Connecting racial ideology in 20th century Nazi Germany with white racism in 21st century America
by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service
Author of the acclaimed book “Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance,” Williams is a social ethicist at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
In “Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus,” Williams examines the choices German theologian and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer made in relationship to race while studying at Union Theological Seminary (1930-1931) in New York City — and when he returned to Germany. Bonhoeffer was hung on April 9, 1945, just days before American liberation, for participating in a failed assassination plot against Adolph Hitler.
Williams suggested to Kim that we can construct a moral analogy between Bonhoeffer’s ethical response and a Christian’s response to radicalized America today. Specifically, we can compare Bonhoeffer’s criticism of the racial ideology in Nazi Germany to how a Christian can respond to white racism and white supremacy in 21st century America.
“How do we see what Bonhoeffer did and make sense of it for what we are trying to do as faithful Christians today?” he asked.
Williams said the formula for the moral analogy is quite simple: “X is to Bonhoeffer, like Y is to me,” he said. “If I were to respond as Y, like Bonhoeffer did to X, what would it require of me?”
To answer that, Williams said one must take Bonhoeffer’s context — and ours — seriously.
An overtly racist regime, Germany was building a nation state around the concept of an ideal human being, which they called “race-ology. The U.S. had eugenics, which Williams said was basically “the same ideology.”
According to reports, in the early 20th century more than 30 states adopted forced sterilization laws which included poor, uneducated, disabled and minority population groups. While the eugenics movement was discredited when the horrors of Nazi Germany came to light following World War II — it seems to have peaked in the 1920s and 1930s — some states continued to sterilize residents even into the 1970s.
And now the nation state, Williams said, is pushing to return to something akin to this while promoting a kind of racial unity, which may sound good. But unity based on white supremacy is dangerous because it is built around an ideal type, he said.
So, Williams asked again, how are Christians to respond to a worldview that is dangerously interwoven with white supremacy? This is where the moral analogy comes into play. Hitler’s political ideology and his plans for Germany, Williams said, promoted both the ideal of a certain race as good and the overtly racist nation state.
“Call it a human template,” he said. “And once humanity is in aesthetic proximity to this template, it becomes a divine ideal. It’s a God-given ideal. This is the kind of language Hitler was saying.”
Williams said Bonhoeffer was pushing back against Hitler’s ideals by advocating for the concrete reality that stands before us. This is where he believes Christian responsibility lies, in one’s ability to accept and appreciate the value of the flesh and blood — what Hitler would call materialism.
“Hitler’s push for ideals is a denial of the incarnation. But for Bonhoeffer, reality is shaped Christo-morphic,” he said. “It’s shaped like Christ in light of the incarnation. It’s in reality and in embodiment that you meet Christ.”
In coming episodes, Kim said she will talk with Williams in depth about white supremacy, the ethical problem of all lives matter thinking, the urgency of Black Lives Matter and xenophobia. Those episodes are set for release on June 24 and July 1.
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