The Common Good

Harlem's Influence on Bonhoeffer Underestimated in 'Strange Glory'

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the second Bonhoeffer book by the University of Virginia religion scholar, Dr. Charles Marsh, whose many other books include analyses of civil rights figures and history. Marsh is himself a child of the south, and his authored works have centered on prominent figures who model a commitment to justice in the face of southern white supremacy. Strange Glory is no different. Marsh’s depiction of Bonhoeffer is the first cradle-to-grave biography to highlight the seminal nature of Bonhoeffer’s experience in America, with African Americans, for his prophetic resistance to Nazism. Marsh also speculates that Bonhoeffer harbored an unrequited longing for more than friendship from his student and closest friend, Eberhard Bethge. Yet, with Strange Glory, I find speculation about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality less intriguing than the question of what Marsh’s representation of Bonhoeffer intends to offer us today.

Bonhoeffer spent a significant amount of time in Harlem while he was a postdoctoral student in America at Union Theological Seminary during the 1930-31 school year. Bonhoeffer became a lay leader at Abyssinian Baptist Church, and many Bonhoeffer scholars believe that his time there was seminal for his prophetic Christian resistance to Nazis. Yet Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Harlem is somewhat ambiguous for the Bonhoeffer that Marsh constructs. Instead, he emphasizes Bonhoeffer’s travels through the Jim Crow South, positioning the south (or, southern blackness) over against the north or northern, Harlem blackness as the primary source of African-American Christian influence on Bonhoeffer.

In fact, Harlem blackness gets a bad rap in Marsh’s Bonhoeffer story with this juxtaposition of southern vs. northern blackness. For instance, Marsh (re)interprets an experience Bonhoeffer had on Easter 1931 at Abyssinian, claiming that Bonhoeffer was surprised and disappointed to find that Abyssinian charged admission for Easter Sunday service. Evidently, the practice so shocked and soured Bonhoeffer that he terminated his involvement with Abyssinian ( Strange Glory 127-128) — an account based on the correspondence between Bonhoeffer and his grandmother after Easter in 1931.

Bonhoeffer wrote to her, saying, “You have to get entry tickets for the larger churches far ahead of time … Nothing remained but to go hear a famous rabbi here who preaches every Sunday morning …” (DBWE 10:294-295). Marsh’s interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s letter significantly disturbs historians at Abyssinian who refute it vehemently. Marsh’s reading of the letter is diametrically opposed to the ethos present at Abyssinian at that moment. The Great Depression was devastating Harlem, and Abyssinian Baptist Church was featured on the front page of local newspapers several times for Adam Clayton Powell Sr.’s public admonishment of fellow clergy for their lack of attention to Harlem’s poor, and for the hundreds of meals and amount of clothing that Abyssinian was giving away in Harlem. In his autobiography Against the Tide, Powell describes sermons (preached during Bonhoeffer’s tenure) as appeals for donations and his congregation’s response as compassionate attention to the needs of the afflicted community. Abyssinian’s church historians (who are also trained history professors) find no record of Abyssinian charging admission for Easter service, and the thought of Powell Sr. selling tickets within the impoverished Harlem community would have been an unthinkable hypocrisy. It does seem likely, however, that regular attendees would secure their pew on Easter morning by picking up free passes, which clearly Bonhoeffer was not aware that he needed to do. “Because I didn’t know that, nothing remained [available on Easter Sunday]” is a more likely reading of the letter to his grandmother, rather than a claim that he’s announcing the end of his relationship with Abyssinian Baptist Church.

The leading Bonhoeffer scholar Clifford Green also points out that Rudolf Schade, the Union Seminary student who let us know that Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in Harlem, was at Union during Bonhoeffer’s second trip in 1939 — not 1931. Schade told a story of Bonhoeffer excitedly sharing with him, speaking in German as they walked along Riverside drive, about preaching in Harlem at a church that scholars believe was most likely Abyssinian Baptist. If Green is right, about the timeline, then Schade’s recollection of Bonhoeffer’s excitement about preaching at Abyssinian in 1939 contradicts Marsh’s claim that Bonhoeffer terminated his involvement with Abyssinian in 1931.

I would also argue that Marsh’s speculation about Bonhoeffer’s romantic attraction to Bethge speaks with more historical certainty than the archival evidence offers, suggesting a significant shift in the understanding of some of Bonhoeffer’s most crucial decisions. For example, Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany after only a few weeks in New York, 1939, has historically been seen as a singular moment of courage in Bonhoeffer’s short life. In Strange Glory the decision is not only attributed to his stalwart bravery to oppose Nazis and embrace the likelihood of his death; Marsh claims it was because he missed Bethge and was frustrated that Bethge did not share the same sense of urgency to write every day. Assertions like that can only remain speculative.

It is certain that Strange Glory is intended to make a point to readers, given the inferences about Bonhoeffer’s sexuality and the curious interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem. In righteous indignation, Marsh’s Bonhoeffer stops listening to the black community in Harlem at Abyssinian and becomes a liberal version of the conservative white sovereign observer who doesn’t need to learn about black life directly from black people. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer leaves black agency behind in Harlem while embracing a southern black Christianity that is given to us only through the anthropologist-like observations of Bonhoeffer himself. A northern blackness with agency become sidelined to a southern blackness that seems to lack such agency and is docile before Bonhoeffer and Jean Lasserre as (“Christian”) anthropological observers who are progressive in their appreciation of southern black Christianity under the violence of the Jim Crow South. This harkens back to the familiar view from above, from the privileged position of the objective observer where Bonhoeffer may speculate with other liberal whites on a more civilized way to treat the oppressed other. If this point is not intended (and I actually don’t think that there is intention here on Marsh’s part), it is one that seems to be present within the text and begs further conversation.

Overall, Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is a justice advocate struggling with his identity in the face of social, theological, and political crisis. Rather than placing Bonhoeffer on a pedestal, Marsh would have us see Bonhoeffer as human, and as such see ourselves as accountable to live as he did in our contemporary struggles against injustice. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer wrestles with the layers of his identity throughout his entire life, as we all do, and Bonhoeffer sees the intersecting pieces take shape in a way that informs a resistance to injustice and unwittingly turns him into a bright light in the midst of one of the darkest moments in world history. Bonhoeffer’s narrative is, indeed, a Strange Glory. That point seems to me to be the more profound takeaway from the book, and it is certainly stoking the flames of conversation about Bonhoeffer, which is a very good outcome.

Reggie L. Williams is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and author of Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance.

Image: Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York City. Marco Rubino / Shutterstock.com

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