“Perhaps that Sunday afternoon,” Myles Horton reminisced about his late friend, the German pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “I witnessed a beginning of his identification with the oppressed which played a role in the decision that led to his death.”(1)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer arrived in America in 1930 to study at Union Theological Seminary, but he was less than impressed. He was firmly Lutheran and, with help from Karl Barth, had already begun to reject much of German theology that sought to demythologize and discredit allegedly unsavory elements of the Bible. Now, however, he was dropped into the hub of American theology which took many similar cues and was, lamentably, highly pragmatic, scattered, and less than orthodox. Barth referred to these forms of theology concerning God as merely speaking about humans in a loud voice; Bonhoeffer described it as “no theology” at all.(2)
One can only imagine how the energy of Harlem itself must have filled Bonhoeffer with a feeling of life and vibrancy. This was the era of the Harlem Renaissance, after all. The jazz stylings of Duke Ellington waltzed through the streets where intellectuals, poets, and artists mingled and created new forms of self-expression all their own and for their own.(3) This spirit of rebirth and defiance did not stop at the church doors, either. “[Bonhoeffer] was very emotional and did not hide his feelings, which was extremely rare for him,” Horton wrote. “He said it was the only time he had experienced true religion in the United States, and was convinced that it was only among blacks who were oppressed that there could be any real religion in this country.”(4)
“I heard the gospel preached in the negro churches,” Bonhoeffer effusively proclaimed in 1931.(5) He had come to New York with a growing conviction that the Incarnation was not just about God becoming man to die, but about Christ informing us today how to live. It was in Harlem where he began to see this holistically. The New Testament was written in a context where the church was a marginalized and oftentimes oppressed community. It seems to take something of that mindset to understand it fully. Losing that perspective turns us into spiritual salvationists rather than holistic kingdom gospelists. As the political situation in Bonhoeffer’s native Germany continued to crumble, which would give rise to the reign of the “crazed, cracked Austrian”(6) and his Nazi party, these enfleshed lessons from Harlem of life among the oppressed and marginalized would prove to be foundational in his development of incarnational ethics.(7)
The gospel Bonhoeffer heard was full-throated and full of all of the love, sin, grace, and justice of God that should have been there in the first place. It was not just a gospel that gazed into the sky, but one that was also firmly planted on earth. In his native Germany, theologians had been attempting to erase from the Bible certain embarrassing “earthy” stories, and that trend has continued even to our own day. But to the oppressed who do not have the comfort of comfort itself, there is nothing embarrassing at all about the struggle for a land in Canaan or the violent rescue of an enslaved people from Egypt. Bonhoeffer was gifted a copy of James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Spirituals by his friend Franklin, and these spirituals would quickly be incorporated into his personal liturgy and even later into the liturgy of his underground seminary at Finkenwalde, alongside old monastic practices and other holy rhythms.(8) One of his favorite songs was the spiritual “Go Down, Moses”:
As Israel stood by the waterside,
Let my people go,
At God’s command it did divide,
Let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go.(9)
Bonhoeffer would travel back to New York at the urging of his friends and family to seek safe haven from an increasingly hostile Germany in 1939. He was already well-known as being a resister and trouble-making enemy of the state to Nazi forces and the so-called “Reich Church.”(10) During his first visit to America, he had also toured the south and was appalled at the devastating reality of racial prejudice and injustice. Now, eight years later, he found the country in worse condition. But he also found the Black Church still standing and still singing, a beacon of light and hope and in a dark and hopeless world. His conscience groaned: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America,” he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr.(11) He would have to go back to Germany to live and struggle with his people rather than escaping to comfort and safety. This one final lesson from Harlem sent him back to Germany on one of the last ships that would sail there for years. Just a few weeks after his return, Hitler’s blitzkrieg invaded Poland and hurled the world into its second World War.
Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany was essentially the decision to walk into his own grave—not that he was given one. But this is true discipleship, this is living the gospel holistically. His love of Scripture had taught him that, and his love of African American spirituality in Harlem had showed him that. These lessons are heard in his words and seen in his actions. The Bonhoeffer we know would not have been who he became without Harlem. He no doubt imbibed the words of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who wrote:
How Calvary in Palestine,
Extending down to me and mine,
Was but the first leaf in a line
Of trees on which a Man should swing
World without end, in suffering
For all men’s healing, let me sing.(12)
These stark lessons remain for us today as well. Where are we letting our comfort get in the way of our calling? Where is our safety taking precedence over our sanctification? Where is our security trumping our service? If we are blind to oppression and suffering, we are blind to the call of the holistic gospel to lift up those who are being crushed to the ground. God always responds to cries, and we are told to do likewise. It is a terrifying call, I grant you, and one I often fail in answering. But this is what it ultimately means to be “in the form of Christ” in a world of horrors. “The form of Jesus Christ,” Bonhoeffer reminds us, “alone victoriously encounters the world.”(13)
Derek Caldwell is a writer for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 10 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), 31.
(2) Ibid., 265.
(3) Bonhoeffer would devour much of this literature himself, such as the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, along with other African American intellectuals like W. E. B. Du Bois.
(4) Ibid., 31.
(5) Ibid., 315.
(6) Malcolm Muggeridge, “But Not of Christ” in Seeing Through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005), 29.
(7) Reggie Williams, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Christ,” in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture, ed. Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 61-62. Also see Reggie Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014).
(8) Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 233-34.
(9) Interestingly, this is one of several spirituals used by Africans Americans during the era of chattel slavery that would be sung with double meaning. Slaves in the 19th century “sung on one level with intense religious commitment and on another level as a code language to protest slavery and to plan for escape” (Sondra O’Neale, “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol,” Early American Literature 21 (1986): 145). It is this exact song that Harriet Tubman used to identify herself to fellow slaves during her many courageous rescue missions back to the southern United States.
(10) Where children’s baptism services often disgustingly ended with a prayer that “this child will grow up to be like Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler” (Marsh, 283).
(11) Bonhoeffer, Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 15 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 210.
(12) Countee Cullen, “The Black Christ by Countee Cullen with Illustrations by Charles Cullen,” University of Missouri Libraries, February 19, 2014. Also, for an interesting look at how different races have depicted the color of Christ in American history, consider Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (The University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
(13) Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works – Reader’s Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 92.
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