From Volk to Spoke: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Transformational Encounter with the Black Christ in Harlem
From Volk to Spoke: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Transformational Encounter with the Black Christ in Harlem
It goes without saying that the United States is nearing the end of an election season unlike any we’ve seen in modern times. Not only do we have an impeached incumbent president who has worked very hard to sow doubt in the trustworthiness of the democratic election process itself, but we also (for the first time in American history) have an impeached incumbent president who, if he loses, refuses to agree to the peaceful transfer of power—which is of course one of the very bedrocks of American democracy. None of the experts who have been closely watching all of this know for certain how this election will turn out. But many are deeply concerned that we’re headed toward a constitutional crisis that could have very destructive real-world consequences for everyday people. This uncertainty about the future of the American experiment is stressful enough without it being compounded by the out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed over a million people around the world and over 200,000 people here in the United States. On top of that, there continues to be a racial reckoning taking place—a renewal of the movement for Black freedom in America—since the murders of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. As a pastor, I’m very curious what Christians in the U.S. are being taught in churches in this crucial time. So I’ve been trying to pay close attention to the sermon topics and teaching series that are being promoted by churches I follow. And I’ve gotta say, I’ve been really discouraged to see a lot of churches teaching that the primary challenge American Christians face today is polarization and partisanship. It’s been really frustrating to see a lot of churches suggesting that the primary problem is that we don’t understand one another well enough or know how to dialogue anymore. These are great examples of why the religiously unaffiliated demographic—the so-called “Nones”—is rapidly growing and why the church in America remains just as segregated as it was 60 years ago when Dr. King said the 11:00 hour on Sundays is the most segregated hour of the week. The problem is not just polarization or a lack of dialogue. A more fundamental problem is the pervasive injustice that is present in American society at a massive scale. In the midst of a global pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of people, it’s unjust that millions of people in this country don’t have access to basic health insurance—in the wealthiest country that has ever existed. It’s unjust that people of Asian descent have been targeted for violence and discrimination due in large part to the racist rhetoric of the president of the United States. It’s unjust that Black Americans are disproportionately brutalized and killed by police in this country—and the police officers who commit these crimes are rarely if ever charged or convicted. It’s unjust that while we’re focused on election politics, female immigrants and refugees are being abused and operated on against their wills in detention centers funded by tax payer dollars—not to mention the abuse of unaccompanied minors separated from their parents. These are just a few examples of the widespread and heinous injustices that characterize this period in American history. But framing what we’re living through as a lack of dialogue or partisan polarization suggests that there are somehow two sides to these injustices—as if there were some reasonable explanation for them. But there is not. And I would be committing pastoral malpractice to teach you otherwise. Instead, what I believe God would have us learn now is how the church can resist injustice in society and be a faithful witness of God’s kingdom. The Scriptures, the life of Jesus, the example of the early church, and the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a modern martyr) offer us tremendous wisdom for navigating these perilous times. Let's start with Acts 9:
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. 10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” 17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
In this story Saul is portrayed as having power and privilege compared to Ananias, and his power and privilege isn’t illegally used to imprison and murder people. No, he is authorized to do so by religious and political authority structures. This is a small glimpse of the positional power differentials that exist in every society. There are groups who have been afforded unjust advantage and legally maintain that advantage. They are authorized to wield that power and do. This is going to be very relevant as we begin to discuss Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and what we can learn from it for our present context. A lot of people don’t realize that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a very powerful and privileged person. It’s not often acknowledged that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was raised in immense wealth and social privilege. A few weeks ago I began reading a biography of Bonhoeffer’s life written by Charles Marsh called Strange Glory. In it he recounts the huge mansions Bonhoeffer’s family owned in cities of Germany like Berlin in addition to their summer homes in the countryside. Bonhoeffer’s father was a renowned psychotherapist who chaired the department of neurology and psychology at a prestigious hospital in Berlin. Just to give you an idea of the kind of wealth and privilege Bonhoeffer was accustomed to as he grew up, listen to this description of his household from the book.
