“Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws.”
This was the response of “First They Came” poem writer Martin Niemöller, to his cellmate, Leo Stein, when asked why he ever supported the Nazi Party. Niemöller was imprisoned by Nazis for eight years.
Engraving of poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller presented at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts. Niemöller joined other Lutheran and Protestant churchmen such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in founding the Confessional Church, a Protestant group that opposed the Nazification of the German Protestant churches.
I took a course with Dr. J. Alfred Smith, studying African American spirituality. Dr. Smith was the senior pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church, a singularly important black Baptist church located in a low-income neighborhood in Oakland, California. Smith would often tell the class, “African American spirituality is a spirituality that was born and shaped in the heat of oppression and suffering.” It included a tradition of Jesus that connected the dissonant strands of grief and hope in the experience of black people who trusted in God to make a way out of no way. “Blackness is a metaphor for suffering,” he told us, “To know blackness is to be connected to the suffering, hope, and purpose of black people.”
I saw a connection between interpretations of Jesus and social expectations within communities of worship, and my interest in the way our understanding of Jesus shapes the moral lives of Christians grew….
Dietrich Bonhoeffer championed a radical interpretation of Jesus and ethics that was validated by his resistance to the Nazis and his execution by them. He cultivated his ethical core, which led to his death, out of the his fervent desire to encounter a meaningful and truthful experience with Christian theology in the person of Jesus. That understanding and relationship developed from his year of study in New York City when he encountered the black Christ who suffered with African Americans in a white supremacist world. He took that identity of the black Christ with him when he returned to Nazi Germany. To most pastors involved in Germany’s Confessing Church resistance against the Nazi-sympathizing Deutsche-Christens, the German Christians movement, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was young, brilliant, and far too radical. Well before the overtly racist Nazi government in Germany initiated World War II, opened concentration camps, and mobilized Einsatzgruppen (mobile death squads) throughout Europe to kill six million innocent people whom they declared Untermenschen (subhuman), Bonhoeffer was unique in his insistence that Christians in Germany publicly and adamantly oppose Nazi race hatred. Only when it was too late to stop the juggernaut of evil that the Nazis became did his Christian colleagues in Germany realize that the radical Bonhoeffer was right. Well-educated pastors and theologians who understood themselves to be faithful Christians, loyal to family, church, and nation, became either silent bystanders or active participants in Nazi atrocities and completely missed what their professed faith in Christ required of them at that most crucial moment in world history.
~ Reggie L. Williams
Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus
Martin Niemöller was imprisoned by Nazis for eight years. For seven of those years, 1938 to 1945, he was interned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps.