Thanks to an old friend, I received a link to an extremely interesting essay dealing with the Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thoughts on racism ("The View from Below: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Reflections and Actions on Racism," by Martin Rumscheidt, Toronto Journal of Theology, Supplement 1, 2008, pp. 63-72).
Bonhoeffer, an ordained Lutheran minister and one of the twentieth century's most influential theologians, struggled with the hate and racism of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany on the one had and the apathy and complicity of his fellow German church folk on the other.
Prior to WWII, for one year (1930-1931) Bonhoeffer came to the United States for post-doctoral studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Thanks to his relationship with Frank Fisher, a fellow student and African American from Alabama, Bonhoeffer spent most of his free time during that special year in Harlem where he attached himself to the youth ministry of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer and his family spoke out against the racism, anti-Semitism and hatred of Hitler and his regime. As a result, he fell under continuing surveillance by Nazi intelligence officials, as well as Hitler himself. After becoming involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was arrested and consigned to the Flossenburg concentration camp. He was hanged on April 9, 1945.
The quote that follows comes from Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (Macmillian, 1971, page 17). Note particularly the section in italics:
"We have been silent witnesses to evil deeds. We have become cunning and learnt the arts of obfuscation and equivocal speech. Experience has rendered us suspicious of human beings and often we have failed to speak to them a true and open word. Unbearable conflicts have worn us down or even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? Geniuses, cynics, people who feel contempt for others, or cunning tacticians, are not what we will need but simple, uncomplicated and honest human beings. Will our inner strength to resist what has been forced on us have remained strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves blunt enough, to find our way back to simplicity and honesty?
"It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering. If only bitterness and envy have during this time not corroded the heart; that we come to see matters great and small, happiness and misfortune, strength and weakness with new eyes; that our sense for greatness, humanness, justice and mercy has grown clearer, freer, more incorruptible; that we learn, indeed, that personal suffering is a more useful key, a more fruitful principle than personal happiness for exploring the meaning of the world in contemplation and action. But this view from below must not lead us into taking sides with the perpetually dissatisfied. From a higher satisfaction that is actually founded on the other side of below and above, we do justice to life in all its dimensions and affirm it."
I'd love your responses.
If you'd like a copy of the entire essay, email me at ljames@CentralDallasMinistries.org.
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