“This is a Bonhoeffer moment for every pastor in the United States,” explained Ronnie Floyd, President of America’s largest—and most rapidly declining—evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
With SCOTUS’ upcoming decision regarding same-sex unions looming large in the minds of religious conservatives, Floyd took to the podium to remind the faithful that, whatever SCOTUS decides, the SBC will continue to affirm “biblical and traditional marriage.” As Bible-believing Christians, they will not—nay, cannot—yield in the face of LGBTQ advocates’ cultural offensive.
Floyd referred repeatedly to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whose resistance to the Nazis led to his execution. He reminded American evangelicals that, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Apparently, in this analogy, the LGBTQ community and its advocates are Hitler and the SS, while Floyd, and Southern Baptists everywhere, are the Jews. White, evangelical Christians are, in this analogy, victimized to a level on par with what is arguably humanity’s greatest atrocity.
This language is nothing new, and religious conservatives have long held the belief that they constitute a righteous minority (or a suppressed majority, as historian Jonathan J. Edwards has noted). They exist as aliens in a country increasingly filled with liberals and/or secularists bent on destroying an amorphous set of “family values.”
Critical engagement with a figure like Floyd can seem futile, as his self-conception is so disconnected from reality. After all, 70% of Americans identify as Christians, and while this is down from 78% just a few years prior, that decline has not characterized the evangelical community. As Joseph Callahan describes:
In America today, you can proudly say, “I’m a Christian” and carry a Bible with you everywhere you go. You can go to any church you want to without being arrested. You can say anything you want! You can even proclaim that you worship the Giant Spaghetti Monster, and all the persecution you will receive is strange looks from some people.
So, why bother responding this time?
Because this time, Floyd is not just making usual rhetorical play of treating our nation’s dominant religious tradition as a persecuted minority. He is pressing Dietrich Bonhoeffer—one of the history’s most stalwart defenders of the victimized and oppressed—into service. In doing so, he demonstrates a profound disregard for Bonhoeffer’s core ethical and theological commitments.
Here’s why this matters: because Southern Baptists are not the Jews to LGBTQ advocates’ Nazi Party. And the analogy doesn’t work much better if you reverse it.
What we can agree on is that gays, lesbians and transgender people have been, and still are, subject to violence because of who they are. The United States is witnessing a record number of LGBTQ homicides in 2015. And violence against transgender individuals has undergone a particular rise.
The question then becomes: in a country where Christianity is dominant, whose side would Bonhoeffer be on?
Here, the insights of Reggie L. Williams are helpful. In Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, Williams details the theological and ethical changes Bonhoeffer underwent during his stint at Union Theological Seminary from 1930-1931. While at Union, Bonhoeffer spent a great deal of time in Harlem, where he immersed himself in a literary tradition that cultivated an image of a “black Jesus” who, rather than siding with the nation’s white oppressors, championed the cause of a marginal, black community.
In Harlem, Bonhoeffer adopted a new image of Christ. In this new christology, heavily rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, we Christians are to identify with the world’s oppressed populations, working to deliver them from their suffering. Ultimately, it was this conviction—formulated on the streets of Harlem—that animated Bonhoeffer’s later fight against the Nazis.
It is worth noting that, in addition to his work fighting the Nazis with the Confessing Church, post-Harlem Bonhoeffer developed a profound love for working with impoverished, urban youth, a population in which LGBTQ youth are now vastly overrepresented. Four in ten homeless youths identify as LGBTQ, and most of those claim that family rejection was a major factor in their becoming homeless.
These are the kinds of people Bonhoeffer committed to serving. These were his people.
This is the Bonhoeffer that has so thoroughly convicted me—a white, upper-middle class, college-educated male—of my own tendency towards callous self-segregation. This is the Bonhoeffer that I now know and love. He is a thinker with deep reverence for the Bible, a reverence that led him not to moralistic condemnation, but to compassion for victims of oppression.
Between Southern Baptists and the LGBTQ community, it is quite clear who can more rightly be labeled “oppressed,”—and with whom Bonhoeffer would side.
In invoking Bonhoeffer in service of oppression Ronnie Floyd got his history—and his theology—deeply, unmistakably wrong.