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A Graphic Nonfiction Account of Hitler’s Would-Be Assassin

By M.T. Anderson; Oct. 5, 2018

 

 

For a man accursed by history, Adolf Hitler led a grimly charmed life. He survived several well-planned assassination attempts through sheer luck. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a double agent claiming to spy for Hitler’s Reich, was actually involved in the resistance movement that planned a few of these plots. John Hendrix’s graphic biography, THE FAITHFUL SPY: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler (Amulet, 176 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up), intertwines two stories: the insidious rise of Hitler with his creed of hatred and Bonhoeffer’s development as an ethical thinker who believed that radical action was necessary, but that killing was a sin. Hendrix writes, “the conspirators needed to find a place where God would forgive them for plotting an assassination.”

For young readers, one could easily play the near-miss attempts to kill Hitler as a straightforward thriller. The plots involve deception, gut-wrenching timing and concealed explosives: a bomb in a gift package, a rigged docent conducting a tour of captured Russian weaponry and an explosive briefcase spirited into the heart of Hitler’s fortress, the Wolfsschanze. But Hendrix makes the bold and surprising decision to tell it as a tale of faith. He records Bonhoeffer’s powerful experiences, for example, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where the preacher Adam Clayton Powell fulminates: “Obeying God means challenging injustice! You don’t just think about God. … You act!” Some readers will be irked by the focus on God in historical nonfiction; others will be soothed by it. Certainly, Hendrix’s implication that at Bonhoeffer’s execution, he met his God is more emotionally powerful than strictly verifiable. In an author’s note, Hendrix offers a passionate defense of presenting the story through the lens of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity: “If we look for a motivation for his decisions outside his furious belief in God’s certainty, we will miss the very lesson he offers. ”

What will catch the reader’s eye immediately is Hendrix’s striking three-color art. The book is not a panel-by-panel graphic novel, but rather an inventive combination of text blocks and illustration. Each spread has its own ingenious design, shuttling between the literal and the allegorical: As the text talks about Hitler undermining the power of President Hindenburg and the Reichstag (“teetering like a German spruce”), the illustration shows the Führer literally hacking down the tree of state, a startled German imperial eagle taking flight.

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The Cost of His Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwaldeab, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.”

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer born FEB 4, 1906

Dietrich BonhoefferAmerican Minute with Bill Federer

The National Socialist Workers’ Party leader, Adolph Hitler, became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, and began implementing a plan of universal healthcare, with no regard for conscience.

The New York Times reported October 10, 1933:

“Nazi Plan to Kill Incurables to End Pain; German Religious Groups Oppose Move…

The Ministry of Justice…explaining the Nazi aims regarding the German penal code, today announced its intentions to authorize physicians to end the sufferings of the incurable patient…in the interest of true humanity…”

The New York Times continued:

“The Catholic newspaper Germania hastened to observe: ‘The Catholic faith binds the conscience of its followers not to accept this method.’…

In Lutheran circles, too, life is regarded as something that God alone can take…

Euthanasia…has become a widely discussed word in the Reich…No life still valuable to the State will be wantonly destroyed.”

When Germany’s economy suffered, expenses had to be cut from the national healthcare plan, such as keeping alive handicapped, insane, chronically ill, elderly and those with dementia.

They were considered “lebensunwertes leben”-life unworthy of life.

Then criminals, convicts, street bums, beggars and gypsies, considered “leeches” on society, met a similar fate.

Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had been the editor of The Birth Control Review, a magazine that published in April 1933 an article by Ernst Rudin, one of the ‘fathers of racial hygiene.’

Ernst Rudin advised the Nazi Socialist Workers Party to prevent hereditary defective genes from being passed on to future generations by people considered by the State to be inferior mankind – ‘untermensch’.

Labeling the Aryan race ‘ubermensch’ (super mankind), the National Socialist Workers Party enacted horrific plans to purge the human gene pool of what they considered ‘inferior’ races, resulting in 6 million Jews and millions of others dying in gas chambers and ovens.

U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop stated in 1977:

“When the first 273,000 German aged, infirm and retarded were killed in gas chambers there was no outcry from that medical profession… and it was not far from there to Auschwitz.”

British Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge explained:

“We have…for those that have eyes to see, an object lesson in what the quest for ‘quality of life’ without reference to ‘sanctity of life’ can involve…

The origins of the Holocaust lay, not in Nazi terrorism…but in…Germany’s acceptance of euthanasia and mercy-killing as humane and estimable.”

Then there was an event of domestic unrest and violence.

The German Reichstag (Capitol Building) was set on fire in 1933, under suspicious conditions.

Hitler declared an emergency, suspended basic rights, arrested his political opponents and had them shot without a trial.

Hitler forced old military generals to retire, thus purging his administration of any who might resist him.

He swayed the public with mesmerizing speeches.

Then Nazis confiscated weapons.

An SA Oberführer warned of an ordinance by the provisional Bavarian Minister of the Interior:

“The deadline set…for the surrender of weapons will expire on March 31, 1933. I therefore request the immediate surrender of all arms…

Whoever does not belong to one of these named units (SA, SS, and Stahlhelm) and…keeps his weapon without authorization or even hides it, must be viewed as an enemy of the national government and will be held responsible without hesitation and with the utmost severity.”

Heinrich Himmler, head of Nazi S.S. (“Schutzstaffel”-Protection Squadron), stated:

“Germans who wish to use firearms should join the S.S. or the S.A. Ordinary citizens don’t need guns, as their having guns doesn’t serve the State.”

When a suspected homosexual youth shot a Nazi diplomat in Paris, it was used as an excuse to confiscate all firearms from Jews.

German newspapers printed, November 10, 1938:

“Jews Forbidden to Possess Weapons By Order of SS Reichsführer Himmler, Munich…

‘Persons who, according to the Nürnberg law, are regarded as Jews, are forbidden to possess any weapon. Violators will be condemned to a concentration camp and imprisoned for a period of up to 20 years.’”

The New York Times, November 9, 1938, reported:

“The Berlin Police…announced that…the entire Jewish population of Berlin had been ‘disarmed’ with the confiscation of 2,569 hand weapons, 1,702 firearms and 20,000 rounds of ammunition.

Any Jews still found in possession of weapons without valid licenses are threatened with the severest punishment.”

Of the Waffengesetz (Nazi Weapons Law), March 18, 1938, Hitler stated at a dinner talk, April 11, 1942 (Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-44: His Private Conversations, 2nd Edition, 1973, p. 425-6, translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens):

“The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing…

So let’s not have any native militia or native police. German troops alone will bear the sole responsibility for the maintenance of law and order.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt stated of Hitler, December 15, 1941:

“Government to him is not the servant…of the people but their absolute master and the dictator of their every act…

The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which seemed to the Founders of the Republic inalienable, were, to Hitler and his fellows, empty words…”

FDR continued:

“Hitler advanced: That the individual human being has no rights whatsoever in himself…no right to a soul of his own, or a mind of his own, or a tongue of his own, or a trade of his own; or even to live where he pleases or to marry the woman he loves;

That his only duty is the duty of obedience, not to his God, not to his conscience, but to Adolf Hitler…

His only value is his value, not as a man, but as a unit of the Nazi state…”

FDR stated in his State of the Union Address, January 6, 1942:

“The world is too small…for both Hitler and God…

Nazis have now announced their plan for enforcing their…pagan religion all over the world…by which the Holy Bible and the Cross of Mercy would be displaced by Mein Kampf and the swastika.”

Churchill, in From War to War, (Second World War, Vol. 1, ch. 4, p. 50) described Hitler’s Mein Kampf as:

“…the new Koran of faith and war: turgid, verbose, shapeless, but pregnant with its message.”

Originally, Hitler was going to allow Jews to be deported to Palestine, but the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husseini, convinced Hitler to pursue another solution.

Mufti al-Husseini attempted to follow Hitler’s example by expelling Jews from Palestine, as the Muslim Brother would also do in Egypt.

He recruited 30,000 Bosnian Muslims to join Hitler’s Waffen-SS.

Hitler gave al-Husseini financial assistance, and then asylum in 1941, with the honorary rank of an SS Major-General.

During the final battle in Berlin in April of 1945, around Hitler’s bunker, making their last suicidal stand, were 100 Muslims of the Mufti’s Arab Legion.

