Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Uncommon Friendships

Written by: on February 8, 2021

A theological prodigy who achieved his doctorate at the age of twenty-one, young Bonhoeffer found himself in a bit of holding pattern. To qualify for ordination in the Lutheran Church, he had to be twenty-five. To bide his time, he pursued lectureships and pastorates abroad. It was in these immersions into Barcelona and Rome that the portals of his imagination opened with regard to the ecumenical scale and redemptive reach of the church.

With a year left before ordination, Bonhoeffer received the Sloane Scholarship at Union Theological Seminary in New York. As a student who favored scholarship at the highest level he was uninspired at the idea of attending a U.S.-based institution.[1] Yet the classrooms of transformation that awaited him in New York City were not of the institutional sort. Instead, his ongoing conversion was to be located in the streets of Harlem. For it was there that Bonhoeffer was confronted with the false connection between imperialism and Christianity. It was from within the Harlem renaissance that he encountered a non-Aryan Jesus.[2]

His hunches were accurate with regard to the low standards of education offered at Union. The year was 1930 and it was a conflicted moment between conservative fundamentalists and the progressive movement. Put off by the rigid arrogance of conservative fundamentalism, Union preferred a more progressive approach to theology, ethics, and ecclesiology. Yet, according to Bonhoeffer, the cost of the progressive preference was the sacrificing of serious scholarship.[3] In his view, Union had turned its back on “genuine theology,” choosing instead to focus on political and economic issues.[4] According to Bonhoeffer, “they preach about everything, only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.”[5]

There was, however, one exception: “negro churches.”[6]

In relationship with a black student from Birmingham, AL named Frank Fisher, Bonhoeffer discovered Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. A Pentecostal church under the leadership of Dr. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Abyssinian Baptist would be the place where Bonhoeffer would discover a gospel liberated from imperialism and fused with the manifestations of the power of God that addressed social injustice.

Yet it was the classroom of intimate relationships with friends who lived a liberated theology while experiencing societal marginalization where Bonhoeffer was awakened to the parallels between the plight of the negro in America and the Jew in Germany. It was from within relationship with those occupied by imperial theology that he discovered the tendency of the white majority to vacillate between a “malignant apathy, on the one hand, and bitter acrimony, on the other.”[7] Relationships with a black worshipping community invited Bonhoeffer to encounter a non-Aryan “black Jesus” who suffered with the occupied and oppressed.

Relationship with those on the underside of power changed Bonhoeffer’s theology.

Here lies a critical lesson for dominant culture faith leaders in the contemporary United States. Our misunderstanding of the systemic injustices that plague our BIPOC relatives is not by happenstance. We have been groomed within a theological framework that places whiteness (and white patriarchy in particular) as the exemplar for what it means to bear the image of God. Ingrained within that theology is a superiority complex that trains us to both see and not see particular realities.

Because of the political and societal chaos of these past years and the lethal implications that are in plain view of all, many of us are beginning to notice what we’ve been trained not to see.  Our response, however, remains the same. We read. We listen. We grow smarter. We say something. We write statements and resolutions. We congratulate ourselves on our increased awareness. And we remain unchanged. As a result, both our theology and the unjust systems that are bolstered by it remain unchanged.

White leaders are not going to learn ourselves into restorative participation with God and others. We are not going to adjust our theology first and then live, love, and lead differently. While learning is important, the classrooms of relationship and experiences with and among those marginalized by imperial theology are, in my view, the only spaces where we discover sacrifice, learn to suffer, and, in so doing, discover the joy that we so desperately seek. It is in real relationship with those marginalized by our imperial theology that our theology is renovated.

So, perhaps we spend less time reading and more time immersing in uncommon friendships.


[1] Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 96.

[2] Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 5.

[3] Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 103.

[4] Ibid., 104.

[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 21.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

17 responses to “Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Uncommon Friendships”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    First, I’m curious does Bonhoffer utilize the term “imperial theology”? And did he begin to embrace “liberation theology” as a result of his time in Harlem?

    Second, I am stuck in the cycle of “learning and unchanging” you mentioned above. I struggle with the challenge you give: “It is in real relationship with those marginalized by our imperial theology that our theology is renovated.” Seminary helped to renovate my theology. Dr. Woodley was integral in that process. But as you know, Portland, and especially the suburbs, are predominantly white, affluent communities. What would you suggest for leaders who find themselves in areas/ministry contexts where “uncommon friendships” are difficult to come by?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Hi Darc.

      He did not use the term “imperial theology” but was becoming increasingly aware of the dangerous fusion of German nationalism and Christianity. His time in New York and observing the fusion of U.S. nationalism with Christianity and its implications on the black community seems to have reinforced the diagnoses he was making in Germany.

      It doesn’t seem that began to embrace “liberation” theology. Instead, he was embraced by those who had been liberated from the vestiges of imperial theology. From my view, this began his own journey of liberation.

      I, too, live in a predominantly white space. As of today, it’s among the most desirable cities for wealthy white folk. That said, I balk at the notion that this place (& yours) is not diverse. One just simply has to work harder to get proximate to non-white neighbors. I would argue that if pursuing uncommon friendships is a true value, we will do whatever it takes to find ourselves in the rooms where they can be initiated.

