“It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.”
The above quote was written in 1933 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This was written during the early struggle over the “Jewish question” within the Lutheran church in Germany. Bonhoeffer fought for the church not to follow the lead of Hitler’s new Germany.
I am reading the revised edition of the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by his student and friend Eberhart Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Biography. Bethge’s detailed description and quoted words of Bonhoeffer remind me of the human and Christian struggle in the history of the United States. The above quote is one example.
Racial prejudice has been a blight in our nation’s history, past and present, north, south, east, and west. There was a time in our nation’s history, in my lifetime, when, with a slight change, the above quote boldly rebuked the church in America. “It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where black and white stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.” Perhaps, even with as far as the church has come, we still need to hear these words.
I am white. I can try to understand the experience of black Americans only from reading, observation, and speaking with friends. As I read the life and words of Bonhoeffer I am caused to reflect on our nation, on humankind, and on Christ dying on the cross to bring peace.
In 1967 I left home and went to college. I was a northern young man going off to a southern college, a Christian college. The college had begun integration in 1964 after pressure from the Federal government. Unfortunately prejudice is part of the human heart. Races, cultures, nations, tribes, religions, schools, and more all prejudge each other. Sometimes prejudice finds expression in laws which separate races. Sometimes prejudice finds expression in subtle understood but unwritten rules which separate races.
My freshman year I started attending a church in a neighborhood in decline. This old white church decided not to flee to the suburbs. I remember well standing outside one Sunday afternoon. There were a number of children there for a church program. There were black and white children from the neighborhood. As I stood in the midst of some of the children a leader of the church said to a little black boy, “I am glad you are here.” A longtime church member, a wealthy man, yes, a white man, responded, “Well I am not glad he is here.” Without hesitation the church leader told this old church member, “Then you need to find another church.”
In my introduction to sociology class I had to do a number of book reports. Buried in the library shelves was a book written in the 1920s. I do not remember the author or the title. The author was serious in what he wrote. According to this author the Garden of Eden was located on the lost continent of Atlantis. God created the white race in the garden. The black race was merely apes out of trees! Yes, the author was serious. So it is that whether race or tribe or whatever the group, to justify prejudice they are thought lesser human beings, if human at all.
One of the joys of my college experience was Saturday mornings playing with the children at a church sponsored children’s home. I don’t remember the year in my schooling, but I remember what happened. A few black students started going as well. One Saturday the superintendent of the home asked to speak with me and a couple other students. He told us that it was best that the black students stop coming. I do not remember what, if anything, we said to him. We were stunned. As a group we decided we were not going to tell our friends that they could no longer go to the children’s home with us. They continued to go. The children enjoyed them. The superintendent never said another word.
Recently I was speaking with a friend, a hospital chaplain. He is a young black man, in his late 40s. He was on his high school football team, a city high school, an integrated school. The team travelled to play a team in a small town. His team won the game. As their bus was leaving to go home, people came and started banging on the sides of the bus. “Go home niggers!” and other foul comments were yelled. It was frightening, he told me. This was thirty years ago.
A friend and brother in Christ, a black man, remarked concerning prejudice, whether white against black or black against white. “I don’t understand it. When I look at a man I don’t see black or white, I see a man.” This is the attitude often expressed by Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe this is the attitude to which we have been called in Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul spoke broadly of humankind as Jew and Gentile. Prejudices segregated them. When you read the apostle’s words quoted below, think not only of Jew and Gentile, but of all the prejudices by which humans segregate from each other, despise each other, and are hostile toward one another. Christ came to destroy the prejudices and hostility. Christ died on the cross to bring peace, to reconcile us together, and through this peace to reconcile us, together, to God. Christ died on the cross to unite people of every race, every nation, every tribe, to unite us together as one race, as one nation, as one tribe, as the people of God.
“For Christ himself is our peace, who has made the two one… His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility…. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:14-18).
“It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where humankind of every race, nation, and tribe stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.”