By Guest Writer
From 1928 to 1929, Dietrich Bonhoeffer served as assistant pastor for a small German congregation in Barcelona, Spain. Young Bonhoeffer taught his parishioners to be patriotic. Echoing German preachers of his time, he touted the importance of protecting Germany’s national interests, even if it meant sacrificing the interests and lives of others.
The next year, Bonhoeffer’s faith began to change. He spent the 1930–1931 academic year as a postdoctoral student in New York. Bonhoeffer found a home at Abyssinian Baptist, a Black church in Harlem. There, he taught children’s Sunday School alongside his new friend, Albert Fisher. Bonhoeffer also visited church members’ homes and helped out with a weekday church school. In the Black church, Bonhoeffer encountered people who remained faithful to Christ though they were the objects of racism. In a new way, he learned how Christ identifies with the oppressed. Later, Bonhoeffer would say that at Abyssinian, “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the sinner, is really preached.”
In Ephesians, Paul writes to a group of people who had been outsiders. The “uncircumcised” Ephesians were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise. They were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11–12). But now, through Christ’s sacrificial blood, those who were once far away have been brought near (v.13). Jesus Christ is peace for Jews and Gentiles—just as He is for all peoples divided by race, culture, or socioeconomic class. In Jesus Christ, the wall of hostility that divides us is broken down. Through Him, we all have access by one Spirit to the Father (vv.14–18). In Him, we are built together as one multi-ethnic temple (vv.19–21).
Experiencing this good news at Abyssinian Baptist, and in his friendship with Fisher, changed Bonhoeffer. When he returned to Germany, he stood against the nationalistic impulses he’d once embraced. Though his countrymen thought him unpatriotic, he wrote the following in As You Believe, So You Receive (1931): “God has arranged it so that all races of humanity of the earth come from one blood (Acts 17:26). Therefore, a defiant ethnic pride in flesh and blood is a sin against the Holy Spirit… Even here the commandment of love urges the Christian to stand up for his neighbor.”
With these newfound convictions, we come to the part of Bonhoeffer’s story that is most well-known. In love, he ministered to the poor in Germany and stood against the Nazi party for his Jewish neighbors until death. It’s only the unity believers have in Christ, our “fellow citizenship” in spite of our ethnicity or background, that can empower such sacrificial love. Christ’s love breaks down every wall and compels us to love one another in the face of our differences.
Written by Jared Kennedy