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The Grounds of Courage

by Alan Wolf Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy 
By Eric Metaxas

Early in January 1939, the precocious German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, age thirty-two, learned that all males in his age cohort had been ordered to register with the military. A dedicated opponent of the Nazi regime, he might have responded by declaring himself a conscientious objector, but there were two problems with such a course of action. The first was that Bonhoeffer, although pacifist by inclination, was not opposed to violence under all conditions; and he would later play an active role in the conspiracy led by German generals to assassinate Hitler. The second was that his fame in the Confessing Church (more on this below) might encourage other religious leaders critical of the regime to do the same, thereby bringing them under greater suspicion and undermining their efforts to prove that Nazi policies, and especially their rapidly intensifying Jew-hatred, were contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The solution was provided by America’s most illustrious theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Nine years earlier, Bonhoeffer had spent a year in the United States as a free-floating exchange student at Union Theological Seminary, arriving not long after Niebuhr had moved there from Detroit. He had made such a positive impression on Union’s faculty that Niebuhr jumped at the opportunity to bring him back. If we fail to offer him a job, he told Union’s president, Henry Sloane Coffin, Bonhoeffer will wind up in a concentration camp. This was not the stuff of run-of-the-mill letters of recommendation. Union extended the offer. Grateful to have a way out of his dilemma, Bonhoeffer booked passage, and in June 1939 found himself safe in America.

Safe, but unhappy. Bonhoeffer’s second visit to the United States lasted only twenty-six days. The reason was in part theological. Union was committed to a form of religious liberalism fully at odds with the fundamentalist versions of Protestant faith growing in places such as Oklahoma and Georgia; but if Niebuhr and his colleagues thought that in welcoming Bonhoeffer they were adding another liberal modernist, they were quite mistaken. Bonhoeffer simply could not abide the liberalism he found at Union. On his earlier trip to New York, he had written home that “there is no theology here…. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria.” The only church that had moved him in New York was the black church, and in particular Abyssinian Baptist, where Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was the pastor. Once he discovered Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer spent every remaining Sunday of his youthful sojourn in Harlem teaching Sunday school and absorbing the living presence of Christ in its midst. Upon his return to Germany, he brought with him records of black gospel music that he played to his European friends every time he could.

Bonhoeffer’s disappointment proved to be even greater when he returned to the States in 1939.

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December 2012


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