“Do you think the white churches have had the most global influence among American churches?”
I hope that’s not the case.
And I’m not sure, “What church has had the most influence?” is all that helpful a question, anyway. It resonates in my head like the scene in Luke 22, when the disciples erupted into a debate about who was the greatest.
But it’s a question we ask and answer every time we neglect to tell some of America’s greatest spiritual stories. I can’t help but feel like the wonderful stories about the powerful influence of the Black Church are not told often or loudly enough. If they are, I have suffered self-imposed poverty by not hearing them as often as my heart needs.
Every month ought to be Black History month, in regards to our championing the Black Church’s positive influence on the world; to ghettoize any portion of shared history, our history, Christian history, to one month out of twelve is to perpetually hold history hostage as a minority. If we allow it, Black History month can be an act of violence against ourselves. I need to hear Black stories in March, April, May, and June as much as I need to hear them in February.
One such story is about a privileged white German aristocrat who could not find the gospel anywhere in America’s churches. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You may know him.
Bonhoeffer wrote about his time in America, “As along as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation of the Gospel, and that was delivered by a Negro.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1931)
Profane terminology aside, Bonhoeffer found in the Black Church what he could not find in the white megas of the 1930’s in New York City. “One cannot avoid the impression,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “they have forgotten what the real point [of church] is.”
Though Bonhoeffer studied with some of the great theological minds of his day in America (Reinhold Niebuhr, John Baillie, etc.), it was the Black Church in America that enlivened Bonhoeffer’s soul. I’ll close with the following description by Bonhoeffer of worship in the Black Church, and the crossroads he foresaw Christians in America standing, perhaps still standing today:
But it is clear that whenever the gospel itself really is mentioned, their participation peaks. Here one really could still hear someone talk in a Christian sense about sin and grace and the love of God and ultimate hope, albeit in a form different from that to which we are accustomed. In contrast to the often lecture like character of the “white” sermon, the “black Christ” is preached with captivating passion and vividness. Anyone who has heard and understood the Negro spirituals knows about the strange mixture of reserved melancholy and eruptive joy in the soul of the Negro. The Negro churches are proletarian churches, perhaps the only ones in all America. Admittedly, however, among the youth who see how Christian preaching made their fathers so meek in the face of their incomparably harsh fate, an element of opposition against such forms of religion is emerging, that is, against Christianity, and if this opposition ever spreads its might, then white America will have to take the blame that these black masses became godless. Here we are standing at a powerful crossroads.
Imani Perry of Princeton University recently wrote a provocative essay entitled “The Year of Black Memoir.” I pray this year would be another year, every month, full of Black stories—stories that resonate in my mind, my heart, and my soul.
It’s not an(other)’s history; it’s Bonhoeffer’s, it’s yours, it’s mine, it’s ours.
Other Bonhoeffer Resources:
- Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 10)
- Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought
- Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance
- Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power
- No Difference in the Fare: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Problem of Racism