Review of J Deotis Roberts, Bonhoeffer & King: Speaking Truth to Power, Westminster John Knox, (2005). ISBN: 0664226523.
At the age of thirty nine both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr were murdered on account of the fact that both spoke (and acted out this speech) to power. Bonhoeffer was murdered by in a Nazi concentration camp in April 1945; Martin Luther King, Jr, like Bonhoeffer, also murdered in April, this time April 1968 whilst campaigning for fair wages for Blacks.
The author of this book, J Deotis Roberts, is himself a significant Black and Liberation theologian and hence a joint study of both of these theologians makes a certain sense. While I am not well-read in Black Theology (although I have read Cone) but I find it hard to imagine Black Theology would be anything like the same as it is today were it not for the efforts of MLK, even if some motifs of Black Power thought are developed against MLK’s nonviolent method. Likewise, it is clear that early Liberation Theology, as a reading of Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation will make apparent, has used Bonhoeffer’s theology as an important resource in early Liberation Theology, particularly in regards to theological methodology.
J Deotis Roberts begins his study with a brief synopsis of his “biography as theology” approach by which he analyses the biography of both MLK and DB. As a brief historical introduction to these two figures then this is helpful, however, I do not think that Deotis Roberts really offers anything revealing as regards to the relationship between these two theologians. In fact, this comment probably applies to the the rest of the book. As a brief introduction to the different theologies of DB and MLK then this is probably going to be a useful book. However, there is little in the DB sections, which is more my specialism that is particularly new, it is instead a summary of Bonhoeffer from the secondary literature. As a Black theologian who was at least peripherally active in the Civil Rights movement it is possible that Deotis Robert’s discussion of MLK is more interesting, although my impression is that the same applies to these sections. Similarly, this book is weak the relation of the respective theologians to the wider theological context.
That said, I do not think Bonhoeffer and King is a bad book. While it may not be an original contribution to theology it is a good introduction to the social theology of both of these theologians and with it to some of the central themes of political theology. Where J Deotis excels is in two of the main issues on which the theological visions of DB and MLK coalesce, namely in the issues of religion and the influence of Gandhi. It is not surprising that Deotis Roberts places significance on Bonhoeffer’s observation of the racist treatment of Blacks while he was a student in America. It is with the Church’s complicity in the anti-Jewish racism in Germany that the links between DB and MLK’s struggle in America are apparent and Deotis Roberts does a very good job of delineating these. Similarly, both of these theologians had a a profound respect and learned a great deal from the mission of Gandhi, although with DB’s involvement in the anti-Hitler conspiracy it is perhaps questionable whether this influence continued to the end of his life, something which the author does not adequately address.