Hitler’s view was the Nazi’s had the right solution but the wrong religion, stating:

“Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers…then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies the heroism and which opens up the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world.”

Hitler stated:

“The peoples of Islam will always be closer to us than, for example, France.”

According to Albert Speer, Third Reich’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Hitler stated in private:

“The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity…with its meekness and flabbiness?”

Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels confided in The Goebbels Diaries 1939-41, that in reality Hitler “hates Christianity, because it has crippled all that is noble in humanity.”

Though early in his career Hitler pretended to be a Christian in order to get elected, once in power he revealed his nazified social Darwinism and became openly hostile toward Christianity.

Franklin D. Roosevelt stated December 15, 1941:

“To Hitler, the church…is a monstrosity to be destroyed by every means.”

Ministers who resisted Hitler’s attempt to “nazify” the German Protestant Church were imprisoned, such a founder of the Confessing Church, Rev. Martin Niemöller, who wrote:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Another Confessing Church leader who resisted Hitler was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born FEBRUARY 4, 1906.

He studied in New York in 1930, where he met Frank Fisher, an African-American seminarian who introduced him to Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

He was inspired by African-American spirituals and the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., who helped Bonhoeffer turn “from phraseology to reality,” motivating him to stand up against injustice.

Bonhoeffer helped found the Confessing Church in Germany, which refused to be intimidated by Hitler into silence.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer rebuked nominal Christians:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

Bonhoeffer stated in a 1932 sermon:

“The blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith.

On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant.”

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On the progressive Black Church

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., right, and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, are shown at a news conference at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York's Harlem, November 14, 1965.   (AP Photo/David Pickoff)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., right, and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, are shown at a news conference at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York’s Harlem, November 14, 1965. (AP Photo/David Pickoff)
Two Afro-American Baptist preachers who changed America

The Rock on which we stood When all else failed…

This post is in response to  the statement below by Tamara Tornado,  a snide racist white bitch who does  NOT UNDERSTAND black church history yet presumes to criticize it.  I don’t like know-it-all crackers in the first place, because like this stupid broad they usually know nothing about us!  The fact is that the black church has a dual history: progressive and reactionary.

The progressive tradition is heroic and grows out of the beliefs of those black slaves who interpreted the stories in the Old Testament bible about the enslaved Hebrew people in the Land of Egypt to be a parable about their situation in the American House of Bondage, where the white leaders of America collectively were Pharoah, locally represented by the slave master class.  In other words Afro-American Christians converted Christianity into a weapon of liberation in a way that black slaves under Islam were unable to do.

Another Ignorant racist commenting on Black culture
Condemnation of black churchwomen by a snide white bitch
This silly pretentous Bitch is no friend of ours!

The fact is that the majority of southern whites never owned slaves and Tamara’s grandfather was probably not one of them. Since she is obviously classless white trash. Every half ass redneck likes to identify with the slaveholding class, when most of their ancestors were nothing more than pawns of the planter class who supported the interests of the rich over their own because they were told that just being white made them special even though they didn’t have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of: JUST LIKE ALL OF THE PO WHITE CRACKER ASSHOLES WHO VOTE REPUBLICAN TODAY!!!!

Before the Civil War slaves were the most valuable property in the US., that’s why in 1850 New Orleans was the richest port in the country. Black churchwomen were the backbone of the great Civil Rights movement that destroyed the racial caste system of the south…what has this dumb cracker bitch done to make this country a better place? My argument is not with the black church as such, but this particular church congregation at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. The fact that I am an atheist does not blind me to all of the GOOD WORKS the black church has done and is doing! It is far superior in its practice of Christianity to the WHITE CHURCH!!!

That’s why the great German theologian and preacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who came here to complete his PhD thesis and teach at the distinguished Union Theological Seminary, became mesmerized by the Afro-american church service..

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Two New Books: Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

I’d like to mention two new books on Bonhoeffer.

