| posted on 8.28.2012 at 07:14 PM
MLK, Malcolm, & the German who taught Sunday School in Harlem that tried to assassinate Hitler
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German Christian Martyr Transformed by Experience With Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church
by Ellis Washington
I published this article on an earlier blog in 2007. On the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, Sunday January 15, 2012, I heard a
brilliant sermon preached by Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, Senior Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Dr. Butts alluded to
prophetic voices that resonate over history from the world’s Abrahamic major faith traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Among the voices
alluded to were martyrs, who all paid the ultimate price for their religious and moral convictions. Reverend Butts skillfully drew parallels from a
New Testament reference to John the Baptist who was beheaded, to the twentieth century assassinations of civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr. and Malcolm X, along with Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
“When Dietrich Bonhoeffer first attended Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, it was unlike anything he had ever experienced,” says the Reverend Henry
Mitchell. Mitchell is among a host of clergy, scholars, historians, theologians, and former students of Bonhoeffer interviewed in the documentary film
Bonhoeffer, directed and produced by Martin Doblmeier in 2004. This film is an important document because it examines a legacy of faith, courage, and
The film chronicles the life and martyrdom of the German theologian, whose strong opposition to Nazism cost him his life. Bonhoeffer’s faith and
heroism, along with his incisive and progressive Christocentric ideas, established him as one of the most influential and compelling Christian
philosophers of the modern era.
Bonhoeffer traveled to New York City in the summer of 1930 to pursue further theological training, arriving in the U.S. as Adolph Hitler was beginning
his rise to power in Germany. While on a post-doctoral teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer was mentored by Rheinhold
Niebhur. Niebhur is regarded by many as the father of modern social ethics and he drew widely from the writings and essays of Black literary figures
and social critics of the Harlem Renaissance era. Niebhur’s influence on Bonhoeffer broadened Bonhoeffer’s views on the role of Christianity and the
Church in the world.
Nowhere is Bonhoeffer’s capacity for embracing a more ecumenical worldview made more profoundly apparent than in his description of his initial
encounter with the Black Church in America. Bonhoeffer was introduced to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem by an African American fellow
seminarian, Franklin Fisher. At Abyssinian he found the marriage of the sacred and the political highly appealing.
The preaching and social commitment of Adam Clayton Powell Senior had a powerful effect on Bonhoeffer. His diary entry in the summer of 1931 reads,
“In contrast to the didactic style of White churches, I believe that the Gospel in Black Churches truly preaches the Black Christ. The Black Christ is
preached with rapturous passion and vision.”
Pictured: Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was deeply inspired by the role of the Black church in conflating social and political activism
with Christocentric teaching.
These emotional elements of worship, combined as they were with uncompromised commitment to the Bible, were apparently foreign to Bonhoeffer’s prior
religious experience, and they had a profound effect on expanding his sense of the possibilities and breadth of the Gospel as the bedrock of social
justice. Bonhoeffer saw parallels to oppressed Black Americans and the Jews of Germany and he gained an even deeper perspective on the true meaning of
Sanctorum Communio (the Beloved Community).
Bonhoeffer even taught Sunday School at Abyssinian and cultivated a deep appreciation of Negro spirituals. He approached worship at Abyssinian with
deep humility. Later he would bring recordings of his favorite spirituals back to Germany and incorporate what his colleagues deemed these “strange”
songs tinged with African rhythms and folkloric sensibilities into his worship and teaching at the seminary he helped to found in Finkenwald.
Testimonials in the film by former students and congregants give an indication of the depth of the influence Black religious experience held over his
ministry in Germany.
After his return from New York, family members and former students say his preaching was like none they had ever heard. The confluence of Christian
social activism as evinced by the dynamic example of Adam Clayton Powell Senior, fused with Bonhoeffer’s own deductions (influenced by Neibhur) helped
to crystallize his personal theology of Christocentric ethics. Ultimately, he concluded that “the will of God is not a set of rules, but requires
examination of every situation as an act of faith.” For Bonhoeffer, the existential challenge was therefore to forever be engaged with reexamining the
will of God.
