Summary: King and Bonhoeffer both were killed at 39 after lives known for pushing the church toward greater ethical behavior. Their thinking, lives, and action overlap and diverge, but they continue to impact Christian social ethics over 50 years after their deaths.
Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought is book of essays from 19 different authors. I have read four biographies of Bonhoeffer as well as several other books by or about him. I have also read a number of books about King and his work, but Bonhoeffer and King gave me a number of new ways of looking at their work and lots of new insights into their theology and praxis. Part of what is important about this book is strives to be honest to their weaknesses and limitations. We are all limited, both by our natural created gifts and limitations and by our sin. But for people that are considered saints as many consider Bonhoeffer and King, part of that sainthood is a sanitizing and narrowing of their legacy. Many want to cite King for his work against segregation, but want to ignore his work around poverty, or militarization.
Because there are 18 chapters and a conclusion by Willis Jenkins (the editor) there are a number of different perspectives here, but for the most part there is no real question about social justice as a conceptual (or Christian) good. The authors prod and compare and highlight differences in perspective, life experience, theology, geography and social situation, but the assumption of the authors (which I agree with) is that for any weakness they had, the role of the church is to work toward justice and both Bonhoeffer and King were attempting that.
I made 21 highlights in my book (publicly available on my goodreads review). That it too many to comments about. And a book like this really has too much to comment about anyway. I want to highlight three themes that were touched on by a number of the chapters. First, while not everyone is aware, Bonhoeffer’s work was significantly impacted by his time worshiping and working in the black church while he studied at Union Seminary in NYC. That shared understanding of the church of the oppressed was frequently mentioned by authors here. For King scholars, the black church background is understood, but for Bonhoeffer scholars it is something that is often noted, but not necessarily given the significance that Bonhoeffer gave it to his own theological maturity.
Second, both significantly highlighted how both community and love where the primary methods and message of the church. God is a god of Love. God’s method in the world is the community of the church. The church’s primary impact is not political or power, but love. King is known for using the phrase Beloved Community to describe a concept of how a communal church focused on love worked in the world. Bonhoeffer’s ethics was also focused on community and a praxis of love and the second commandment being the method of that. The community focus and the focus on love were tied together. Said another way, “It can be said either way: the communitarian ethic of both King and Bonhoeffer is inherently a love ethic; or, their love ethic is inherently communitarian.” (Kindle 22%)
That communitarianism is a critique of the hyper individualism today. I am not sure that either King or Bonhoeffer really understood the extent to which the church has embraced individualism today. But both embraced communitarian principles in part as a rejection of the individualism that impacted them. “Western individualism inevitably confuses the reality of God with one’s own idea of reality.” (Kindle 68%)
Third, both Bonhoeffer and King understood oppression to be a problem not just for the oppressed but also for the oppressor. The type of problem it is for each is different, but it is harmful to each. King focused his efforts on non-violent direct action which, “seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary. After all, said King, oppressors are also victims of their own oppressive behavior. Nonviolent resisters seek to win their adversary’s understanding and even friendship rather than to humiliate or defeat them. “The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” (Kindle 65%)
Where I am a bit more mixed in today’s application of King and Bonhoeffer is the application of the forgiveness of the oppressor by the oppressed as a prerequisite for reconciliation. That seems to fundamentally alter the order or how forgiveness and reconciliation tend to work. Forgiveness by the oppressed often comes first, the examples of the forgiveness of Dylan Roof by the families of those he killed at Emmanuel AME illustrate. But I frequently hear majority culture Christians seem to put forgiveness as a precondition on participation in reconciliation. And that short circuits actual reconciliation because the oppressors tend to want to not look at the actual pain that has been caused.
One of the more important parts of the book for me was Charles Marsh’s chapter on the growth of each. This quote is a taste, “
Bonhoeffer was a brilliant and faithful man, who eventually achieved martyrdom, but he was (like many of us) capable of pride in the church, disdain for the world, and double-mindedness about both. We do Bonhoeffer more honor by acknowledging the ways in which he grew through war and suffering than by imagining that he had a perfectly clear and consistent moral vision all along. (Kindle 29%)
I also think it is interesting how much we tend to complain about the lack of things in some of our leaders. “With King, for instance, at no time after entering full-time ministry did he ever sit down and compose a comprehensive and systematic account of the meaning and significance of Jesus. He just never perceived the Holy Spirit’s calling to such a task.” (Kindle 64%)
I very slowly read Bonhoeffer and King because each chapter is complete unto itself and they do not necessarily build on one another. While it was a very interesting book, I slowly read Bonhoeffer and King over about 10 weeks. I picked this up during Fortress Press’ twice a year kindle sale two years ago. Not every book is available on sale every time, but there is a pretty consistent list of about 700 Fortress Press books that are on sale for $2.99 to $7.99.