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        This: “he was embraced by those who had been liberated from the vestiges of imperial theology.” That’s a game changer, for sure.

        You are correct. The area I live in is more diverse than I realize at first glance. I’ll be praying God will lead the way in helping me foster “uncommon friendships.” Honestly, so much of my life is lived in my little town bubble, trying to just make it through my days, that the effort to step out of that bubble feels like too much. I know this is a growth edge for me, one I’ll be leaning into more intentionally. Grateful for the ways you model that intentionality.

        • Jer Swigart says:

          I’m interested to see how navigating into these spaces will be different in a post-pandemic world. One of my practices has always been to follow the ant trails in my contexts to where non-dominant culture is being created, commented on, and celebrated. Those ant trials have typically led to public gatherings where I sit in the back of the room and listen long and pursue relationships. I’m curious as to if there will be the same volume of public-gatherings in the future and how willing people of color will be to keep the door open to white folks whom they do not know. I’m hopeful that the doors will remain open and that we’ll accept the invitations to cross the thresholds.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    I think you are onto something about learning to walk in our theology through intimate relationships.
    Reading some of Bonhoeffer’s other books I am not so sure he the change was so much in his theology as much as it was in how he defined and practice it. I think of the sayings of Jesus on Matthews gospel. He announces he didn’t come to do away with the law but to fulfill it. (Matthew 5:17-20) In the process he spends a lot if time not rewriting but redefining what people were told the law meant. This is why we have the “you have heard but I say statements” in Matthews. Maybe this should be a good reminder that we don’t always understand things the way we think we do. Maybe this is the reason why Paul and John default to agape love?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks Greg.

      I would disagree with you. I do think that we see Bonhoeffer’s theology change. It had to in order for him to commit to ecumenical relationships, rebel against the pre-determined ecclesial authority structure, engage in civil disobedience, initiate an underground seminary that instructed young pastors in some un-Lutheran approaches to faithfulness, and, ultimately, to participate in a comprehensive plot to eliminate Hitler.

      My hope in writing on this topic is to open up our imaginations to a more spacious theology and theodicy. In my view, Paul’s musings were never intended to set the theological standards for what it meant to believe as a Christian. He was one person trying to work out the Jesus-way among communities of people who were embedded within the Roman Empire. Our role as followers of Jesus, in my view, is not to extrapolate our statements of faith from the writings of Paul (or Luther…or Calvin or….) and then spend the rest of our lives defending them. Instead, my sense is that we need to spend a bit more time with Peter’s experience in Acts 10 where we see God inviting an evolution…a change…in Peter’s theology. As you’ll recall, that shift in theology played out in Peter’s crossing a diverse threshold that sparked the movement of the gospel among the Gentiles.

      I’m grateful that our theological journey is an ever-evolving one and that the Spirit often inhabits uncommon friendships and unusual experiences in ways that necessarily impact our beliefs and behaviors.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    Thanks for your response. I would agree to that our journey in Christ is ever changing and that the Holy Spirit uses uncommon relationships to impacts our beliefs and our behaviors. For me it is my foundational beliefs and Pentecostal theology that aids me in finding meaning and understanding of these experiments and Gods purpose for my life during times of change.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Can you elaborate on how your “foundational beliefs” and “Pentecostal theology” aid you in finding meaning and understanding? Does that mean that what you are encountering needs to fit within a pre-existing framework or do you mean that both of these elements have generated flexibility for your theology to grow more spacious and behavior to extend more sacrificially?

      • Greg Reich says:

        We can see in history how Christian theology has evolved over time. Dominion by Holland shows this clearly. I am sure in 100 years some aspects of Christian theology will look very different. During that time much like the past changes will not come without push back and struggle. To answer your question For me it is a combination of both. Just as I use a recommended medical standard to gauge my health as a diabetic I use a standard to gauge my Christian walk. For me scripture is my guiding force so I do filter my thoughts and experiences through the Bible. Though I also have a theological view I do not feel the need to defend a specific Christian theology for the very reason views have changed over time. Arguing theology serves little purpose when sharing the gospel. I have friends of whom we disagree strongly on views of theology. Within my own family are differing theological views . They don’t cause division or strife. My experience has been that there is plenty of room and flexibility within theology for unity despite disagreements. I understand this has not been the case for others. So I don’t feel the need to abandon theology or my reliance on scripture in order to love the less fortunate and disenfranchised. I need to seek to understand a persons beliefs but I don’t feel I need to agree with someone or their beliefs in order to love them or be friends with them. I couldn’t be an effective Realtor or coach if I had to agree with all my clients belief systems, life style choices or political views.

        • Jer Swigart says:

          Thanks for interacting with this, Greg…and for the perspectives that you offer here. If you’re willing to dig a bit deeper with me, I’d be grateful.

          You say that you do have a theological view but don’t feel a need to defend a particular Christian theology. Would you consider your “theological view” a Christian theology worth defending or is your view more pliable and, thus, less in need of defense?

