By Devin Maddox

Though some of the Bonhoeffer intelligentsia rushed to criticize Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010), few can argue whether any book has more broadly brought Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s name to the fore. Though American readers have long read DiscipleshipLife Together, and Letters and Papers from PrisonMetaxas’s biographical behemoth reintroduced Bonhoeffer with unprecedented reach.

Many of Metaxas’s readers were surprised to discover details of Bonhoeffer’s life they never knew. Having been made available years before in the English translation of Eberhard Bethge’s unrivaled masterpiece (on which Metaxas based much of his own work), Bonhoeffer’s personal journey was veiled in relative obscurity, left to the Bonhoeffer scholars and historians until Metaxas popularized it for an American audience. We are truly in his debt.

I often hear profound interest expressed in Bonhoeffer’s time in the United States, particularly his time studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City (1931) after readers learn about Bonhoeffer’s life story for the first time. They are interested to know, for example, that Bonhoeffer was deeply affected by his experience worshiping and engaging in youth work at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. They are intrigued to learn that Bonhoeffer formed a lifelong friendship with an African American student named Frank Fisher, who led Bonhoeffer on a trip to Howard University (Washington, D.C.), where Fisher was denied food service at a local restaurant (Bonhoeffer refused to dine there). They are shocked to learn Bonhoeffer visited the Deep South and stared Jim Crow in the face with his own two eyes.

It’s safe to say that these experiences, among others, informed Bonhoeffer’s convictions about racism for the rest of his life. But it would be a mistake to assume he did not grow in understanding. Bonhoeffer, like all of us, had blind spots.

Take for example the following correspondence between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother Karl Friedrich during his post-doctoral studies in America.

To Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer:

The separation of whites from blacks in the Southern states really does make a rather shameful impression. In railways that separation extends to even the tiniest details. I found that the cars of the Negroes generally look cleaner than the others. It also pleased me when the whites had to crowd into their railway cars while often only a single person was sitting in the entire railway car for the Negroes. The way the Southerners talk about the Negroes is simply repugnant, and in this regard the pastors are no better than the others. I still believe that the spiritual songs of the Southern Negroes represent some of the greatest artistic achievements in America. It is a bit unnerving that a country with so inordinately many slogans about brotherhood, peace, and so on, such things still continue completely uncorrected. (DWE Vol. 10, 269)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, January 2, 1931

Karl-Friedrich, Bonhoeffer’s brother, replied:

To Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

I’m glad to hear you have the opportunity for studying the Negro problem so thoroughly. When I was there I had the impression it was really the question, at least for people with a conscience, and when I received the off of the appointment at Harvard it was one of the primary reasons for my disinclination to move there completely, since I wanted neither to come into this inheritance myself nor to pass it on to my hypothetical children. I really can’t see how it can be corrected, and I think in this case as in mathematics there are really some insoluble problems. (A bit stupid! I notice it myself.) In any event, our “Jewish question” is a joke compared to it; only a few would still claim they are repressed here. At least not in Frankfurt. (DWE Vol. 10, 276)

Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer, January 21, 1931

It’s rather shocking, in hindsight, to consider how two men so personally invested in fighting racism in the German context could have been so blind to the truth just two years before Hitler was named chancellor. The so-called Jewish question was in fact no joke.

But neither was racism in America. Bonhoeffer and his brother saw a serious problem in America with distinct clarity, though they underestimated the severity of racism in their own context. We need to be careful on this point, but it’s safe to say that the racial prejudice in both contexts was atrocious.

And so often it is the same way with us. We easily identify blind spots in contexts other than our own while nurturing our own forms of blindness. Our own blind spots would not be so if we could see them (that’s why they are aptly named).

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