Countless books have been written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr., assessing their individual leadership in the areas of social justice and theology in the twentieth century. Relatively few works have brought these two individuals together in comparative analysis. This book, edited by Willis [End Page 216] Jenkins (assistant professor of social ethics at Yale Divinity School) and Jennifer M. McBride (visiting lecturer at Candler Divinity School), seeks to do that; it brings together a wide array of scholars in the fields of ethics, theology, pastoral ministry, political theory, African American studies, and feminist theology.
As McBride points out in her introduction, the “significant differences in their historic, sociopolitical contexts” can present challenges in comparing the work of these two men and in seeking to contemporize them (8). However, the thought and life of both martyrs “demand[s] action”; in other words, the “thought” of both Bonhoeffer and King remains incomplete without “courageous, constructive, redemptive social engagement” (3). It is in this spirit that the book unfolds.
The book is divided into four parts. The first four chapters compose part 1 (titled “Critical Distance”), which takes a broader look at the legacies, key concepts, and limitations or critiques of the thought of Bonhoeffer and King. For example, the second chapter by Stephen R. Haynes (“King and Bonhoeffer as Protestant Saints”) reminds us of the perils of the larger-than-life legacies of both these individuals. When noteworthy persons become personalities or cultural heroes, key aspects of their legacies can be minimized or overlooked. This is particularly important in contemporary American settings where politicians and commentators tend to reduce the legacies of both Bonhoeffer and King to fit their own political agendas.
Part 2 pays specific attention to the influence of Bonhoeffer and King on matters related to social justice, such as poverty, racism, and violence. Among the notable contributions in this section is the chapter by Craig J. Slane that deals with the “unexpected turn toward violence” (112) for Bonhoeffer during his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler during World War II. Part 3 looks at the ways in which the lives and teaching (and especially preaching, in King’s life in particular) of Bonhoeffer and King are instruments of social redemption. In addition to noting the influence of Niebuhr’s emphasis on social sin and social redemption on King’s preaching and leadership, it points out that both Bonhoeffer and King were deeply influenced by the economic and social upheavals of their time; their preaching, teaching, and writing sought to address, in concrete ways, the racial, economic, and political realities of their contexts. In part 4, “Peacemaking,” four authors highlight the contributions King and Bonhoeffer have made to peacemaking and the influence these contributions continue to have. They discuss both men’s commitment to nonviolence and pacifism and the particular challenges this commitment created for them (especially for Bonhoeffer, given his participation in a plot to overthrow Hitler).
The essays in this book do not present these two martyrs as unblemished. The book contains rich discussions that honestly assess their personal struggles [End Page 217] of conscience as well as their contextual struggles with such issues as the role of women. Furthermore, the reader will find a solid introduction to the lives and thought of both men while at the same time sitting in on a diverse conversation about how their influential interpretations of the Christian faith can continue to be fleshed out. May this kind of conversation (and action) continue!