          • Greg Reich says:

            Sorry for confusion I am not choosing my words carefully. This format doesn’t allow for us to elaborate on our subtle nuances in terminology, personal word definitions and context meanings. I would say a better word to use in place of the word defend is argue.

            Bottom line: I am willing to die for my faith. I am also willing to die in defense of my family. In some cases I may also willing to kill for those I love. If I was living under Nazi rule like Bonhoeffer and was faced with the open genocide of the jewish people I would hope I would do exactly what Bonhoeffer did. When I traveled to parts of Indonesia and Malaysia I was prepared to die and defend my faith in ways I am not forced to in the US. I had some interesting debates over my faith and theology with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists but thankfully wasn’t given and over amount of trouble. In the context of a free religious society assuring all peoples right to believe what they believe I see little need to argue over religion. It serves little purpose to attack someone else’s beliefs. With my non-christian clients and business associates this is not a topic of discussion or an issue in our relationships. I respect there beliefs they respect mine. I have openly given a reason for my faith when needed without apology. One example would be; I had a client who was a property investor from India who happened to be a practicing Hindu. He asked me to lie to a seller and forgo some of the the sellers requests so I could present his offer without needing to preview the property. I refused, he asked why and I shared my Christian convictions and opinion. This was not the only time he attempted to ask me to do things that may have been borderline illegal and to me unethical. Each time I refused and I explained why. Each time we moved on. I have no doubt that if I had willing skirt the law for him he won’t have minded. I also have no doubt that if I had and things turned sour he would have exposed me. I didn’t defend or argue my position he either accepted it or he could fire me. We worked together for over 18 months until his real estate goals were accomplished. When it comes to deep theological discussions within the context of those in the Christian faith I have had very flexible discourse with multiple PHD’s on theological topics, as long as there is a environment of respect and honor. Never one time did I feel condemned or talked down to. They disagreed respectfully and we openly discussed opinions while seeking to understand. Sometimes my views are broadened and enhanced and sometimes we part and remained comrades.

  4. Dylan Branson says:

    There’s something to be said about stepping into another’s world – to learn to see the world through their eyes vs our own. To do this though, we have to have an open heart, humility, and curiosity.

    Last year, I became really good friends with a guy from Mongolia. He’s a fairly new believer and one day, a group of us were going hiking on a nearby island. It was the first time we’d really hung out together and we started talking about his life in Mongolia. He shared a lot about his on his dad’s side shamanism was a major aspect of their belief and how he had seen many dark spiritual forces manifesting in father’s life and in others’ lives in Mongolia. When he was sharing these parts of his story, I’m sure I was sitting there wide-eyed. These kinds of stories aren’t told in the small country Baptist churches of Kentucky haha. But in listening to understand, I felt my own perspective of “the unseen world” broadening.

    The same is true for a lot of friends I’ve made here in Hong Kong. Many of my friends here are people I never would have built relationships with back in the States. But taking that step into their lives, of leaning beyond my own experiences and not trying to force my own opinions has changed me.

    We’ll never know how people will change us unless we take the risk of building those relationships.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Spot on, D. And I imagine the same could be said of those who take the risks to build relationships with us. In some ways, while we were designed by community, in community, for community, every relationship is a bit of an uncommon friendship and a space with great potential for transformation.

  5. John McLarty says:

    I sense an urgency in your last few paragraphs. I agree that we’re more likely be truly transformed through relationships than through more education. But I do think there are things happening that may not be perceptible. I think there’s an aspect of transformation that includes reflection, thoughtfulness, experimentation, and adjustment. A “working out” of one’s salvation as it were. What words of encouragement have you for the one who is on the journey, but moving very slowly?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      You’re accurate in sensing my urgency…

      I appreciate your progression: reflection, thoughtfulness, experimentation, adjustment. Yet I wonder how many actually engage in this kind of work. To embark on such a pilgrimage requires commitment, community, and accountability. It’s a Philippians 2, downwardly mobile journey that is costly…perhaps too costly for we who have set in the seats of power for so long. The journey demands that we rebell against the individualism that we’ve been groomed within.

      My word of encouragement to someone who is on the journey and moving slowly is to find a white mentor who is further down the road to serve as a guide, a soundboard, a companion, and source of accountability. This will pave the way for the pilgrim to be ready to receive the gifts that that mentor and companion of color have to offer.

      • John McLarty says:

        And the dreaded, “yes, but” response… it’s one thing for a leader (or anyone for that matter) to take this journey of self-examination and transformation, seeking out the guidance of a mentor, diving into literature, etc. The problem, as you’ve shared in other places, is the loneliness of that journey when those around you can’t/won’t go there or even engage in a conversation. I know how there have been times in my own life when I feel like some greater truth had been revealed to me and how those around me ignored, even rejected, the very idea that something could be different, no matter how much better I knew it to be. Must be a small taste of what Jesus went through during his ministry- all that knowledge of God’s kingdom, all that desire for people to know it, and very few willing and able to accept the gift.

  6. Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, how are you engaging with Metaxes’s work given his posts and interactions online in 2020?

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