Doblmeier artfully presents a balanced view of Bonhoeffer’s humanity, revealing his painful dilemmas and occasional errors in judgment, which help to
demystify the saintly aura generally ascribed to this highly venerated theologian. We watch Bonhoeffer struggle with his own personal conflicts – his
desire for a pastoral vocation, a burgeoning romance, and a predelection for the monastic, contemplative life. In his diary, he anguishes over his
decision to refuse to preach at the funeral of his beloved twin sister’s Jewish father-in-law. Bonhoeffer writes of the shame of his fear, after
succumbing to the advice of friends who warned him against participating in the funeral for fear of Nazi retaliation and the risk of losing the
burgeoning career and ministry that he had so carefully planned. Expression of this sense of shame at having failed to meet a moral challenge allows
the viewer to glimpse the man in a moment of epiphany – he senses his own human limitations and failings, but affirms his hope in the power of
redemption. Through these rare glimpses the film offers perceptive hints into Bonhoeffer’s inner life as one whose spiritual quest is propelled by a
desire to affirm his faith in the will of God over reason and pragmatism.
Bonhoeffer found inspiration in the Black religious experience
As I viewed the film, I was struck by the similarities between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Both men were raised in nurturing upper middle-class families and each was an early college entrant and recipient of the Ph.D degree before the age of
30. Both men were theological activists whose radical commitment to Christianity caused the tragic end to their lives, each at the age of 39. Each man
applied his understanding of how activism and faith can be lived out in a world alienated by the fear of difference. With xenophobia as the evil
scourge, Naziism for Bonhoeffer became the antithesis of his notion of Sanctorum Communio, while racism in the U.S. undermined the establishment of
King’s vision of the Beloved Community.
In their respective roles as moral leaders against the tide of crushing anti-Semitism and racial hatred, each possessed a Herculean capacity to
synthesize existential truth from a range of intellectual resources found in their social contexts. Bonhoeffer, who would become a Lutheran pastor and
covert activist, and King, who would be an ordained Baptist minister and proponent of nonviolence, each used different means to confront social evil.
Bonhoeffer, in his evolution as the conspirators’ moral conscience, sought out Mahatmas Ghandi as his spiritual sage. His New York experience in a
predominantly Black Harlem Church helped to conflate his Christocentric and social justice beliefs into covert Christian activism. King’s nonviolent
pacifism for the American of African descent, also informed largely by Ghandi’s teaching, proved a useful political construct in bolstering the Black
American’s struggle for social justice using nonviolent means.
The exegesis and theological underpinnings absorbed from classical teachings of modern social philosophers like Hegel, Kant, and Niebhur must have
impacted strongly on each man. The film, however, fails to adequately examine Bonhoeffers’ moral conclusions, which did compel him to conspire to
participate in an assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler’s life in an effort to destroy an evil regime.
If comparisons are to be made between Bonhoeffer and King for purposes of contemporary reference, subsequent character analysis must offer a deeper
insight into each man’s reasoning and the formative experiences that shaped him. As avowed men of Christian faith each acted in concert with his
belief system, centered on redemption and reconciliation with God, and in the desire to do God’s will. For Bonhoeffer, the end seemed to justify the
means, at least with respect to eradicating the evil of Nazism. As a conspirator, Bonhoeffer did not deem acts of duplicity, including deception and
murder, sinful. Rather, he saw them as obligatory acts designed to restore moral and spiritual order to a fragmented society. Conversely, Dr. King
averred that war and violence are seldom justifiable and must be rejected as a means in the struggle for social justice.
Abyssinian Baptist Church in background, once the largest Protestant church in America
Doblemeier strongly infers that the contemporary activism of Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell Senior had a significant impact on Bonhoeffer’s emerging
activism to thwart Nazism. Although the Doblemeier film accurately characterizes Bonhoeffer’s excursions between Germany and New York, it falls short
of developing insight into the formative aspects of his profound experience in the Black church. Bonhoeffer’s sojourn in America, during which he
taught Sunday School and worshipped at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, are treated as mere educational and cultural diversions instead of being
characterized as the near-epiphany experiences that he later describes as “a great liberation.” Many modern-day theologians suggest that the ethos of
the Black church deepened Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christianity as a socially and politically active community of believers. Abyssinian Baptist
Church embodied the Sanctorum Communio for Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945, a few short months before the end of World War II, for his pivotal role in the Nazi resistance and in a
botched assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.
