Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem had an extraordinary visitor for several
Sundays in 1930-31: a young German named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In Eric Metaxas’s
gripping biography of Bonhoeffer, he speculates that some of the church’s 14,000
congregants were born into the “horrid institution” of
Bonhoeffer, a budding theologian bent on living and experiencing
faith rather than theorizing about it, was not impressed by the intellectual and
spiritual laziness of his American peers at Union Theological Seminary in New
York. An exception was Albert Fisher, an African-American classmate at Union who
was assigned to Abyssinian.
Having grown “weary of the sermons in places
like Riverside,” Bonhoeffer eagerly joined Fisher at Abyssinian.
sought the radical experience inherent in the Christian life. Metaxas writes:
“There, in the socially downtrodden African American community, Bonhoeffer would
finally hear the gospel preached and see its power manifested.”
Bonhoeffer also observed the nascent civil rights movement taking
“[I]t really does seem to me that there is a real movement
forming,” Bonhoeffer would write to his brother in Germany.
joined Fisher on a trip to Washington, DC, where he was refused service on
account of his black companions.
His sojourn through the American South
made a “shameful impression”; he noted that it pleased him “when the whites had
to crowd into their railway cars while often only a single person was sitting in
the entire railway car for negroes.” He expressed his contempt for what he
witnessed in a letter to his brother, noting that the treatment of Jews in
Germany was “a joke by comparison.”
And so, as Metaxas notes, it may have
seemed at the time.
World War II would forever alter the fortunes of
blacks in America, much as it did for Jews in Europe. The former, who had served
dutifully despite segregation, now demanded equality; the latter, who had once
been integral parts of the public cultures of their nations, had lost over six
million in the Holocaust.
The Jews would find refuge in the State of
Israel; America’s blacks would alter America from within, but the movement they
began would not end there.
Watching blacks across the Atlantic breaking
social and political shackles nearly as dehumanizing as the literal shackles of
slavery, Catholics in Northern Ireland were inspired to begin a movement of
Religious discrimination in Northern Ireland was notorious and
unapologetic. Discriminatory practices had long existed in employment,
education, housing and even marriage.
Years later, the civil rights
movement in Northern Ireland has been largely successful.
Northern Ireland proved that the spirit of equality that had begun with racial
equality could extend to ending religious bigotry.
Another such movement
is needed today.
ACROSS THE Middle East, Christians presently find
themselves under attack. What was once religious discrimination in Iraq, Syria,
and Egypt has escalated in recent years into persecution. Iraq’s Christian
population, which numbered over a million just a few years ago, is today
approximately 400,000, following a campaign of eradication in the wake of the
2003 Gulf War.
Syria, once a haven for Christians fleeing Iraq, has seen
those Christians become a particular target for violent fundamentalists among
Syria’s rebel faction. And Egypt, where now al-Qaida is reportedly closely
linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has followed this pattern through systematic
violence against Christians.
The Middle East, torn apart by decades of
violence and oppression and struggling with its own internal human rights
issues, does not always tolerate free expressions of conscience or belief.
Neither did America half a century ago.
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a
Dream” speech, given 50 years ago this August on the steps of the Lincoln
Memorial, are a testament to human dignity with few parallels in the annals of
history. For King’s courage, he would become a martyr to the cause of equality
on a morning in April in 1968, among the great martyrs of that century, though
by no means the only one. On an April morning in 1945, as World War II, the
defining event of the 20th century, drew to a close, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was
stripped naked, led into a courtyard, and hanged by the Nazis for his role in
the German resistance.
The courage and conviction of men like King and
Bonhoeffer is not missing from the world today. From Asia to Africa, their
example continues to inspire many. In the Middle East, where human dignity often
finds itself under attack from fundamentalism and extremism, King and Bonhoeffer
offer a courageous example, one that is every day being followed by many
courageous men and women in the Middle East. It is an injustice that we do not
even know their names.
The writer served on the executive secretariat of
the US National Commission for UNESCO.