Jesus’ White Bonhoeffer: A Year On
Reggie Williams’s doctoral thesis, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, appeared on bookshelves the same year I began my doctoral work on Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the University of Aberdeen in 2014. Williams’s research inspired my own, leading me into one of the central questions of my PhD. Four years on, I continue to ponder this same question on a daily basis through my research, experiences with family and friends, and challenges at my work and church. The question is this: how does a white person such as myself, or a predominately white church, challenge racism—where racism is understood as a power imbalance benefiting white people (what I will call whiteness from here on out)?
The question of how white people may address whiteness is not the question Williams explores in Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus. Williams, instead, explores how Bonhoeffer defied aspects of his German heritage with a black Jesus discovered in Harlem. While this is Williams’s aim, my paper “Jesus’ White Bonhoeffer” (presented last year at AAR in Boston) extended these explorations to consider what a similar defiance from a white person might look like today. The paper, by and large, contemplates many of the dangers and complexities bound up with applying Bonhoeffer’s witness directly to a white person’s struggle to defy whiteness in the present moment.
One of the main dangers in making this application has to do with our use of convoluted terms. Seeking to apply Bonhoeffer’s life in the racial context faced today raises a number of intriguing intersection points: the intersection between black and African; between white and European; and between race and ethnicity. The flexibility within these different terms mystifies the disparities between discussing a “black” Jesus rather than an “African” one, or a “white” Bonhoeffer rather than a “German” one. How is one identified? What is the difference between a racial identification (white or black) and an ethnic one (African or German)? In my own research I have come to discover that one of the subtle methods white people have employed for evading the guilt associated with whiteness is to change the terms of the debate. Instead of discussing race as a historical power imbalance that works on a global scale, we talk about ethnicity as a level playing field that allows for the celebration of diversity.
Williams’s Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus cuts through these covert power games by naming Jesus “black.” This naming forces us to deal with how race already defines unequal landscapes rather than capitulating to these racial landscapes by imagining a space beyond them. All of the above intersection points are at play in Williams’s book, and they facilitated my own propensity toward considering how I as a white person may address and challenge my own whiteness. Learning about Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem from Williams’s research tempted me with the option of turning Bonhoeffer’s life into an answer to my question. Simply put, if I could live as Bonhoeffer did, then I could challenge my own whiteness as Bonhoeffer challenged Nazism. This direct application of Bonhoeffer’s life inadvertently eludes what I understanding to be at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s theology—the surprise of God’s call, here and now. It was this eluding of God’s call that was my main concern when I wrote “Jesus’ White Bonhoeffer” last year for the Bonhoeffer Social Analysis group.
Bonhoeffer’s own theology never steers one toward a methodology or answers but toward the surprise of hearing God today. The crux of my argument is that if we as white people apply Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus as a roadmap for addressing whiteness, we risk moving toward either a white conservatism that seeks to take control through becoming the savior of the oppressed or toward a white progressivism that disregards privilege by hastily identifying ourselves with the oppressed. Both approaches avoid the painstaking work of dealing with our uneven racial landscapes as we seek answers to the problem rather than listening for God to speak from the cross. This slight shift from offering a solution for whiteness to entering into the problem without answers is the hope I found in Bonhoeffer’s writings, and specifically in his essay from Ethics “Ultimate and Penultimate Things.”
Bonhoeffer’s essay “Ultimate and Penultimate Things” presents a unique approach for addressing ethical quandaries. His categories of “ultimate” and “penultimate” can be difficult to grasp because they reflect temporal categories that implicitly conflict with the spatial categories of “universal” and “particular” often employed in the racial discussions of the American academy and contemporary theology. Generally, contemporary theological discourses on race have setup the spatial categories of “universal” and “particular” against one another. The more conservative approach is to present God’s universal work through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the common ground for bridging the divide between ethnic differences and for overcoming exclusions. The more progressive approach is to present the particular manner in which God in Jesus Christ identifies with the oppressed (a black Jesus) to address unjust racial configurations. The former approach relies on a universal posture toward ethnic identity and difference, and the latter approach relies on a particular view of racial identity and inequity. These approaches to race, universal and particular, are conceived of spatially, making them mutually exclusive, with each side vying for the solution to the problem of race.
