Where did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Icon of Resistance to German Naziism, get the theological backbone of ‘costly grace’?
From Harlem Renaissance Theology, as Reggie L. Williams articulates in Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Copyright © 2014 by Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.). With the gracious permission of the author and Baylor University Press (book page here), what follows are two excerpts (pp. 1-3 and 16-33) to this outstanding volume, reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer championed a radical interpretation of Jesus and ethics that was validated by his resistance to the Nazis and his execution by them. He cultivated his ethical core, which led to his death, out of his fervent desire to encounter a meaningful and truthful experience with Christian theology in the person of Jesus. That understanding and relationship developed from his year of study in New York City when he encountered the black Christ who suffered with African Americans in a white supremacist world. He took that identity of the black Christ with him when he returned to Nazi Germany. To most pastors involved in Germany’s Confessing Church resistance against the Nazi-sympathizing Deutsche-Christens, the German Christians movement, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was young, brilliant, and far too radical. Well before the overtly racist Nazi government in Germany initiated World War II, opened concentration camps, and mobilized Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads) throughout Europe to kill six million innocent people whom they declared Untermenschen (subhuman), Bonhoeffer was unique in his insistence that Christians in Germany publicly and adamantly oppose Nazi race hatred. Only when it was too late to stop the juggernaut of evil that the Nazis became did his Christian colleagues in Germany realize that the radical Bonhoeffer was right. Well-educated pastors and theologians who understood themselves to be faithful Christians, loyal to family, church, and nation, became either silent bystanders or active participants in Nazi atrocities and completely missed what their professed faith in Christ required of them at that most crucial moment in world history. Martin Niemöller’s famous words after World War II are displayed on the wall at the exit of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as testament to how he missed the real Nazi threat even as a participant in the church resistance with Bonhoeffer:
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.
The fact that well-meaning, intelligent Christians in Germany did not recognize the danger posed by the Nazis leaves one to wonder how the young Bonhoeffer, born, raised, and trained in theology with them, came to such a clear understanding of the problem so early, when the majority of his associates were fundamentally oblivious.
Bonhoeffer encountered the Christianity that animated the civil rights movement years before it occurred, in New York’s Harlem community. When he was a Sloane Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer became a student of the Harlem Renaissance literary movement and was involved in one of America’s foremost black Baptist churches, Abyssinian Baptist Church, under the leadership of a prominent African American pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Sr. The Christianity of the Harlem Renaissance was a theological manifestation, post–Civil War, pre–civil rights movement, that identified Jesus with the oppressed rather than with the oppressors, in a critical interrogation of the notions of God and humanity embedded within the modern imperialist union of race and religion.
The opposition to Bonhoeffer’s developed Christian concern for socially marginalized people included many of his own fellow Christians in Germany. Although the pro-Nazi Christians of the German Christian movement and his colleagues in the Confessing Church movement understood themselves to be faithful Christians, Bonhoeffer identified lethal problems within their Christianity. Like American prosegregation Christians, the pro-Nazi German Christians demonstrated in a negative way that the mere claim to be a Christian is not an indication of faithful discipleship; what matters is one’s interpretation of Christlikeness, how one interprets the way of Jesus. Bonhoeffer had formative experiences in New York in a key historical moment that inspired his efforts in Germany to uncouple the false connection between white imperialist identity and Jesus and its tragic imprint for Christianity. That struggle would last Bonhoeffer the rest of his life.
BONHOEFFER IN NEW YORK: THE QUEST FOR “A CLOUD OF WITNESSES”
Union Theological Seminary’s Sloane Fellowship provided annual funding for three European students to participate in a one-year residency program. Typically Sloane Fellows would end their fellowship year having earned a master of arts degree in theology. Two other Sloane Fellows joined Bonhoeffer at Union that fall, Erwin Sutz from Switzerland and Jean Lasserre from France, and both had finished a master’s degree by the end of their Sloane Fellowship year. Clearly that would not be the case with Bonhoeffer. In the fall of 1930, the German Sloane Fellow resembled a master’s student only in his age. At twenty-four years old, Bonhoeffer’s academic accomplishments already included an appointment to the faculty at the University of Berlin, which was awaiting his return to Germany. He hardly needed more time in the theology classroom as a student to ensure a teaching career.
