Jun 13th 2020

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Today’s Movement for Racial Justice

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

Walking through the park this weekend I noticed a man on a bench reading Metaxas’ acclaimed biography of German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And it occurred to me then and there that this is indeed a moment in our history when we may acquire much needed insight and inspiration by revisiting Bonhoeffer’s extraordinary life and legacy.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in Breslau, Germany into a large and prominent family – which included his father, noted psychiatrist and neurologist, Karl Bonhoeffer. The younger Bonhoeffer graduated from the Protestant Faculty of Theology at the University of Tübingen and went on to complete his Doctor of Theology degree from Berlin University in 1927.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer went to the United States for postgraduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. Perhaps the most important part of his stay in the US was being introduced to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he would not only teach Sunday school and form an abiding love for black spirituals – recordings he brought back to Germany would become “some of his most treasured possessions” – Bonhoeffer would also hear Adam Clayton Powell Sr. preach the “kingdom of social justice.” Powell had the fire of a revivalist preacher, combined with “great intellect and social vision” – he actively condemned racism and “minced no words about the saving power of Jesus Christ.”

Finding in Powell the gospel preached and lived out according to God’s commands, Bonhoeffer became acutely aware of the injustice and subjugation experienced by minorities and began to adopt the standpoint of the oppressed. He remarked, "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."

Returning to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer lectured in systematic theology at the University of Berlin – but his promising career as an academic would be derailed by the rise of Nazism, and Hitler’s installation as Chancellor in 1933.

Bonhoeffer resisted the Nazi regime from the very beginning and never wavered. Within days of Hitler’s election, he gave a radio address in which he denounced Hitler and admonished the people against forming an idolatrous cult of the Führer (leader), who could easily turn out to be Verführer (or misleader) – a distinction Donald Trump’s blind followers would do well to remember.

In April 1933, Bonhoeffer was the first to assert the church’s opposition to Hitler's persecution of the Jews and insisted that the church cannot merely "bandage the victims under the wheel,” but must “jam a spoke in the wheel itself."

Bonhoeffer’s theology was a theology of the oppressed, and his active involvement in the German resistance against Hitler followed from his moral awareness that “the structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom,” as he wrote in his Ethics – for “If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence...” A life spent in fear of incurring guilt was itself sinful. In this respect Bonhoeffer is essentially in agreement with G.F.W. Hegel: only a stone can be innocent; all meaningful action entails guilt – and we must act. As Bonhoeffer observed: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

The Cost of Discipleship (1937) – an extended commentary on the Sermon on the Mount – is generally regarded as Bonhoeffer’s masterpiece. In Chapter 4, he considers that passage from Mark 8:34, where Christ says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” From an ethical standpoint this is all-important: as Bonhoeffer famously said, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” This may not mean actual martyrdom (though it certainly might): it means first of all that we must die to ourselves. In his commentary he writes, “Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion.”

To ‘deny oneself’ has nothing to do here with asceticism or suicide, both of which retain an element of self-will. Rather, “it is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.” Self-denial then is inseparable from the obedience of the responsible one who hears the call and says, “Here I am” (hineni) – for “faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience,” not to any man-made law or worldly authority, but to God, whose call reaches us through the voice of our oppressed and persecuted neighbor.

Bonhoeffer makes the crucial distinction – as important now as it ever was – between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace means grace without price, without cost, “everything can be had for nothing.” Bonhoeffer reminds us that we are still in the fight for costly grace, “which calls us to follow... It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

Costly grace affirms that you can only discover what obedience is by obeying. It is no use asking questions – questions such as, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ “You are the neighbor. Go along and try to be obedient by loving others… Neighborliness is not a quality in other people, it is simply their claim on ourselves... We literally have no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey – we must behave like a neighbor to him.”

Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo – two years later, at dawn on 9 April 1945, he was led naked to the gallows and hanged to death, a few weeks before Hitler would commit suicide.

Throughout the last two weeks, we have witnessed across the country protests against systemic racism and police brutality – and indeed protesters have gathered in cities around the world, from London to Hamburg, from Pretoria to Brisbane. Blacks and whites are rising up in unison to oppose the systematic subjugation of people of color – a subjugation which began over four hundred year ago when the first slave ships arrived on these shores.

Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called.

At times like these we see the difference between those who are satisfied with cheap grace and those who know that true grace comes at a price, and that price is obedience to the call of God which we hear in the choking, gasping cries of our neighbor, in the desperate pleas of the man who is down on the ground with an oppressor’s knee on his neck.



Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

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More Essays

Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”