I haven’t read Reggie Williams’s book, Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, but I did hear him speak at a Bonhoeffer Conference in November 2011 at Union Theological Seminary and have little doubt this will be a fascinating read. As I remember, both he and John de Gruchy talked about how blacks in both the US and South Africa, de Gruchy’s home, already understood Bonhoeffer’s theology of a view from below: it was whites who needed to understand this perspective. de Gruchy and Williams theorized that whites could absorb this theology from a well-heeled German male schooled in a European theological traditional in a way they couldn’t from blacks or other marginalized groups. In addition, the influence of Harlem on Bonhoeffer is an area that deserves more focus. Bonhoeffer immersed himself in black literature and culture while in the US, and clearly made a connection between American oppression of blacks in the 1930s and the National Socialist treatment of Jews.  I have included the Amazon blurb below:

“Williams follows Bonhoeffer as he defies Germany with Harlem’s black Jesus. The Christology Bonhoeffer learned in Harlem’s churches featured a black Christ who suffered with African Americans in their struggle against systemic injustice and racial violence—and then resisted. In the pews of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the leadership of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Bonhoeffer absorbed the Christianity of the Harlem Renaissance. This Christianity included a Jesus who stands with the oppressed rather than joins the oppressors and a theology that challenges the way God can be used to underwrite a union of race and religion.”

I have read Andrew Root’s Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together and can recommend it as a solid, well written book with a strong focus on a ministry that helped lay the groundwork for Bonhoeffer’s seminaries.

This was fun…

Dorospirit - this pretty much sums me up!

I sometimes talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in my services, church meetings etc. He was an inspirational person!

But then I thought sometimes it’s a bit boring to just talk about someone’s biography. So instead, I created a quiz.

These are my questions (and I had fun making up some of the answers!!):

Bonhoeffer Quiz:

  1. Bonhoeffer’s father was
    a) a Lutheran minister
    b) a butcher and an atheist
    c) a psychiatrist and a Christian
  2. Because he was too young to be ordained after he finished his studies in theology (he had 2 PhDs and was a University Lecturer before the age of 25!), Bonhoeffer spent some time studying in:
    a) the USA
    b) the UK
    c) Switzerland
  3. While he was in the States, Bonhoeffer attended and was deeply inspired by
    a) a Presbyterian Church in Texas
    b) a Methodist Church in Florida
    c) an African-American Baptist Church in Harlem
  4. Bonhoeffer was

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by JAMES DUANE BOLIN • Ledger & Times Columnist

In preparation for my trip to Regensburg, Germany, I have prepared for several weeks now a two-hour presentation required of each faculty member in Murray State’s Discover Europe Program. My presentation will explore the enduring significance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian whose resistance to Hitler resulted in his execution less than a month before Hitler’s suicide and the end of World War II.
We will explore important ethical questions, important then to Bonhoeffer and just as important to each one of us today: For whom would you die? For what would you die? What good am I? I have paired the music of Bob Dylan with Bonhoeffer’s life and theology. Dylan performed in Regensburg in 2000, had 18 concerts in Berlin, 13 performances in Munich, and a memorable gig in Dresden.
Bonhoeffer himself was an accomplished musician and indeed his family had hoped that he would pursue music as a career. I am guessing, of course, but I think that Bonhoeffer would have felt a real affinity with Dylan and his social commentary on war and faith.
Bonhoeffer visited the United States twice in 1930-1931 and again in 1939, both times to study and teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There Bonhoeffer studied with Reinhold Niebuhr and met A. Franklin Fisher, a fellow seminarian, an African-American, who introduced him to the rich culture of the Harlem Renaissance and took him across the way to worship each Sunday at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
At this historic church, Bonhoeffer sat under the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and was moved by the inspirational singing of the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir, hearing such historic black hymns as “Go Down, Moses” and “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
Bonhoeffer found no Gospel teaching at Union. He was even less impressed with the preaching of Harry Emerson Fosdick at the nearby Riverside Church. Only at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and the preaching of Powell, Sr. and the singing of that magnificent choir did he find what his soul should yearned for.
During one semester break, Fisher took Bonhoeffer to Washington, D. C., where he had studied at Howard College, one of the great historically-black institutions in America. This was Bonhoeffer’s first foray into the American South. Later he would tour the South, traveling through Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, into Mexico, and back through Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Bonhoeffer witnessed firsthand the Jim Crow South of the 1930s — the segregation, lynchings, abuse and racism — an “American Problem” he called it, that appalled him. It was this “American Problem” that he came to compare to what came to be referred to as “the Jewish Question” back in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabine, had married a Jewish man, and when Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to find Adolph Hitler and the Nazis rising to control the country, it was his American experience that convinced him to put his theoretical theological concepts into practice.
And this he did.