“With the help of a small army of servants—chambermaids, housekeepers, a cook and a gardener, a governess for each of the older children, a nurse for each of the small ones—Paula [Bonhoeffer’s mother] was praised for keeping a well-tuned, comfortable, and stimulating home.” (Marsh, Strange Glory, p.7)
The biographer, Marsh, also relates how when Bonhoeffer was a teen, he proposed to his parents that he’d like to spend the summer in Rome studying independently. They of course sent him and funded the entire excursion with hardly any questions asked. Bonhoeffer was classically trained from a young age as a musician and his family were not particularly devout Christians. It’s said that they didn’t even attend church very often. So it came as somewhat of a shock to his family when he decided to study theology as a career. Bonhoeffer was very smart and excelled in his studies, but his immense wealth and social privilege made his career path a lot easier to pursue. Like the fact that the famous German theologian, Adolf von Harnack, was a family friend who lived nearby when Bonhoeffer was still just a child. By the time Bonhoeffer was merely 21, he’d already completed his doctoral dissertation, and by 24 he’d been appointed the to a professor position at the University of Berlin. By 27, he’d written a second theological dissertation.

Make Germany Great Again

Now, obviously, Bonhoeffer wasn’t someone breathing out murderous threats against others like Saul of Tarsus, but if you understand the German context in which he was rising to theological prominence, then you can see that this theology contained religious authorization for the use of violence and injustice against minorities. You see, when Bonhoeffer was just getting started as a very young theologian, Germany had just been decimated by World War I. Their economy was in ruins and they were nationally humiliated. And it’s this place of vulnerability that Hitler exploited to gain power. Here’s what ethicists Glen Stassen and David Gushee write in their book Kingdom Ethics,
“Germany was suffering from the Great Depression …mass unemployment and civil unrest. […]Hitler had promised to get the economy moving again. He had also enticed Christians to vote for him by promising to make Christianity ‘the basis of our whole morality.’ He assured Christians that they were the ‘most important factor safeguarding our national heritage.’ He blamed Jews and Communists for Germany’s problems. […]Christians were flattered by Hitler’s claim to support Christianity, and they lacked the biblical commitment to standards of justice that would have warned them against his unjust plans.” (Kingdom Ethics, p.125-6)
This is the context in which the young theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, began his career and his initial theological foundations were actually quite compatible with Nazi ideology. Stassen and Gushee go on:
“In 1929, when he had just finished his graduate studies, he had based his concrete ethics on nationalism, like other Lutheran theologians who ended up supporting Hitler. He claimed that God had ordained the nation-state to guide us in politics, war and economics. In our social responsibilities, we should not follow Jesus but the realities of German politics.” (Kingdom Ethics, p.126)
Dr. Reggie Williams is a theologian and Bonhoeffer scholar and is the author of the 2014 book, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus. In it, he starts by detailing the state of theology in Germany when Bonhoeffer was getting started this way,
“The predominate expression of Christianity in postwar Germany was a malaise of Lutheranism, social Darwinism, and nationalism fused with a triumphalist view of history described as God’s orders of creation.” (Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus, p.10)
This concept of the “orders of creation” was “the doctrine that certain structures of human life” aren’t random or accidental biologically or socially, but are “deliberately ordained by God as essential and immutable conditions of human existence…” This doctrine was directly used by the German Nationalist Socialists to support the ideology of White Supremacy. They claimed that above all, the supreme order of creation is one’s Race, or Volk, and that God had ordained the German Volk to sit atop the orders of creation. This was the same kind of theology that was used to justify slavery in the Antebellum American South. Williams goes on to write,
“Bonhoeffer’s system [of theology] was no exception to the norm; in his early years, his creative theology was seduced by the predominant expression of Christianity in Germany. The concept of orders [of creation] became theological support for the Nazi language of blood and soil, or racial superiority, and of a pure Volk.” (Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus, p.10)
