How much influence can a friendship have? For some, a friendship can change the trajectory of their lives as well as the lives of their extended family. In the life of German professor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an unlikely friendship in Harlem, N.Y., helped redirect his path from pacifist professor to anti-Nazi dissenter.
Gifted 21-year-old Sloane fellow Bonhoeffer arrived in New York City in 1930 to teach at Union Theological Seminary. He met fellow seminarian and lifelong friend Franklin Fisher, an African American who introduced him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. It was the height of the Harlem Renaissance, an explosion of culture and artistry in the NYC neighborhood by those who had migrated from the South to escape discrimination for better jobs in the city. This movement produced some of the greatest African American musicians, artists and writers, including Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and Duke Ellington. Bonhoeffer became a lifelong fan of African-American spirituals and carried a cherished collection of albums back to Germany.
Abyssinian’s pastor, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., preached “the gospel of Jesus Christ” as well as themes of “Christianity that encompasses all of life.”
“Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God and ultimate hope,” wrote Bonhoeffer. “The black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision.”
He heard the concept of “Jesus the co-sufferer hidden in suffering.” Bonhoeffer taught Sunday School and was invited into church members’ homes. He became sensitive to social injustices suffered by minorities and the ineptitude of churches to relieve oppression.
“We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do … and more in the light of what they suffer,” he wrote.
He observed American racism first-hand when he traveled south with his friend Franklin, who was refused service at restaurants. Later Bonhoeffer referenced his time abroad as the point he “turned from phraseology to reality.”
Abyssinian was a foreign world to the aristocratic-born German. Viewing themselves as the pinnacle of social Darwinism and human evolution, Germans were seething from the humiliating defeat of World War I and the punishing penalties of the Treaty of Versaille. The Treaty held Germany responsible for the war, stripped her colonial properties and imposed crippling reparation payments. Restoring German national pride was central to daily life, and Germans blamed former politicians and pacifist outsiders for their defeat, including Jews. Fanning the flames of that anger and struggle to rise from the ashes, Adolf Hitler began his ascent to power in Germany.
From the earliest days of the Nazi party in 1933, some voices rose in protest — include Bonhoeffer’s, now a Lutheran pastor. Two days after Hitler was appointed chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he warned Germans against “slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Fuhrer (leader) who could well turn out to be the Verfuhrer (seducer).” His address was cut off the air in mid-sentence. In April 1933 Bonhoeffer publicly protested the persecution of Jews.
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself,” he said.
In July 1933, Hitler unconstitutionally interfered with elections in the German Lutheran Church, resulting in Nazi supporters in church leadership. Bonhoeffer called out the failure of the Lutheran Church to protect its own parishioners, who were Jewish.
“The Church was silent when it should have cried out because the blood of the innocents was crying aloud to heaven,” he said.
In the following years, Bonhoeffer worked hard to initiate an independent association of Biblically based churches called the “Confessing Church.” He penned several volumes of religious writings that are still studied today. He formed and taught at underground seminaries across Europe that embraced his brand of Biblical Christianity.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance. ... Cheap grace is grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” he taught.
After getting banned from preaching, teaching and broadcasting, Bonhoeffer was recruited by a family member to join the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization that actually provided cover for a German resistance organization. After a failed plot by the Abwehr on Hitler’s life in 1944, Bonhoeffer was arrested, imprisoned for 18 months, and executed by hanging at Flossenberg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, days before the camp was liberated.
What would cause an aristocratic German theologian to choose devotion to his God, and suffering for his fellow man, over his loyalty to his country?
From his Letters from Prison: “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts … the maltreated – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. ... Christians are called to compassion and to action.”
Life lessons learned from his friend, Franklin Fisher, and others at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.