming months of political upheaval in this country. Can we challenge ourselves to do a Bonhoeffer? Can those among us blessed with privilege, go be with those who are not us, the minority group, the immigrant, the refugee? For such a time as this, can we take the journey of Bonhoeffer?