Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet

Bonhoeffer in America continued (Part 2): More on Dietrich’s thoughts of the American church:
“Things are not much different in the [New York] church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in general I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes)."
"The fundamentalist sermon that occupies such an important place in the Southern states has only one prominent Baptist representative in New York, one who preaches the resurrection of the flesh and the virgin birth before believers and the curious alike."
"There, in the socially downtroddenAfrican American community, Bonhoeffer would finally hear the gospel preached and see its power manifested. The preacher at Abyssinian was a powerful figure named Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr."
"By the mid-1930s, the Abyssinian Baptist Church boasted 14,000 members and was arguably the largest Protestant church of any kind in the whole United States. When Bonhoeffer saw it all, he was staggered."
"Starving from the skim milk at Union, Bonhoeffer found a theological feast that spared nothing. Powell combined the fire of a revivalist preacher with great intellect and social vision. He was active in combating racism and minced no words about the saving power of Jesus Christ... For the first time Bonhoeffer saw the gospel preached and lived out in obedience to God’s commands. He was entirely captivated, and for the first time in New York, he was there every Sunday to teach a Sunday school class of boys; he was active in a number of groups in the church; and he gained the trust of many members and was invited to their homes."
"The music at Abyssinian formed an important part of his experience. Bonhoeffer searched New York record shops to find recordings of the “negro spirituals” that had come to transfix him every Sunday in Harlem. The joyous and transformative power of this music solidified his thinking on the importance of music to worship. He would take these back to Germany and play them for his students in Berlin, and later in the sandy Baltic outposts of Zingst and Finkenwalde. They were some of his most cherished possessions, and for many of his students, they seemed as exotic as moon rocks."
During the Thanksgiving holiday Bonhoeffer took a trip to Washington D.C. with a black friend named Fisher. The trip to Washington with Fisher gave him an intimate view of the racial situation in America, one that few whites had seen. He wrote:
“In Washington I lived completely among the Negroes and through the students was able to become acquainted with all of the leading figures of the negro movement, was in their homes, and had extraordinarily interesting discussions with them... The conditions are really unbelievable. Not just separate railway cars, tramways, and buses south of Washington, but also, for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant with a negro, I was refused service."
"Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend that “there was no analogous situation in Germany; but that would change soon enough. The Bonhoeffers had grown up in Grunewald, a neighborhood of academic and cultural elites, a third of whom were Jewish. They had never seen or heard of anything comparable to what they discovered in America, where blacks were treated like second-class citizens and had an existence wholly separated from their white contemporaries. What Bonhoeffer soon saw in the South was more grievous still. The comparison was more difficult because, in Germany, Jews had economic parity, while in America, blacks certainly did not. In terms of influence, German Jews held top positions in every sphere of society, something far from the situation among blacks in America. And in 1931, no one could imagine how the German situation would deteriorate within in a few years."
"Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin from America at the end of June, 1931. But he soon left for Switzerland to meet the great theologian Karl Barth. In the next two years Bonhoeffer visited Barth often... At this point, Hitler’s ascent to the chancellorship was still two years in the unimaginable future. Bonhoeffer had been in New York a mere nine months, but in some ways it seemed a lifetime. When he left, the Nazis were a tiny grey cloud on the horizon of an otherwise clear sky. Now, black and crackling with electricity, they loomed nearly overhead."
"Bonhoeffer wrote Stutz that the outlook is exceptionally grim.” He felt that they were standing at a tremendous turning point in world history,” that something was about to happen. But what? In his prescient way, Bonhoeffer sensed that whatever lay ahead, the Church would be threatened."
"Bonhoeffer was asked to preach at the famous Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin on Reformation Sunday in 1932. This was the day Germany celebrated Luther and the great cultural heritage of the Reformation. The people in the pews expected to hear an uplifting, patriotic sermon. But the sermon that Bonhoeffer delivered must have seemed like a nasty sucker punch followed by a wheeling roundhouse kick to the chops.”
“The German church, he said, is dying or is already dead. Then he directed his thunder at the people in the news.He condemned the inappropriateness of having a celebration when they were all, in fact, attending a funeral: “A fanfare of trumpets is no comfort to a dying man.” He called it “unpardonable frivolity and arrogance” for them to blithely appropriate Luther’s famous words, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” for their own ends... and so it went.”
I'm about halfway through the Bonhoeffer book now and will interject a post or two from my Luther's Baggage rewrite before I conclude the series on Bonhoeffer.

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