Christ-Centered Concreteness: The Christian Activism of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. – Rev Dr. Reggie Williams, McCormick Theological Seminary
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer – two names which resound deeply among many Christians across the globe. Both were preaching men, eager to bring their people into firmer alignment with God. Both were thinking men, always up-to-date on the ways that Christianity interacted with the social sciences, politics, and the day-to-day lives of their people. And both were martyred – one for fighting tireless against the institutions and attitudes of white supremacy in the United States, the other for his effort to assassinate one of the greatest tyrants the world had ever known. Reggie Williams puts these two men side by side in this week’s post, and gives us a chance to see how we can learn from their powerful witness – a fitting way to begin this week, honoring Dr. King’s life, legacy, and work.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
By Reggie Williams,
Years ago, I attended a large two-day evangelical men’s conference in Oakland, California. One particular conference speaker left a strong impression as he enthusiastically argued a point about the obvious correlation between Christian men and virtue. He told us to imagine walking through a dimly lit alley late at night, to see “a group of guys” approaching us at a distance. “Would it make a difference for your peace of mind,” he said, “if you knew that the men approaching you at night in that dark alley were coming from a bar, or from a Bible study?” The answer was apparently obvious, “Of course it would make a difference!” the speaker said. “You’d certainly feel better if you knew they were coming from a Bible Study!” According to the conference speaker, it’s self-evident that Christians aren’t dangerous; they are virtuous, caring people.
The speaker framed a picture of Christian men that conference attendees were certain was real. He stoked their zeal to believe that Christian men were a better brand of human being. The story inspired attendees to feel great about themselves, and to claim their divinely ordained leadership roles. But it was a story that was swimming in rhetoric, and it was hiding something. Who was this “we” he was referring to, who would feel safe as non-descript, ubiquitous Christian men approached?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther king Jr. were Christian pastors and theologians who expose the lie within the rhetoric of intrinsic Christian virtue. They were pastors who advocated a Christian life that privileged justice as the way of Jesus, not individual virtue or morality. Within their social contexts they faced violent opposition from “virtuous” people who identified chiefly as Christian. Bonhoeffer’s major opponents were members of the German Christians movement who engaged in violence towards people who were not idealized Aryan, hetero, Germans. His opponents sought to make Germany great again by enabling Adolf Hitler as head of the church and the country. In America, Martin Luther King Jr. was spokesperson for the modern civil right’s movement that was operationalized by black churches. Participants in the civil rights movement practiced non-cooperation with the political, economic, and social structures that have historically been organized and maintained by white supremacy. The resistance that Bonhoeffer and King met from Christians illustrates that the mere label “Christian” does not indicate that one is, or intends to be, virtuous, or concerned about the well being of others. Nor does it identify that one is following the way of Jesus. What matter’s most is our actual understanding of the way of Jesus.
The influence that Bonhoeffer and King placed on the Sermon on the Mount helped both of them to see justice as core to the way of Jesus. King’s advocacy of social justice drew directly from it, connecting what he admired of Gandhi, with “love ethic” he saw in the Sermon on the Mount, to provide the necessary guidance to confront evil in society. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Hitler’s evil and his brave opposition against him was influenced by his read of the Sermon. In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argued that the Sermon on the Mount represents concrete commandments that Jesus expects followers to follow, concretely.
He argued that the Sermon is not a set of high ideals meant to demonstrate how impossible it is to please God, which often leads to a form of “cheap grace” that enables Christians to practice a confident defiance of God. Bonhoeffer interpreted the incarnation as a moment that fundamentally changed reality, and helped guide faithfulness. In the incarnation Christ took “the world up into himself … [thus] establish[ing] an ontological coherence” of God’s reality with the reality of the world and the reunion of God with the world. The reunion that occurred between God and creation in the incarnate One was accomplished in Christ, and became the new reality. Thus to behave responsibly is to act in accordance with the Christ-centered reality brought about by the incarnation. Responsible action is “the entire response, in accord with reality, to the claim of God and my neighbor” as demonstrated by the reunion of God and creation in the incarnation. 