As a young theologian and pastor, Bonhoeffer spent a few years in Spain serving a congregation of German expats and there are examples of this German Volk theology and the orders of creation theology in his sermons from that period. Now, I’m not telling you all this to make you think Bonhoeffer was a bad person. I’m telling you all this to demonstrate that it’s all too easy for people—even good Christian people—to get swept up in nationalistic fervor when they lack hope. Hitler rose to power by exploiting the vulnerable state of the German collective psyche and promising to Make Germany Great Again. Here’s how Dr. Williams puts it,
“Hope for Germany’s future included crafting a narrative on which to hang their current experiences to connect their imperialist nostalgia with a vision of a brighter German tomorrow. Longing for Germany’s glorious past framed the story of a recovered, victorious Volker (German race).” (p.12)

Encountering the Black Christ

But all of this began to change in 1930 when Bonhoeffer spent a year abroad in New York to study at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem. This was during the “Harlem Renaissance” when African Americans in Harlem were expressing themselves in powerful new ways. The music and poetry and visual art from this period is stunning in its anticipation of the Civil Rights Movement that wouldn’t happen for several more decades. During the Harlem Renaissance, African Americans celebrated their beauty and their power, their unique contribution to American society, and their unique expression of Christian faith. By the time Bonhoeffer arrived in Harlem in 1930, he had already begun to grow disillusioned with the scholasticism and dead orthodoxy of his theological tradition in Germany. He was hungry for a vibrant, life-giving expression of Christian faith that would move him to act in new ways. And he was in search of what he called the “cloud of witnesses” and a community “under the Gospel.” This is what Bonhoeffer encountered at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In the preaching of Pastor Adam Clayton Powell, Bonhoeffer heard a message of hope that didn’t center around Modernity or the triumph of Western civilization, but instead a message of hope that centered around the person and work of Jesus Christ. In the teaching and ministry of Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer encountered Christ in an entirely new and unexpected way. He encountered Christ among the community of those who were regarded as less than by the broader American society and in it he recognized the wisdom and power of God. Saul of Tarsus would later write these words in which we can’t help but think about his own transformational experience,
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written: 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
 the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.' Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of your status and how you were viewed when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose those considered foolish by the world to shame those considered wise; God chose the those considered weak by the world to shame those considered strong. God chose those considered lowly by this world and those considered despised and those considered nobodies to expose those considered somebodies, so that no one may boast before God. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.' (1 Corinthians 1.18-31, my translation)
In the American Black Church, Bonhoeffer encountered the Black Christ—the Christ who surprisingly and miraculously reveals the power of God through weakness and the wisdom of God through the foolishness of preaching the Gospel. In the American Black Church, Bonhoeffer encountered the Black Christ who suffers with and for his people.
“Jesus, not modernity, was the reason for hope within black Christian communities like Abyssinian. Jesus was evidence that God knows suffering; if God was with Jesus in his suffering at the hands of injustice, then surely God is with black people who suffer in America. […]In Harlem, African American Christians embraced the story of Jesus, the crucified Christ, whose death they claimed paradoxically gave them life, just as God resurrected Jesus in the life of the earliest Christian community. […]Bonhoeffer found Christ existing as community where historically marginalized and oppressed black people knew Jesus as cosufferer and the gospel spoke authoritatively into all areas of life. Such a Christian experience left its mark on him.” (Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus, p.25-26)
One Sunday, after returning from church at Abyssinian, a fellow seminarian and friend noticed a dramatic difference in Bonhoeffer. He was normally very stoic, non-emotive. But this Sunday he returned exited and clearly emotional. He was deeply moved by the spirituals that were sung and the way the whole congregation shared in the preached word through their audience participation. The fellow seminarian recalled, “Perhaps that Sunday afternoon… I witnessed a beginning of his identification with the oppressed which played a role in the decision that led to his death.” (BBJ, p.26)

From Apathy to Empathy