His exceptional drive for academic accomplishment explains some of his harsh criticism of the theology that he encountered in the classroom and among the students at Union. Bonhoeffer was brilliant and highly motivated. He was soon comparing his performance with that of the students and the faculty, and he claimed they were all operating at a subpar academic level and with a less-than-Christian theology. He found them hesitant to talk about Jesus, sin, and salvation, which for Bonhoeffer made their Christianity suspect. He was disdainful of theology in America during his first semester, and he was not quiet about it. His theological disapproval extended to his experience of white churches in New York as well, and he became scornfully derisive of the Christianity he experienced during his many congregational visits. Upon his arrival in New York, his search for a cloud of witnesses left him quickly disillusioned.
THE PROBLEM WITH WHITE AMERICAN THEOLOGY
Bonhoeffer arrived in New York one year after the stock market crash that initiated the worldwide Great Depression. He disembarked onto American shores to meet scenes of hunger and despair that resembled postwar Germany. Ironically, the conditions that brought him to a theological deadlock in Germany had also followed him across the Atlantic, only to greet him on unfamiliar soil.
Not only did he find famine and economic strife but also academic and church theology in America continued to yield very little concrete insight for Christian living. The content of theology in America was different, making it difficult for him to see the broader implications of Christ as Stellvertretung. Rather than the dogmatic theology of Bonhoeffer’s formative German theological environment, he found that in America “pragmatism [had] expelled dogmatics . . . and the question of truth [had] been supplanted by utility.” That difference communicated to Bonhoeffer that critical content from the gospel and about Christ was missing in the classroom and the pulpit. In an end-of-the-year report about his Sloane Fellowship prepared for the Church Federation in Germany after he returned home, Bonhoeffer wrote about students in practical theology seminars asking whether one really must preach about Christ. He reported how students laughed at a passage from Luther’s Bondage of the Will about sin and forgiveness that was shared during a public lecture. Significant features of Bonhoeffer’s academic training were mistreated, belittled, or completely missing in New York. By Christmas, Bonhoeffer had come to the conclusion that theology did not even exist at Union:
There is no theology here. Although I am basically taking classes and lectures in dogmatics and philosophy of religion, the impression is overwhelmingly negative. They talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students—on the average twenty-five to thirty years old—are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions.
Bonhoeffer’s description of Union Seminary students as “clueless” extended to his commentary on the American version of liberal theology. The foundation of theology at Union was modern American liberalism, which Bonhoeffer saw as woefully inadequate at best or at worst heretical. He held a proud interpretation of the place that the German academy had within the larger academic world, and he was certain that his community of modern liberal American students and faculty at Union was incapable of even comprehending theology from the German academy.
THE PROBLEM WITH WHITE CHURCHES
The white churches that Bonhoeffer visited were plagued with the same theological problems that he found in the classroom at Union. He complained about the lack of content in the sermons he attended: “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 able to hear it, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.” Bonhoeffer concluded that the theological vacuum in New York’s white congregations qualified them for a label different than church:
In the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ, there stands the church as a social corporation. . . . Some churches are basically “charitable” churches; others have primarily a social identity. One cannot avoid the impression, however, that in both cases they have forgotten what the real point is.
The missing “real point” was for Bonhoeffer a matter of urgency. “For the German observer,” Bonhoeffer claimed, “the question becomes even more urgent about just how this particular form of the church and its distortion could have occurred.” But his disappointment with theology in the classroom, and in the pulpit, was not very different from the issues that sent him on his quest for a cloud of witnesses. He had similar Christian problems at home in Germany.
BONHOEFFER AND CIVILIZED AMERICAN CHRISTIANS
In America, instead of German nationalism parading as Christian discipleship, Bonhoeffer was grappling with modern theological liberalism in white American Christianity. Theological liberalism in America was optimistic about articulating a middle way between fundamentalism and atheism, reconceptualizing what might be considered traditional, or even fundamentalist, Christianity in light of the influence of modernity within the broader white American society. Union was a citadel of white American modern liberal Christianity. The liberal theological worldview made Christianity into the apotheosis of human social progress, reducing the language of salvation and sin to religious relics in order to accommodate itself to a broader, modern public. At Union, the modern, civilizing temperament was the reason liberal white students laughed at Luther’s reference to sin and forgiveness and questioned whether it was relevant to continue talking about Jesus. White American liberals were motivated by an effort to cultivate and civilize what they understood as the naturally brutish faculties within the individual as well as society. Liberal Christianity’s civilizing scheme accommodated Christianity and American society, making little distinction between human achievement in modernity and industry and the civilizing virtues of Western Christian refinement. For American liberal Christians, much the same as it was in Germany, Christianity, civilization, and culture were nearly synonymous.
