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“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
After I’d given a talk to mark the 70th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution, I got a letter complaining that Bonhoeffer had been drained dry of meaning and was of no more use to the church. Here’s what I replied.
Bonhoeffer was theological. We don’t all have to write two doctoral theses by the age of 24. But we do have to approach every challenge as fundamentally a question about God. The German Christians were seduced into treating the führer as God. Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church saw that the problem with the Nazis was first a theological problem.
Bonhoeffer was about Jesus. The Bonhoeffer of popular theology is the one who talks from prison about the “world come of age” and “religionless Christianity.” But what put him in prison was Jesus. The church fears that when it says the word Jesus it’s assuming an imperialistic oppressive voice that dominates, excludes, or devalues other voices. The church has too often assumed such a voice. But Jesus doesn’t assume such a voice. Bonhoeffer knew that when the church stops talking about Jesus, it has nothing to say. And when it assumes dominance, it’s not talking about Jesus.
Bonhoeffer was ecumenical. The vital conversation that convinced Bonhoeffer to return to Germany in 1939 was with George Bell, Anglican bishop of Chichester. They became friends in the 1920s ecumenical movement, when denominations really mattered. They matter less now. The days when we could forget about the world and concentrate on our arguments with other Christians are passing. Ecumenical discord is a luxury of the complacent church. We need each other. If we feel the church is weak, it’s because we’ve limited what we’re looking at when we use the word church.
Bonhoeffer was international. He understood that Germany and the church weren’t the same thing. Western Christians are slowly realizing that they aren’t the majority of the church or the part that matters most. Christianity doesn’t fundamentally belong to them. Bonhoeffer may be a dead white Western male, but his legacy points us in global directions. When people say Christianity is in decline, you have to ask which map they’re looking at.
Bonhoeffer was politically engaged. There were Christians in 1930s Germany who thought salvation was about saving souls and it wasn’t their business to get involved in politics. That reasoning left 6 million Jews dead and ten times that number dead globally. Politics is the name we give to resolving differences short of violence. If you don’t do politics, you end up doing violence.
Bonhoeffer was rooted in an accountable community. He saw that for his Confessing Church to have any backbone, it needed to be led by pastors who took for granted the simple, straightforward practices of daily prayer, the confession of sin, the studying of scripture, and the sharing of communion. His book Life Together describes that uncompromising, uncluttered set of priorities. Community is easier to theorize about than to practice, but it’s still the center of the church’s renewal.
Bonhoeffer was prepared to face danger. One of the assumptions I find bewildering yet widespread in the church is that if one is a good Christian, one’s days will be long and one shall multiply and one’s valleys will grow rich with corn. Most of the people in the Bible face danger, hardship, crisis, tragedy, and fear. Those are the places God most often shows up. God is close to the poor, not because there’s anything holy about poverty, but because those in poverty face such things all the time, and that’s what brings them face to face with God. Bonhoeffer wrestled with this in 1939. He could do so much good from the safe distance of America, but he was called to be in the place of danger. We face the same choices.
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
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..
By Jim Kouri and AR Staff
- Militant Islamic terrorists struck in the heart of the French Republic, the latest in a growing string of terrorist attacks on the West – now, what are we prepared to do about it?
In the aftermath of the Islamic terrorist attack in Paris, France, on Wednesday — an attack that left 12 journalists and cops dead — cities throughout the world are increasing alert levels especially those in Western nations, according to a number of reports.
However, the terrorists’ crown-jewel target, New York City, has become more and more vulnerable under the leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio. For example, his dismantling of a special operations unit of police officers that conducted surveillance and investigations of the city’s and metropolitan area’s mosques has left the Big Apple arguably as vulnerable as it was on Sept. 10, 2001.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) surveillance unit, that had gathered and analyzed intelligence on Muslim communities throughout the area, including mosques in New Jersey, wasn’t disbanded until de Blasio took power. During the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his tough-as-nails police commissioner, Ray Kelly, even after an enormous amount of political pressure from Muslim groups and left-wing organizations, such as the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the surveillance program continued.
The NYPD’s anti-terrorism united known as the Zone Assessment Unit was created with the help of members of the federal intelligence community following the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks. The police commissioner at that time, veteran cop Bernard Kerik, was honest about its existence and its overall role in preventing another 9-11 attack by monitoring Muslim-owned business and mosques across the New York region. It was successful in uncovering a number of suspects including wealthy Muslims who were illegally transferring money to the coffers of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah and others. Unfortunately, it also was a favorite target protests and civil lawsuits.
“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair. This reform is a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys,” Mayor de Blasio (not very popular with members of the NYPD) said in a statement at the time.
“Just like the Obama administration, de Blasio believes that politically-correct, feel-good policies are more important than protecting American lives. In fact, Obama and de Blasio are more interested in the lives and the rights of illegal aliens than in preserving the sovereignty of the nation and the protection of U.S. citizens,” said former police lieutenant, Kiernan McDonald. “In fact, the Obama administration freely spies on American citizens and even targets them, but coddles lawbreakers and radical Islamists,” he added.
Meanwhile, in France, another police officer – a female – was gunned down, allegedly by the two Yemeni brothers linked to al Qaeda who perpetrated the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday.
“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…
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’s father was
a) a Lutheran minister
b) a butcher and an atheist
c) a psychiatrist and a Christian
- 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
- 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
- Bonhoeffer was
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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.
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.”