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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Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Our lab in Cambridge, England, is working with a promising new family of materials known as halide perovskites. They are semiconductors, conducting charges when stimulated with light. Perovskite inks are deposited onto glass or plastic to make extremely thin films – around one hundredth of the width of a human hair – made up of metal, halide and organic ions. When sandwiched between electrode contacts, these films make solar cell or LED devices."
Sep 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Bryant, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison for trying to steal hedge clippers from a Louisiana carport storage room in 1997. He has already served twenty-three years for this petty crime, and on 31 July the Louisiana Supreme Court denied a request to review his life sentence. The denial followed a lower appeals court’s 2019 decision that concluded “his life sentence is final.” The only judge on the Louisiana Supreme Court to dissent (or even issue an opinion) was Chief Justice Bernette Johnson. She wrote a stinging rebuke, observing that Bryant’s “life sentence for a failed attempt to steal a set of hedge clippers is grossly out of proportion to the crime and serves no legitimate penal purpose.” "
Aug 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that as high as 40 percent of prisoners should not be in prison—”behind bars with no compelling public safety reason.” There are literally thousands of young prisoners, Black and white, who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for non-violent offences. It is unfathomable that we as a society are spending billions of dollars every year to sustain such pointless cruelty, to inflict needless pain on individuals, fathers and mothers, who pose no threat at all to the public."
Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
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."