The content in America was different and foreign, but the concept of Protestant culture was not. Consequently, Bonhoeffer found theology at Union and in white churches very disappointing; in his first experiences of America, he found no representation of Christ existing as church-community. If those theological encounters had been the sum of his experience with Christians in America, Bonhoeffer’s hopes for an end to the deadlock and an encounter with a cloud of witnesses would have been dashed.
ENTERING THE CLOUD OF WITNESSES
To his credit, Bonhoeffer continued searching in spite of persistent disappointment. His search led him to Harlem, New York’s African American community, where he was introduced to a tradition of Jesus that surprised him. That tradition became decisive for his continued theological development. In addition, his relationships with four close friends at Union, Americans Albert Fisher and Paul Lehmann and the other Sloane Fellows, Erwin Sutz and Jean Lasserre, provided positive content for what he described years later as having “the greatest significance” for him “up to the present day.”
Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Lehmann and Sutz gave him the benefit of stimulating familiarity. Lehmann, Bonhoeffer’s closest American friend and one of Union’s Ph.D. students during Bonhoeffer’s Sloane Fellowship, compared the German liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl with Karl Barth in his dissertation. Sutz had studied with Barth and would eventually arrange the first meeting between Barth and Bonhoeffer. Given Barth’s strong influence on Bonhoeffer, Lehmann’s and Sutz’ theological interests created a common bond. Additionally, Lehmann was fond of Western Europe in general, while Sutz and Bonhoeffer were both accomplished pianists. Tying all of their commonalities together was the fact that the three men could converse fluently in German.
ALBERT FRANKLIN FISHER
But the German language was not a connecting factor with Fisher and Lasserre. These friendships were tailor-made to jar his theology loose from its captivity to nationalism by inviting Bonhoeffer into empathic experiences that were troubling for them yet foreign to him, which enabled him to see broader implications of Jesus as Stellvertretung.
Albert Fisher was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1908 into a highly educated African American family. He was the youngest of six children, the only boy, and an heir to a lineage of preachers that included his maternal grandfather, Anthony Richardson, who was born into slavery and yet as a slave learned to read. After slavery, Richardson’s literacy helped him to navigate the hostilities of white supremacy during the emergence of the Jim Crow laws that replaced slavery as a new racial organizing scheme. Richardson’s grasp of the gospel as an African American in an overtly hostile, racist environment equipped him to preach the gospel as a means of resistance and survival.
Albert Fisher knew his maternal grandfather. Indeed, Al Fisher knew that he came from a proud family lineage of educated black Baptist clergy on both sides of his family. His father, Charles Fisher, received his bachelor of arts degree from Leland College in Louisiana before earning a bachelor of divinity degree from the Baptist Union Theological Seminary. Charles Fisher was pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, during its construction in 1898, roughly sixty-five years before it was bombed by white racists, killing four young girls three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Pastor Charles Fisher was no stranger to white racist terrorists threatening the lives of the children of his church. In 1914 members of his congregation made plans to take children from their church to visit the Birmingham zoo. When local whites caught wind of their plans and threatened violence in response to the children’s visit, Fisher called off the outing for the safety of the children. Like all African Americans in Jim Crow America, Pastor Fisher knew to take the threat of white violence seriously.
Fisher’s 16th Street Baptist Church was the center of Birmingham’s black community. In addition to providing a place of worship, Pastor Fisher was politically active, supporting the African American community by protesting against humiliating Jim Crow laws as a vocal advocate for racial justice. The church also had a social service association that provided numerous forms of aid to black workers, including a kindergarten for small children and a community extension of the church, with financial assistance programs.
In 1930 Charles Fisher left Birmingham for Selma, Alabama, to become the dean of the School of Theology of Selma University and a professor of languages. Also in 1930, Dean Fisher’s son, Albert, joined Dietrich Bonhoeffer with other new students at Union Seminary in New York.
