Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bonhoeffer on racism

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



Anonymous said...

Thank you for the quotation from Bonheoffer, one of the heroes of Christianity. This might be a good place to suggest that people visit the Dallas Holocaust Museum and Center for Education and Tolerance. It is located at 211 North Record Street, Suite 100 in the West End, near the Sixth Floor Museum. Unfortunately, racism and intolerance are not something of the past.

Lee Carter

Larry James said...

Lee, good idea! For years here at CDM, a trip to the Holocaust Museum has been a part of our urban plunge experiences as an attempt to confront participants with the evil of racism and hatred.

paul said...

That is powerful good, Larry. Humility of heart could lead us all to be more powerful in our others.

I have been to the Dallas Holocaust Museum several times. It is worth the trip.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Bonhoeffer's honesty, thoughtfulness and his quest to figure out the will of God for that time and place will continue to speak.

belinda said...

Have you ever seen the series "Holocaust" with Meryl Strepp?? I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, my history lessons in school must not have "taken" - I don't remember this horrible event being discussed. I married a man from Russia that had family members (uncles) executed by the Nazis. What a horrible thing to have happened to a group of people, for simply being people (Jews). We must never let something like this happen again.

Anonymous said...

We already have ... Bosnia, Rwanda, etc. Unfortunately (not nearly strong enough a word) it seems well nigh impossible to keep people from killing and destroying if they really have their minds set on it.

Anonymous said...

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian.

RogueMInister said...

It is so great to see a theologian like Bonhoeffer who was so gifted in his academic studies apply his knowledge to his daily life especially at such a great personal price. What an example.

I especially agree with the sentence that starts with, "It remains and experience of incomparable value..." That is exactly right, we can never understand the needs of people until we can see it from their perspective.

Oscar Romero said that "A Christian who does not wish to live this commitment of solidarity with the poor is not worthy of the name Christian."

I cant wait to take my wife to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. in a little over a month. It was a powerful experience for me, as was my visit to Dachau concentration camp.

Anonymous said...

A few weeks ago I visited Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich. The impressions it left on me are still heavy: dread, shame, fear. Fearful of what we are capable of. I remember the same feelings when I visited S21 prison camp in Cambodia a few years ago. While at Dachau I heard that the vast majority of the people who lived around the camp in the 40s plead ignorance of the events inside.

When I read this quote from Bonhoeffer it engages me in the present... not the past. What atrocities am I being a "silent witness" to because I happen to be in a place of power? Uganda, Burma and certainly within our own borders as well, vast injustices are being committed. It is time for us to speak simply and honestly on behalf of those without a voice. Larry, thanks for doing that on a regular basis.

Anonymous said...

From your experience (Larry and others who work regularly with the poor), how does such a message that suffering is a better principle than happiness for finding meaning go over with them? Having suffered domestic abuse, etc., can they hear such comments as gospel?