As the Abyssinian Baptist Church embarks upon its bicentennial celebration, Abyssinian 200, indeed the world may be reminded of this Harlem church’s
global impact and influence.
| posted on 8.29.2012 at 03:47 PM
3 martyrs of the Abrahamic faith traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their founding to Abraham).
Bonhoeffer said: "When God calls a man, He calls him to die." It was the willingness of all 3 - Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Bonhoeffer - to accept the
call and continue in their mission when they each realized the call would (not "could" but would) lead to their deaths
that make them true martyrs. In other words, seeing a horrific death brought about precisely because of their righteous efforts, each said
"Thy will be done," and accepted God's dictum that they die.
Seeing that white politicians were bankrupt of ideas for curing or alleviating the social/spiritual/economic malaise (illness) of the nation, white
Americans elected a black man to lead them. The same with Rheinhold Niebhur when seeking "healthy" social ideas and ideals, he turned to the black
literati and clergy of the 1920's and '30's of HIS times for inspiration and guidance. He passed along those ideas and ideals to his student,
The "marriage of the sacred and the political".... Like Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright of
Trinity UCC who looked to their inspiration and God of the bible, Jesus Christ in His dealings with the occupying Romans and teachings to the Jews,
Bonhoeffer recognized that Liberation Theology is the only solace and solution to the plight of the
....conflating social and political activisim with Christocentric teaching = Liberation Theology with the teachings of Jesus Christ as its center.
Bonhoeffer's contrast of shouting, fainting, sweating, speaking in tongues, the "call (of the preacher - Powell) and response (of the congregation -
Amen! Thank You, Jesus!)" of the black church tradition and Powell, Sr.'s preaching of Christ's teachings being the determinant/critic of
the congregations' everyday life with the separation of the Sunday Church/Christ and Monday through Saturday UNChristian lives and activities of
Germans and other white peoples vis a vis blacks and Jews, especially, created an epiphinany or awakening in Bonhoeffer. The vitality and
Christocentrism of Abyssinian Baptist Church put into stark relief for Bonhoeffer, the sterility of German services and the faithlessness of German
Christians to the legacy of love and brotherhood of Jesus, the Christ.
| posted on 11.17.2016 at 02:30 PM
From another article:
"Bonhoeffer was intrigued by the music and culture of New York but he hated its racism. He became a smart and sensitive critic of American racism and
this attention to racism seemed to deepen his critiques of German anti-Semitism. He discussed this problem freely with his brother Karl-Friedrich, who
had studied at Harvard on a physics fellowship. Karl-Friedrich concluded that the problem of racism in the United States was so terrible that he could
never imagine raising a family in America. Hitler had of course not yet ascended to power in Germany. Racism was the American problem for any person
of conscience, Dietrich's older brother concluded. Dietrich seemed to agree. It was in New York that this German Lutheran theologian first began to
truly understand the issues of racism and nationalism as serious theological problems."
"As the Nazi party rose to political prominence in Germany Bonhoeffer accepted a teaching fellowship at the Union Theological Seminary in New York
City where he followed the teachings of his fellow countryman Reinhold Niebuhr. A black classmate and friend brought him into contact in Harlem with
Adam Clayton Powell Sr., a man who preached the progressive social involvement of the church within in the community. When Bonhoeffer returned to
Germany in the early '30s his exposure to the power of spirituality and faith in the black church energized him at home, bringing him into direct
conflict with Adolph Hitler."
24-years -old Bonhoeffer went to the United States in 1930 for postgraduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City's Union Theological
Seminary. Although Bonhoeffer found the American seminary not up to his exacting German standards ("There is no theology here."), he had
life-changing experiences and friendships. He studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and met Frank Fisher, a black fellow seminarian who introduced him to
Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school and formed a lifelong love for African-American spirituals, a collection of
which he took back to Germany. He heard Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., preach the Gospel of Social Justice and became sensitive to not only social
injustices experienced by minorities but also the ineptitude of the church to bring about integration. Bonhoeffer began to see things "from
below"—from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. He observed, "Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of
God...the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision." Later Bonhoeffer referred to his impressions abroad as the point at which he
"turned from phraseology to reality."
African-Americans have affected World History in every facet, in every imaginable way and, as with the man who plotted to kill Adolph Hitler, in ways
unimaginable to even our own great selves.