When Karl Barth finally finished his formal education in the first decade of the 20th century, he, like many other rookie theologians, had trouble finding an academic post (some things never change). Unsurprisingly, Barth was in the upper echelon of the Western European liberal theological community, yet still struggled to find a teaching gig. Although he was Swiss, Barth was trained in German Protestant liberalism and was positioned to be the next big thing in the scholastic movement. That is, until he graduated.

As Barth backed away from high philosophies and high theorizing, he let the Word loose, changing him and his congregation forever.

Upon completing his training, Barth took his academic achievements into a job that was available: he became a pastor at a rural Reformed church in the village of Safenwil, in Switzerland. He began the regular pastoral duties of preaching and teaching in this small, simple congregation. He philosophized and theologized with grandiose word pictures and complicated strands of thought each Sunday only to watch his congregation’s eyes glaze over. All of the theology that seemed to work in the academic world of Germany seemed to fall flat in rural Switzerland. He could not connect the word of God to the villagers. What was he doing wrong?

It was only in Barth’s preaching through the book of Romans that he began to discover just how far he had been led astray while in school. Barth became somewhat famous for disagreeing with most of his academic mentors back in Germany as he began to watch the simplicity and power of the gospel take hold of his congregation through Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. As Barth backed away from high philosophies and high theorizing, he let the Word loose, changing him and his congregation forever.

About 15-20 years later, as Barth moved on and became a professor, he also turned into an academic idol for a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had just accepted a Sloan Fellowship to study theology at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. In New York, Bonhoeffer would encounter a similar struggle as Barth in American pastors. Much like Barth, they couldn’t seem to get the power of the gospel on the ground to their congregations. Bonhoeffer became bitterly disappointed in the churches in New York for their theological gymnastics that ended far outside of gospel of Jesus. “In New York,” Bonhoeffer famously said, “they preach about virtually everything except … the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

As highlighted in Charles Marsh’s excellent new biography on the man, it wasn’t until Bonhoeffer joined Abyssinian Baptist Church in the ghetto of Harlem that he would say he “heard the gospel preached” for the first time. All through the large, well-known churches of New York City, there was little good news being proclaimed. From Bonhoeffer’s view, it was in the “Negro churches” of the ghettos and the poor rural landscapes in the great American South that the gospel was alive and well. He was transfixed by the preaching in the black churches during the struggle for civil rights and often wrote about the “ecstatic joy ‘in the soul of the Negro.'” Bonhoeffer found the joy of the gospel of Jesus, but only in what he called, “the church of the outcasts in America.”

For the rest of the post…

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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Posted: November 25, 2011
7:30 pm Eastern © 2011


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

[The Union students] talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria … They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.– Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, circa 1930)

During this Thanksgiving holiday, I am reading a revelatory biography on one of my favorite theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. April 9, 1945), who, like millions of his fellow German citizens, would become an involuntary victim of Hitler’s fascist government and Nazi genocide literally weeks before the death of Hitler, the fall of Berlin and the triumph of the Allied Powers on V-E Day (May 8). The book is titled, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” (2010) by Eric Metaxas.

When Bonhoeffer came to America to do post-graduate studies in theology on a teaching fellowship at New York’s Union Theological Seminary from 1930-31, little did he realize that he was at Ground Zero of an epic war between liberals and fundamentalists, progressives and conservative Christians. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Riverside Church – mere blocks from Union and built specially for him by John D. Rockefeller – was the most famous liberal preacher in America. On the other side, representing traditional faith and described as a fundamentalist, stood Dr. Walter Duncan Buchanan, pastor of Broadway Presbyterian Church, six blocks south of Union and built without this existential Faustian bargain with the devil (or Mr. Rockefeller’s money), thank you.

Bonhoeffer observed that Union was on the side of Fosdick, Rockefeller and Henry Luce, American publisher extraordinaire and founder of Time Magazine, who did a flattering article on Fosdick when Riverside opened in October 1930. Bonhoeffer noted, “In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”

For the rest of the article…

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