What Bonhoeffer’s categories of “ultimate” and “penultimate” allow is a temporal coordination of the universal and particular approaches to race. The “ultimate” differs from the universal in that it represents the temporal surprise of the “last thing.” The “ultimate” remains that which defines the pen-ultimate in that every temporal moment is headed toward this end. In a similar manner, the “penultimate” differs from the particular in that it represents all of temporal life as participation with Christ in “preparing the way” for the surprise of God’s final word. The penultimate speaks of the wisdom of adulthood that comes from the education of a lifetime, from history, and practical discernment, while the ultimate speaks of the wonder of childhood that remains open to the surprise of not knowing the future. Both the ultimate and penultimate cohere in participation with Jesus Christ, so that we are to become wise as serpents while remaining innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). In adulthood, we remain children.
Applied to race, Bonhoeffer’s framework of the ultimate and penultimate means that, instead of looking for solutions to race, we as white people must learn (adulthood) how our privilege insulates us from hearing God speak today (childhood). God’s speaking is ultimate in that it comes to us in the absolute moment. “Today when you hear His voice” (Heb. 3:15). The manna of God’s direct word cannot be stored for tomorrow. God’s speaking is always a surprise. The surprise of God’s ultimate word safeguards it from being employed as a universal or a particular solution to the problem of race. The temporal surprise of the ultimate avoids the danger of a conservatism that offers the control of a universal solution to race. This conservatism obscures the inherent weakness of whiteness as that which intrinsically obstructs hearing God speak today. The temporal surprise of the ultimate, at the same time, safeguards against the peril of a progressivism that places itself on God’s side with the oppressed. This progressivism obscures the power that whiteness has afforded to white people and, as a result, can supplant the need for anticipating God’s speaking today. White conservatism and progressivism represent two sides of the same coin; both rely on answers rather than preparing for the surprise of hearing God in the absolute moment.
Bonhoeffer’s ecclesial approach of preparing the way is not about answers but about a struggle (adulthood) sustained through the continual surprise of God’s gracious call (childhood). As white people, we must struggle with our own participation in whiteness and how it insulates us from hearing God and others. We can only participate in this sustained struggle against whiteness, because God has already called us, a call that names us “children of God” (Jn. 1:12; Rom. 8:16). The surprise and wonder of God’s direct call is what I clumsily attempt to capture with the title of my paper—“Jesus’ White Bonhoeffer.” God does not call Bonhoeffer, or us, apart from history but in the midst of history. As Bonhoeffer so readily reminds us, Jesus bears the soil of the cursed earth in his flesh and plants a new tree of life in the shape of the cross at the center of Golgotha (see Bonhoeffer’s discussion of this in Creation and Fall, DBWE 3:146). Rather than going around race to find ethnic unity or stopping at race to find justice, Jesus must take the long and treacherous path through our racial histories, and we along with him. It is here that we discover with Jesus the surprise of God’s gracious call.
Even as I type this now, I question the validity of what I write and what I have written. Is this idea of “preparing the way” simply another technique for the privileged to vacate the premises of racial struggle? If the idea of “preparing the way” turns into a rote answer to the new challenges we face, then yes, it has become another method of avoiding God’s call, here and now. It is God’s call itself that responds to this conundrum, to which our rote answers incessantly meet desolation. God breaks through our reflexes of whiteness to incite a response and an open responsiveness to God’s speaking in all times and places. Feeling the pain caused by the violence of our whiteness without answers is the stripping that opens us to hear God’s call today. And just maybe, this is the call that surprised Bonhoeffer on that very first day he encountered a black Jesus in Harlem.
Ross Halbach is adjunct faculty in the School of Biblical & Theological Studies at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. He also serves as the chair of the Fellows Program within Multnomah's Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins. He earned a PhD at the University of Aberdeen and is presently working on adapting his dissertation on Bonhoeffer and race for publication with Baylor University Press.
To read Ross Halbach's paper presented at the 2017 AAR conference in Boston please visit his website at the following link: https://rosshalbach.academia.edu/research
Interested in hearing more papers like this one? Make plans to attend our 2018 AAR paper presentations in Denver! See below for the days, times, and locations!
Bonhoeffer: Theology and Social Analysis Unit
Theme: Celebrating and Interrogating Bonhoeffer’s Life
Saturday, 1:00 PM–3:00 PM
Convention Center-Mile High 3C (Lower Level)
Theme: Bonhoeffer Moment(s)
Sunday, 5:30 PM–7:00 PM
Hyatt Regency-Centennial E (Third Level)
Theme: Bonhoeffer and Contemporary Political Challenges
Monday, 5:30 PM–7:00 PM
Convention Center-Mile High 1D (Lower Level)
Follow this link for the full program book: https://papers.aarweb.org/2018_Program_Book.pdf