The German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), has captured the attention of Americans, if not also many others around the world, like no other modern-day theologian. His Discipleship and Ethics have inspired numerous discussions regarding their application, or misapplication, to contemporary social issues. The root of Bonhoeffer’s ethics is theology as a first order. He believed that if our theology is not correct, then anything we attempt will be misguided. Theology always informed his engagement of social issues. This idea of “theology first” is what separated Bonhoeffer from Critical Theory which originated in the Germany of his day, and Critical Race Theory of our day.
For the Christian engaged in social justice, until theology is worked out, engagement of social issues cannot make a legitimate contribution to social transformation. In the American context, the fact that the evangelical church—no matter if white, black, or brown—continues to be divided on issues of social justice reflects more on the reality that we haven’t worked out our theology sufficiently. Neither have we worked it out together—white, black, and brown—in our diverse communities.
In other words, it’s only after we work out our theology that we can begin to work out what that looks like when applied to social systems: political, economic, and societal. Until then, we will continue to experience turmoil as we’ll be constantly frustrated by one group’s insistence of power over another.
The most pressing social issue in Bonhoeffer’s day was clearly Nazism and its corresponding atrocities. In 1933, Hitler came to power and Bonhoeffer already saw him as an opponent as he spoke out clearly against the idea of Fürher (leader) two days after Hitler became chancellor (Feb 1, 1933). Bonhoeffer was also quite disturbed by the German evangelical acceptance of Hitler as their Fürher and recognized that his own dogmatism was interfering with the unity of the church. His solution was theological: take a Christ-like posture of love, even with your enemies. In a sermon for his congregation in London, he wrote:
“Whether or not we want to see it, whether or not we think it is right, the churches are caught up in a struggle for their faith such as we have not seen for hundreds of years. This is a struggle—whether or not we agree—over our confession of Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Redeemer of this world. But anyone who inwardly and outwardly joins in this struggle for this confession knows that such a struggle for faith carries a great temptation with it—the temptation of being too sure of oneself, of self-righteousness and dogmatism, which also means the temptation to be unloving toward one’s opponent. And yet this opponent can never truly be overcome if not through love, since no opponent is ever overcome, except by love …. Even of the most passionate battle for the faith it could well be said: “…but had it not love, it would be nothing.” (London: 1933-1935, 376)
That is why Bonhoeffer’s idea of “I relate ethically to others, therefore I am” is so important. That relational ethic of love is simply Christ-likeness. Unless Jesus—not our racialized Jesus, but Jesus the God-become-human—animates our being and our practice, our efforts toward social transformation will be far from transforming.
Adapted from the forthcoming book: Social Injustice II: Evangelical Voices in Tumultuous Times. Join our mailing list to be among the first to hear about the book’s release in April 2021.