I think it’s generally true that we are most often transformed through encounter. And perhaps the most profound transformation we can undergo through encounter is the transformation from apathy to empathy. It’s incredibly ironic that Bonhoeffer had written brilliant theological dissertations on how Jesus Christ is our vicarious representative who gives his life for us. In fact, Bonhoeffer had a theology of Jesus that highlighted his identification with our humanity. And yet, he couldn’t see how that identification with our suffering completely undermines the “orders of creation” theology which claims that oppressive social structures are ordained by God. He couldn’t see how his theology justified injustice. He was brilliant and blind just like Saul of Tarsus. He writes,
“I [had] plunged into my work in a very unchristian way. […]Then something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. […]I had not yet become a Christian.” (Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 204-5)
To understand Bonhoeffer’s transformation through encounter, we need to look back at this morning’s text. It’s crucial for us to recognize that this story of Saul’s transformation isn’t merely the story of his individualistic encounter with Christ, although that happens too. Even more so, Luke’s narrative of Saul’s transformation points us to his need for the community of disciples to touch his eyes in order for him to see. Saul needs the tangible and concrete presence of Jesus among the followers of the Way to welcome him and make him a fellow disciple. His transformation isn’t complete until he encounters Christ in the community of disciples through Ananias’s healing touch. For Saul, Ananias and all the other followers of the Way were “nobodies.” They weren’t wise by human standards or influential or of noble birth. They weren’t the religious elite like him. They didn’t have the backing of the temple authorities. They were powerless! But that’s precisely why God was with them. God is on the side of the oppressed, the marginalized, the outcast, the misfits. That’s why in Matthew 25, Jesus identifies with those who are hungry, thirsty, needing clothes, the sick, and the imprisoned. Jesus says that what when we see them, we see him; and when we serve them, we’re serving him.
 When Jesus revealed himself to Saul on the road to Damascus, he revealed himself as the community of Way-followers “whom [Saul] was persecuting.” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. Jesus identifies with the community of the persecuted, the downtrodden, the disregarded, and the disinherited. And this revelation came not just through that encounter, but through the healing touch of Ananias the persecuted disciple. And God’s call on Saul’s life was inextricably linked to the suffering that Saul would endure for Jesus’s name. I hope this isn’t a spoiler for you, but one of the primary reasons we remember Bonhoeffer is because he was martyred. He died for what he believed—that to persecute the Jewish people or anyone was unjust and he stood with those who were being murdered. On April 9th, 1945, the Nazi SS killed Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Flossenbürg concentration camp two weeks before it was liberated by the U.S. army. But long before he was arrested and executed, he became a catalyst of a resistance movement in Germany called the Confessing Church that opposed Hitler and Nazism. In 1933, he delivered a lecture to a group of pastors who were uneasy about the way the German state was exercising its power, but were too apathetic to speak out. Before he finished his remarks, most had left the room.
“Dietrich mentioned three possibilities of church action towards the state: ‘In the first place it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Secondly, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.’ “ (Spoke in the Wheel, p.68)
What transformed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s practice and theology of Christian faith from Volk to Spoke was his encounter with the Black Church in Harlem. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, something like scales fell from his spiritual eyes when he encountered Christ in the community of the disinherited.
“In Harlem, Bonhoeffer began learning to embrace Christ hidden in suffering as resistance to oppression. His new awareness of racism gave him unique insight into nationalism as the racialized mixture of God and country embodied in idealized Aryan humanity. […]Harlem provided what he needed to see the world differently and to imagine a different way of being a Christian within it.” (Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus, p.139)
Sisters and brothers, the reason why I believe Bonhoeffer is so relevant for us right now is because his life shows us what it looks like for a Christian to encounter Christ among the community of the disinherited, be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and then spend the rest of their life resisting injustice even to the point of martyrdom. I believe those aren’t just the demands of discipleship in Nazi Germany; I believe those are the demands of discipleship everywhere and for all times. But particularly as we seek to faithful witnesses of the Kingdom of God here in modern America, it’s important for us to focus on Jesus and not theologies that justify injustice—or even theologies that create false equivalencies.