Albert Fisher was born in the segregated south, but his move to Union was not his first encounter with integrated education. During his childhood, Fisher attended elementary school in Hartford, Connecticut. Like many blacks in Jim Crow America, Fisher’s family was accustomed to negotiating the dangers within a white American society, where the white majority vacillated between a malignant apathy, on the one hand, and bitter acrimony, on the other, toward black people. Hartford in America’s less-violent northern states was part of the Fishers’ process of negotiating violent white supremacy, as were theological education and church ministry. Fisher’s family experience of Christianity in America indicated that navigating the poles of fundamentalism and liberal modernity were not the only challenges facing the gospel in America. Most liberal whites failed to see white supremacy as a matter for Christian attention, and as a consequence they ignored the constant dangers of daily life in America for black people. But avoiding racism was not a choice for African American Christians; it was a matter of life or death in a society organized by race and enforced by violence. Consequently, Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Albert Fisher introduced him to Christian worship with an inherently different view of society. With Fisher, Bonhoeffer encountered Christians aware of human suffering and accustomed to living with the threat of death in a society organized by violent white supremacy.
WHITE AMERICAN TERRORISM
The threat of death was constant and real, as evidence showed. According to conservative estimates, more than 4,700 lynchings occurred in the United States between the early 1880s and World War II. Seventy-three percent of the victims were African American. But in the southern states, the percentage of African American victims topped 90, reflecting 3,245 black people murdered by whites within that time span. Two young black men were added to that statistic during the summer that Fisher was celebrating his graduation from college and anticipating the beginning of graduate school at Union. Photographs of the dead, tortured corpses of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, hanging from two trees and surrounded by a delighted white audience, were publicized nationwide and became the inspiration for Billie Holiday’s haunting song, “Strange Fruit.”
On January 12, 1931, during Bonhoeffer’s Sloane Fellowship year, an African American man was accused of rape in Maryville, Missouri, chained to a schoolhouse roof, and burned to death by a white mob. Bonhoeffer read the story of that lynching and viewed the graphic photographs. Two months later, news of the infamous nine Scottsboro boys spread throughout the country and the world. Nine black male youths, ages thirteen to nineteen, from Scottsboro, Alabama, were rushed through trial as a mere formality by a white society nurturing an unquenchable thirst for black blood and aware that northern states were watching. The boys were condemned to death for what Bonhoeffer later described as “raping a white girl of dubious reputation.” He described the boys’ plight as a “terrible miscarriage of justice.” Bonhoeffer wrote a letter home, petitioning a German church leader to join the international protest over the Scottsboro case, but the church leader wrote back, citing a theological argument as a reason for denying his request. Over a decade later, during the church struggle in Germany, Bonhoeffer was still talking about that case as he wrote about the ethics of office and vocation.
Lynching was a method of terrorism, and terror was a proven instrument wielded by the keepers of structural and systemic white supremacy to police the borders of privilege. Whites used terrorism to condition blacks to avoid white segregated spaces and to give way to the claims of white ascendancy in regard to all matters related to heaven and earth. Members of societies arranged by terrorism and fear accepted their places within the artificial, socially constructed hierarchy forced upon them by the dehumanizing narrative of race. In Jim Crow America, the narrative of race depicted black people as subhuman, which served to legitimate brutality against them. The narrative forced black compliance with the story of white supremacy by training fear of violent retaliation into the black psyche and habituating them to compliance with their artificial role as subordinates to their fully human white superiors.
BONHOEFFER IN THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE
When Bonhoeffer entered Harlem with Fisher, he met a counternarrative to the white racist fiction of black subhumanity. The New Negro movement radically redefined the public and private characterization of black people. A seminal moment in African American history had arrived, and all of Bonhoeffer’s descriptions of his involvement in African American life during his Sloane Fellowship year occurred during this critical movement. He turned twenty-five that February. Bonhoeffer was experiencing that critical moment in African American history while he was still young and impressionable.
The New Negro, a book containing a collection of essays, was edited by one of the leading intellectual architects of the movement, Alain Locke. The New Negro, as Locke and his authors appropriated the term, described the embrace of a contradictory, assertive black self-image in Harlem to deflect the negative, dehumanizing historical depictions of black people. The NewNegro made demands, not concessions: “demands for a new social order, demands that blacks fight back against terror and violence, demands that blacks reconsider new notions of beauty, demands that Africa be freed from the bonds of imperialism.” Bonhoeffer knew the movement by the descriptor New Negro, but James Weldon Johnson preferred to describe the movement as the Harlem Renaissance, rather than through the New Negro, as a rebirth of black people rather than something completely new. Johnson’s leadership role and influence in the African American community helped to solidify his preference for Harlem Renaissance, rather than New Negro movement, as historically influential.
Bonhoeffer entered Harlem and connected with new friends and ministry partners. He shared their disdain for the injustices leveled against their people, and he could empathize with their demands for dignity, as Germany hoped for a rebirth of their own dignity after the international humiliation associated with World War I. But in America, when Bonhoeffer entered Harlem, he crossed a color line that was meant to endow him with social esteem, access, and privileges that Fisher and every other person of color in the world did not have. In America, Bonhoeffer was white, and in his native Germany he would later recognize and translate his American experience of whiteness as the National Socialist references to die Herrenvolk, the master race.
Harlem Renaissance culture and theology were born from the experiences that African Americans had with white racist terrorism. Bonhoeffer immersed himself in Harlem and saw white America from the perspective of black “American outcasts.” He observed white American Christians from the “rather hidden perspective” of American outcasts in Harlem, where he witnessed a white American accommodation of religion and domination in the form of a white Christ. But with African Americans in Harlem, he did not find Christianity striving to accommodate itself to white supremacist civilized society, nor did he find the liberal Christian expression of the Berlin school of theology that trained him in Germany. In Harlem, Bonhoeffer finally heard something different. He encountered a black Christ as the subject of worship in a Christian dialogue about sin, grace, the love of God, and ultimate hope “in a form different from that to which we [Germans] are accustomed.”
The black encounter with Jesus was different from that which Bonhoeffer observed with the Christ of white liberals. Bonhoeffer described white modern liberal Christianity that he experienced in New York as “ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that—who knows how—claims the right to call itself ‘Christian.’ ” But his experience of black Christians in Harlem recognized sin and the hope of salvation to include God’s awareness of suffering and man’s inhumanity to man. Christianity in Harlem also provided Bonhoeffer with a contrast to what he generally saw in white churches, where “the real point” seemed to be missing. The real point of church and Christianity was apparent to Bonhoeffer in the church of the outcasts, where he heard about Jesus as the center of Christian devotion and where Jesus was celebrated “with captivating passion and vividness.”
Bonhoeffer joined Fisher as a regular attendee and coparticipant at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Fisher was assigned to intern as a requirement of his studies at Union. The language of sin and salvation was present at Abyssinian, but the white liberal modernist hope for human achievement was not. 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. To many African American Christians, pastors in Harlem, and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance movement, the white Christ was a problem. He represented a type of Christianity that served only to instigate black suffering. The God represented by the white Christ could be described as sadistic; he was a transcendent pedagogue who stood at a distance, coming near only to chastise the sinner with misery. In that case, the popularly pejorative images of indolent, lawless, licentious black people made suffering a natural, inevitable, even theologically appropriate part of black life. But that Christ was not worshiped in Harlem. Bonhoeffer found that black Christians identified black suffering with Jesus’ suffering. Bonhoeffer heard this connection in black preaching and in black Christian music. Historically, black Christian music emphasized that Jesus’ work of redemption and deliverance demonstrated his solidarity with social outcasts, even unto death. That explains why the lived experience of Jesus’ cross for black people in America was one of the most often repeated themes within the spirituals, as evidenced by the question in the spiritual “were you there?”
