Bonhoeffer in America

A few years ago, I heard a talk – I think it was by Ray Simpson of the Northumbria Community – about Celtic Christianty.  In the talk he describes showing a film about Celtic Christianity to church and other leaders, in this country and abroad.

Reflecting on the reception the film received, he noted that English audiences were mostly interested in practical ways they might use the new insights they had gained – “How can I use this?” – whilst European (I think especially German ?) audiences wanted to know ‘Is this true ?”

That always struck me as an interesting observation, which I have come across again in the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh. (Strange Glory pp 115 -118)

In 1930/31, Bonhoeffer spent the best part of a year in the USA, and his impression at the start of this period was that Americans were over concerned about practicalities, and too little about ideas for their own sake.

One of his European friends at the time writes: “We were Europeans who like to reflect before acting, while the American gave us the impression of wanting to act before they reflected.”

(By the way – that makes me think of a prominent American who seems to have difficulty with any kind of reflective thought!)

Bonhoeffer is intially critical of the lack of serious theological underpinning to the sermons that he heard, describing one influential preacher as preaching ‘A Gospel bereft of miracle … with sermons that are reduced to church remarks about newpaper events’

All of this changed for Bonhoeffer when he began to experience the life of Abyssinian Baptist Church – a black church in New York.  Through the early months of 1931, Bonhoeffer had an education into the real lives of black America, with its racism, poverty and oppression.  It was these encounters that led him to write that it was only in the black churches that he had heard powerful preaching, thrilled to joyful singing, and seen true religion.

“For most of his ministry he had traded comfortably on a notion of Christ as inacccessibly transcendent, the God-man in majesty.  Lately he had begun to dwell on Jesus as the one who wandered into distressed and lonely places to share the struggles of the poor as friend and counsellor.”

This will emerge later in Bonhoeffer’s thought as Christ going ‘incognito into the world, and outcast among outcasts, hiding himself in weakness.

His time in the USA also included times spent in the company of Christian Activists including the emerging civil rights movement.

Having arrived in America with his Lutheran foundation of ‘Sola Gratia’ – by grace alone – he reurned to Germany with the conviction that Grace is ‘God’s divine verdict requiring obedience and action.’

Today is Easter Day – a day when we are reminded of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but for me especially of the importance of the ongoing vital neccessity of living the resurrection day by day.

Perhaps we can also experience what Bonhoeffer saw in the suffering black church of 1930’s America that seems to encompass cross and resurrection – ’emotion, intensity and feeling in the sorrowful joy of Jesus’

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