With Bonhoeffer, Christianity is not described by a personal relationship with God, evidenced by adherence to a lifestyle of family values or virtues: responsible Christian action is active acceptance of “the responsibility which has been established in Christ.” Bonhoeffer’s use of Stellvertretung translated as vicarious representative action, or, empathetic incarnational representative, describes Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on Christ’s acting in solidarity with others. Stellvertretung is who Jesus is and what Jesus does; Jesus’ vicarious representative action “restores communion between God and [humanity] and Christ becomes God’s sacrifice in my place. Stellvertretung also describes what Jesus expects of us. We recognize and interact with Jesus in social encounters with others. Indeed, we always, only interact with others through Christ, since Christ has become vicarious representation for all of humanity before God, and before one another. Without Christ, the only freedom we know is no freedom at all. It is freedom from one another, with our heart turned inward on itself. Christ, who is for us, enables our release from the bondage of the heart turned inwards, to be free for God and one another. This understanding of the person and work of God establishes our understanding of the person and work of Jesus, not in abstract doctrine, but in social interaction with one another.
King’s Christology also emphasized Jesus’ being in relationship. King advocated nonviolent resistance to social evil, emphasizing the value of redemptive suffering for changing the hearts of both victim and perpetrator. He saw the power of God in the universe actively siding with justice—on the side of love and restoration, not hate and destruction. He often claimed, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” King understood God to be just and loving: “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power.” The “benign power” has advocates and opponents: those who actively participate in the Christ-informed drama of neighbor love, or those who ultimately fail as they oppose it.
Thus for both men, Christ-liken-ess did not consist of intangible high ideals, but of our active faithfulness to God demonstrated by our pursuit of justice.
There is an interesting correlation between their interpretations of the incarnate One, and the structure of the moral and loving universe. With both of them, Christians are meant to obey the call of God on our lives in daily praxis, pushing back against social evil, and guided by Christ-centered claims that promote community. Those claims may require us to contradict what may be accepted as popular moral norms, possibly defying political structures that have legalized injustice. Following Christ makes the moral arc of the universe more than an ideal; it is not a what, but a “who.” He is the incarnate Stellvertretung (for Bonhoeffer), and he is “love-correcting-what-would-work-against-love (for MLK).” Christian discipleship is oriented towards praxis, becomes the moral standard in the universe, and the incarnate One determines good and bad, right and wrong incarnationally, in concrete daily social encounters, as we collectively participate with God in Christ, in the concreteness of daily life.
When disciples observed Christ’s behavior in context, law-breaking and norm-defying behavior is not sin; he who is performing the work of delivering love is the standard and the norm. He does the things that seem to the onlooker to be sin, yet he is consistently enacting neighbor love; he is Word and concomitantly the standard of judgment and the final judge. He is the lawbreaker, judging our social standards, disrupting practices of injustice and political oppression for the sake of justice, restoration, and a new relationship between God, humanity, and the Beloved Community. It is humiliated and sinful flesh that he carries, but it is he, the standard by which all standards are measured, and the one who is the final judge who carries it.  The incarnate One is the en-fleshed moral arc of the universe that is bent towards justice, when we take both arguments into account.
Christian obedience is not determined by the appearance of a moral or virtuous individual life, but by embodied faithfulness to the incarnate One. The Word made flesh is the concrete guidance that mediates our social interaction and inspiration for resistance to injustice. His “way” as articulated in scripture and mediated in community, will always be in favor of neighbor love demonstrated as justice, sometimes in opposition to popular norms, but always in favor of the oppressed. Hence, in that dimly lit alleyway, we should not be so comforted by the label of Christian, or that they read their Bible. What we’d want to know is do they know the One who embodies love and justice?
The Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams before becoming Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in 2012, he received his Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He earned a Master’s degree in Theology from Fuller in 2006 and a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Westmont College in 1995. Dr. Williams’ research interests are primarily focused on Christological hermeneutics, and Christian morality. He has a particular interest in how the Western-world understanding of Christianity has been calibrated to a false ideal that corresponds with racialized interpretations of humanity, morality, and Jesus. His current projects include an analysis of the developments within Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics, as a result of his experience in the Harlem Renaissance, 1930-31. Reggie lives in Flossmoor, Illinois with his wife Stacy. They are the proud parents of a son, Darion, and a daughter, Simone.