At the “turn of the year 1942-3” and some four months before the Nazis arrested him, Lutheran pastor/scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay titled “After Ten Years,” detailing pressures that developed after National Socialism’s assumption of power in 1933. Two years later, Bonhoeffer was dead, executed as the Third Reich was collapsing; his essay hidden “among beams and rafters” until war’s end.
An early paragraph begins: “One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet — people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant, and futile, who looked beyond all these existing alternatives for the source of their strength so entirely in the past or in the future, and why yet, without being dreamers, were able to await the success of their cause so quietly and confidently.”
Almost 80 years later, for different but parallel reasons, those words capture our own times. In 2020, it seems as if each new day eradicates a little more economic, political, educational, spiritual ground beneath our feet as individuals, communities, nation and, yes, Christians.
In 2017, I wrote in this space that we are living in a collective Bonhoeffer moment, a time when we, like the German theologian, are being tested beyond measure now by a myriad of challenges and crises, a list that expands daily. The “success” we “await” is a long time coming.
Between now and the “turn of the year” 2020-21, I propose to examine certain Bonhoeffer moments that bring profound tests/trials/ordeals/ideas to nation, church and gospel. I’m not alone; others do that consistently in the Opinion section of BNG. Still others face Bonhoeffer moments in the trenches where the needs, struggles and issues of life and death are perilous. Perhaps by confronting such moments we’ll find a way beyond at least some of them, together.
Race and racism
To begin, I’d suggest that race and racism in America represent a 400-year-old Bonhoeffer moment, stretching from the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619 to the Black Lives Matter movement of the immediate 21st century. Slavery ended officially in 1863, but its demons have never been fully exorcised, perpetuated in Jim Crow laws, white supremacy, segregation, unjust police violence and faulty biblical exegesis.
Robert P. Jones begins his newly published White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in White Christianity with this assessment of his Baptist heritage: “The Christian denomination in which I grew up was founded on the proposition that chattel slavery could flourish alongside the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its founders believed this arrangement was not just possible but also divinely mandated.”
“Southern Protestants conjured up elaborate ‘biblical arguments’ in support of slavery, with Baptists at the forefront.”
Southern Protestants conjured up elaborate “biblical arguments” in support of slavery, with Baptists at the forefront. Consider this exegesis:
Believing Paul’s argument, we would agree that eternal redemption by Christ and eternal ownership of all we are by Christ is infinitely superior to any earthly condition, whether slave or free. Redemption is both freeing and captivating. “For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise, he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave” (1 Corinthians 7:22). We also, as believers in biblical infallibility and in the revelatory ministry of the apostles would see a clear pattern of relationship between slave and master in both the Petrine and the Pauline material. Slaves were to do their service gladly to their masters, even to those who were harsh, embracing the opportunity for sanctification and for emulation of Christ. They were to consider that their work transcended a merely earthly task and was done as unto the Lord.”
What’s happening here? The statement minimizes slaves’ “earthly condition,” spiritualizing it into an “eternal redemption,” for which they are to be grateful. “Biblical infallibility” becomes the authoritative source for a “clear pattern” of slave/master connections, even mandating serving even harsh masters “gladly” as a source of “sanctification” and Christlikeness.
Our Bonhoeffer moment
And therein lies our own 21st century Bonhoeffer moment since those words come not from Richard Furman’s 1822 “biblical” defense of slavery, but in 2020 by Tom Nettles, retired history professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nettles’ exegesis is a rejoinder to an open letter by African American SBC pastor, Dwight McKissic, requesting that the seminary remove the names of slaveholding founders James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly and William Williams from the school’s buildings as a sign of repentance for its slavery-fused origins.
I’ll leave the debate over names and buildings to Southern Baptists, while repenting for never having questioned such naming during my 17 years on the SBTS faculty. My concern here is for the application of Nettles’ exegesis to a slavery-permitting society whenever it might appear.
Nettles acknowledges that he and McKissic “agree that the Bible reprobates man-stealing (1 Timothy 1:10; Exodus 21:16)” and “that freedom is superior as a temporal condition to slavery and should be achieved when a lawful opportunity arises (1 Corinthians 7:21).”
Contrary to McKissic, he indicates that biblical mandates related to a slavery-oriented culture, then and now, remain intact, noting:
In their faithful service, considering their master as worthy of “all honor,” (slaves) would adorn gospel doctrine. Slaves should serve believing masters with good will toward the prospering and well-being of the master. The bondservant would be rewarded by God for faithful service or would be judged by him impartially for wrongdoing. Masters must not threaten or be harsh, must provide for their bondservants in a just and fair way, and consider releasing those so gifted for service in gospel ministry. Masters, like slaves, will be judged according to an absolute standard of justice. They were to consider one another, even in this relationship of slave and master, as beloved because graciously and eternally loved by God and as brothers because of having received the Spirit of adoption whereby both cry “Abba, Father.” (Galatians 3:26-4:7; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22 – 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:1, 2; Titus 2:9, 10; Philemon 10-20)
“To Christianize the slave/master hierarchy is to claim Christ while denying the gospel itself.”
But surely the master/slave construct is not a “complementarity,” in which each party shares temporal inequality, but spiritual equality before a God who decrees such a horrendous subject/object association. Because the biblical writers developed a theology for Christianizing master/slave linkage does not mean that such a practice is perpetually legitimated by the gospel of the Word made flesh who dwelt among us. In fact, the incarnation itself is a judgment against that relationship wherever it appears. To Christianize the slave/master hierarchy is to claim Christ while denying the gospel itself: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.”
For Nettles, “The elimination of slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation and the South’s defeat in the Civil War, did not change the theology of Boyce and the seminary cohort in any of these truths of revelation. All of this confirms the vital importance of the transcendent, trans-historical, trans-cultural, trans-temporal blessing of revealed truth. … For the manner in which these blessings of grace were embraced, articulated and transferred to succeeding generations, we should let our gratitude smother our suspicion.”
But for the church, at least the African American church, it was and is the gospel of Jesus Christ that eliminated slavery, long before the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the land of the free and the home of white supremacy.
We still hear that in the testimony of the slave woman named Winney, disciplined by a Kentucky Baptist Church in 1807 for saying out loud that “she once thought it her duty to serve her mistress and her master, but since the Lord had converted her she had never believed that any Christian kept negroes or slaves.”
Preach on, Sister Winney. Preach on. Maybe someday we’ll all claim Christ and that gospel.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.