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced him in the side?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
The spirituals elevate the hope for “God with us” in a black identification with Jesus’ suffering. The liberal white struggle to determine the continued relevance of Jesus was not present in Harlem. 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. At Abyssinian with Fisher, 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, THE BLACK CHRIST, AND JEAN LASSERRE
One Sunday Myles Horton observed Bonhoeffer returning to his seminary lodging from Abyssinian Baptist after teaching Sunday school. Bonhoeffer lingered for a time, excited to talk about his day at church; the audience participation during the sermon and the black spirituals were all extremely moving for him. To Horton’s surprise, Bonhoeffer was quite emotional; this was out of character for the typically logical, unemotive Bonhoeffer. Horton later 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.” It may be that the spirit-filled vibrant worship of the black Christ brought home to Bonhoeffer in a personal and emotive way the conversations about following Jesus that he was having with Jean Lasserre and his other friends at that time. But Bonhoeffer’s important relationship with Lasserre must be recognized as occurring within his experience of entering Harlem. The transformation that was inspired by his incarnational experience in the “church of the outcasts of America” became the lens through which the Sermon on the Mount was seen, mobilizing it as commandments to obey from within the context of solidarity in suffering. Suffering and obedience carried new weight for Bonhoeffer from within his “rather hidden perspective” of solidarity with blacks who knew Jesus as one of the oppressed.
Hence, by entering into the hermeneutic of the black Jesus in the context of oppression, Bonhoeffer’s conversations with Lasserre about what Jesus expects of his followers inspired new developments in Bonhoeffer’s own Christian experience. This encounter of the Harlem Renaissance Jesus and Lasserre’s emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount sheds light on Bonhoeffer’s abiding interest in learning from Gandhi as well. The oppressive nature of the East Indian experience yielded a similar kind of proletarian versus bourgeois experience of Christ. Lasserre represents more than another stimulating European theologian for Bonhoeffer; his emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount fit Bonhoeffer’s incarnational emphasis by providing corresponding concreteness for daily Christian life in obedience to the suffering Christ whom he met while learning about theology that had developed within the African American experience under “completely different circumstances”than those he knew in Germany.
ENTERING INTO JEAN LASSERRE’S CONTEXT
Lasserre also represents something that Bonhoeffer did not know in Germany. His was a very unlikely friendship for Bonhoeffer: “he was a Frenchman towards whom the loyal German in Bonhoeffer could not help feeling burning resentment.” Yet, Bonhoeffer moved past his initial umbrage to forge a bond with the French pastor. Bethge credits Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Lasserre for the seriousness with which Bonhoeffer came to regard the Sermon on the Mount:
In Jean Lasserre he found a man who shared his longing for the concretion of divine grace and his alertness to the danger of intellectually rejecting the proximity of that grace. His friend confronted him with the question of the relationship with God’s word and those who uphold it as individuals and citizens of the contemporary world. This soon led Bonhoeffer to a new understanding of the Sermon on the Mount.
With Lasserre, loyalty to Christ took another new perspective. Within the context of Bonhoeffer’s traditional Lutheran ethics, the commandments of Christ did not have the same authority. His friendship with Lasserre helped bring Bonhoeffer to another level of commitment to Christ specifically regarding his newfound ecumenism and peace witness.
In a letter from Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer referenced Lasserre as “the young French pastor who desired to be a saint” with whom he had had a conversation years earlier. In that letter, Bonhoeffer remembered the two of them discussing what they wanted to do with their lives. Lasserre responded that he would like to be a saint, and Bonhoeffer recalled saying that he wanted to learn to have faith. One may speculate about the differences between having faith and being a saint, but what is clear is that they were both concerned to live an authentic Christian life. And in Lasserre, Bonhoeffer found another insight to help him shake loose from the deadlock of contradictory theology into a life of a Christian who “put his whole existence under the gospel,” much like the theological language that Bonhoeffer recognized in the African American spirituals that he loved so much. Living a faithful life requires moving beyond the language of ambitious academic conquest. It requires costly grace.
EMPATHY AND LOYALTIES
Lasserre’s influence can be seen in Bonhoeffer’s seminal work, Discipleship, in the distinction Bonhoeffer makes between what he calls “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” The difference between the two is the result of costly grace in a life of simple obedience to the commandments of Christ. Lasserre helped Bonhoeffer to value simple obedience to Christ’s commandments as Bonhoeffer’s perception of Jesus was undergoing key developments.
In the spring of 1931, Bonhoeffer and Lasserre were students at Union when they went together to see All Quiet on the Western Front, a movie about the Great War, World War I, made from the German perspective. German anti-French resentment was clear in the film; for example, when a German soldier shot a French soldier, the American audience cheered. American military fought alongside the French in World War I, but ironically the American audience was persuaded by the film’s German viewpoint against the French. Lasserre was deeply grieved and Bonhoeffer was embarrassed. But Bonhoeffer was also pained, being moved by empathy with Lasserre in the theater. Bonhoeffer witnessed his friend experiencing something like the racial acrimony that his friends in the Harlem community knew. But this time, Bonhoeffer’s Volk sympathies shared the dominant oppressor’s role with the shockingly disrespectful white American audience.
