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. 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.
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. In his view, Union had turned its back on “genuine theology,” choosing instead to focus on political and economic issues. 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.”
There was, however, one exception: “negro churches.”
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.” 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.
 Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 96.
 Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 5.
 Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 103.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 105.
 Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 21.