The movie experience with Lasserre evidenced a significant change in Bonhoeffer. He responded to Lasserre’s grief not with “some commonplace kind of help” but with a transforming theological perspective. Bonhoeffer demonstrated a new identification with a common Christian kinship in the universal body of Christ. In the theater, the nationalism and deep loyalty to Volk that initially created contradictions in his theology suffered a significant blow. Bonhoeffer was beginning to confront the question of “the relationship between God’s word and those who uphold it as individual citizens of the contemporary world [in every nation].” This global development in his understanding of the way of Jesus included a new look at obedience to the Sermon on the Mount.
BONHOEFFER AND LASSERRE IN DIALOGUE
Years after Bonhoeffer’s death, Lasserre published a book entitled War and the Gospel that articulates his argument for a Christian peace witness through obedience to Christ’s concrete commands in all of life. In its pages, Lasserre describes himself as “putting objections into the mouth of an imaginary critic.” Lasserre’s “imaginary critic” sounds much like his friend Bonhoeffer did prior to his Sloane Fellowship in New York. The conversations that Lasserre describes with his imaginary critic could easily be projected to mirror those about simple obedience to Christ that he must have had with Bonhoeffer when they met in the fall of 1930. For example, in Bonhoeffer’s Barcelona lecture in 1929 entitled Basic Questions of a Christian Ethics, Bonhoeffer impugned the notion of a biblical Christian ethics and denied any connection between the daily life of Christians and concrete guidance from the Sermon on the Mount. He claimed that it was an “utter perversion of one’s ethical sensibilities” to argue for the love of one’s enemies in the time of crisis when one’s Volk is threatened. It is especially true that in the moment of crisis, Bonhoeffer claimed, the commandments of Christ can be bracketed, taking a backseat to our more important loyalty to Volk. In such cases, killing could be sanctified and prove more important than slavish and unfree obedience to biblical behavioral rules. In response, Lasserre spoke of Christian faithfulness in a time of crisis:
I do not believe that the history of human society shows certain catastrophic situations where Christians could legitimately consider the Gospel’s moral demands as temporarily suspended, virtually unfulfillable, during the time of the so-called crisis—so that they would thereby be released from the obligation to conform to such demands in their daily conduct. . . . The only true crisis began with the Cross, and this crisis will end only with the Lord’s return; till this time Christians are called to a faithful witness. They could never be absolved from obedience to their Master by any national catastrophe or even the collapse of a civilization, nor would such things justify their being content with a cheapened version of Christianity.
For Lasserre, loyalty to Christ was the only acceptable Christian response to the gospel’s claims at all times. Christians must order all other loyalties by their unsurpassed loyalty to Jesus. Any other arrangement of loyalties results in a cheapened version of Christianity.
LASSERRE AND HIS INTERLOCUTOR ON COSTLY GRACE
The notion of a cheapened version of Christianity calls to mind the post–New York distinction that Bonhoeffer made in Discipleship between cheap grace and costly grace. Lasserre’s reference to a cheap Christianity connects both men to shared arguments against Bonhoeffer’s pre–New York Volkish theology. In Discipleship there is agreement with the themes of the “faithful witness” and “obedience” that Lasserre describes above.
The pre–New York Bonhoeffer demonstrated that the guiding hermeneutic of Christ within his notion of Christ the Stellvertretung was still captive to German nationalism. Within the wider German public, many other Christians claimed theological justification for distorted Christian loyalties in the same manner, supporting national domination and exploitation, Hitler’s notion of Lebensraum, under the guise of grace. Their loyalty to Christ-centered obedience was co-opted by theologically supported loyalty to Nazi ideology.
Likewise, Bonhoeffer’s earlier description of God as the Lord of history sanctioning the pushing aside of other, weaker Volk and of Christian ethics as dependence on “human categories of good and evil” were criticisms of attempted obedience to the Bible and a distorted interpretation of God’s grace. Before his introduction to his friends in New York, Bonhoeffer claimed that obedience to commandments of Christ has “nothing to do with the grace of God.”
Similarly, Lasserre’s imaginary interlocutor argues that Jesus was not a “moralist”: “his aim was to go beyond the [human] categories of good and evil, to replace the letter by the spirit, obedience to the law by Communion with the Father.” Like Bonhoeffer in Barcelona, the critic wants to claim grace, not obedience to commandments, as the guiding substance of a Christian hermeneutic.
But Lasserre argues that obedience is what makes one Christian; believers do not move backward theologically when living in obedience to Christ: “grace can be conceived only as a dialogue between the Gospel of forgiveness in Christ, and the condemnation brought upon us by the law; if there is no more law, there is no more grace either.” The law to which Lasserre refers is the commandments of Christ. Knowledge of the grace of God as costly grace comes as believers live in obedience to Christ’s commandments. The Christ that Lasserre describes echoes the Christ of Bonhoeffer’s description of costly grace. The claim to follow Christ means concrete adherence to the commandments of Jesus in all areas of life, which included for Bonhoeffer new devotion to the Sermon on the Mount.
BONHOEFFER AND COSTLY GRACE
After 1931 Bonhoeffer argued for concrete obedience to the Sermon on the Mount. As early as 1932, he wrote that, with cheap grace, Christians consider Christ’s commands to be idealistic and too abstract to follow. But the grace of God calls us to discipleship; it condemns sin and justifies the sinner. Costly grace opposes cheap grace, which distorts and avoids Jesus. Cheap-grace Christianity encourages bias with theological justification for the practice of oppression by the Volkish Christianity that encourages misplaced loyalties and divides the body of Christ. During the church resistance movement, Bonhoeffer railed against cheap grace—a cheapened version of Christianity—with vitriol.
Cheap grace presupposes a sinful life as the justification of sin but not the sinner. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance:
It is baptism without the discipline of the community; it is the Lord’s Supper without the confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living incarnate Jesus Christ.
Cheap grace describes the Christian life that Bonhoeffer formerly knew, as a Christian with divided loyalties. And during the church resistance movement against German Christian advocates of turning all Jews into outcasts and scapegoats for the problems of postwar Germany, Bonhoeffer’s Christ-centered theology became radical opposition to Nazi-sympathizing cheap-grace Christianity.
Bonhoeffer remembered the plight of African Americans, and his experience of observing white Christianity from their hidden perspective became for him a shared understanding of the Jewish plight. Christianity became concrete and visible from the perspective of suffering, and, from the perspective of suffering, Bonhoeffer saw that Christians must be different from people who do not have the commandments of Christ. Bonhoeffer claimed that the obedient church is visible to the world, because Christ’s claim that “you are the salt” and “you are the light” are not suggestions; they are clear commandments that Christ gives to all Christians, in whatever country they are found.
As “the light,” followers of Christ are members of a visible community of faith, and their discipleship consists of evident behavior that distinguishes them from the world. Christ emphasized this when he said, “No one after lighting a lamp places it under a bushel basket, but on the lamp stand!” Bonhoeffer’s Harlem-inspired perspective helped him to interpret this passage for his context:
The bushel basket, under which the visible community hides its light, can be fear of human beings [Nazis] just as much as it can be intentional conformity to the world for some arbitrary purposes, whether it be missionary purposes or whether it arises from misguided love for people [Volk]. But it may also be—and this is even more dangerous—a so-called reformation theology, which even dares to call itself theologia crucis, and whose signature is that it prefers humble invisibility in the form of total conformity to the world over pharisaic visibility.
Precisely at this junction, at the cross of Christ, Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Jesus underwent significant development during his time in New York. He was put in touch with the call of obedience to the God who shares suffering with the oppressed for the sake of justice. Bonhoeffer’s identification of Jesus with the marginalized and the oppressed became a perspective from which prophetic insight would make him one of the most impactful theologians of the twentieth century.
REGGIE L. WILLIAMS is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary (see his page at MTS here). He is a member of the International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society, as well as the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and a founding member of the Society of Race, Ethnicity and Religion. He lives with his wife and two children in Chicago.
Excerpts from Reggie L. Williams Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Copyright © 2014 by Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.) are reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved. The BPC thanks Dr. Williams and Baylor University Press for their graciousness in permitting this reprinting.
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