Dietrich Bonhoeffer was only twenty-one when he wrote Sanctorum Communio, a text hailed by Karl Barth as a theological miracle. And yet, perhaps because it was translated and printed much later than his other work, most students of Bonhoeffer miss out on this foundational work of ecclesiology. To simplify the miraculous: traditional ecclesiologies begin with the nature of the church according to Scripture or tradition and then turn to the church’s mission, but Bonhoeffer begins his “theological study of the sociology of the church” by constructing an anthropology and then articulating what a church is sociologically. He writes, “every concept of community is essentially related to a concept of person.” Working from sociality, then, Bonhoeffer presents the person as intrinsically social and known through “the other” and communities as “collective persons” that are social and ethical in character.[1]

What constitutes personhood in Sanctorum Communio is the actualization of spirit: a believer is embodied by Christ as his spirit is realized in him or her, and the church as a “collective person” actualizes Christ’s worldly presence—“Christ existing as church-community.”[2] Because our relationships with one another are part of our relating to God, “Every human You is an image of the divine You.” These concepts enabled Bonhoeffer to speak of sin socially and of salvation in terms of Stellvertretung (i.e., an empathic, vicarious representation), but only in Life Together, Bonhoeffer’s more popular “classic exploration of Christian community,” do these find concrete expression twelve years later.[3]

As Reggie Williams challenges us to consider in Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus,[4] it was during a one-year stay in Harlem, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, that Bonhoeffer encountered a community whose lives demanded this concreteness. In the close fellowship of a people seeking justice, he saw the need for an ecclesiology that struggled with the lived realities of its people, and so, at the start of Life Together, he calls the church to action and away from speculation: “We are not dealing with a concern of some private circles but with a mission entrusted to the church.” And in his chapter on community, he speaks in physical and spatial terms of living together under the Word, doing so in the midst of enemies, not taking for granted the presence of fellow Christians, and receiving the physical presence of others as grace and a source of joy. Later, he articulates the meaning of community which is in and through Jesus Christ: “It means, first, that a Christian needs others for the sake of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that from eternity we have been chosen in Jesus Christ, accepted in time, and united for eternity.” Christian community became for Bonhoeffer “not an ideal, but a divine reality,” “a spiritual and not a psychic reality.”[5] The church was no longer just conceptual; it was embodied with real human need and agency.

Life Together links the concepts of Sanctorum Communio to practices in community life because of the “applied Christianity” Bonhoeffer encountered in Harlem. In this phrasing, he was specifically referring to the many ministries through which Abyssinian Baptist Church served the needy. However, “applied Christianity” also became for Bonhoeffer a powerful oxymoron, exposing volumes about his prior notions of Christianity.[6] As he later realized in Germany, there is no such thing as unapplied Christianity. This is why Life Together calls the reader away from speculation and idealism, from “the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community.”[7] Stellvertretung and its relationship to the cross became the center of his theology, and the church became a cruciform community of co-sufferers who gather around one who is like them—in Harlem, a black Jesus.

If Bonhoeffer’s early ecclesiology is framed in terms of sociology, his year spent learning in Harlem reframes this with the language and care of social work. Thus, it is in Life Together that he writes, “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”[8]

As a child in Germany during WWI, the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer was heavily influenced by nationalism. When we consider how the Bonhoeffers’ family life had been devastated by the death of Dietrich’s older brother in the war,[9] we can perhaps better understand these excerpts from his lectures in Barcelona:

I will take up arms with the terrible knowledge of doing something horrible, and yet knowing I can do no other. I will defend my brother, my mother, my people, and yet I know that I can do so only by spilling blood; but love for my people will sanctify murder, will sanctify war . . . I will have to do to those enemies what my love and gratitude toward my own people commands me to do, the people into whom God bore me.[10]

Then, moving from ethics to ecclesiology, Bonhoeffer speaks of Germany as God’s chosen people:

Now, should a people experiencing God’s call in its own life, in its own youth, and in its own strength, should not such a people also be allowed to follow that call even if it disregards the lives of other people? God is the Lord of history; and if a people bends in humility to this holy will guiding history, then with God in its youth and strength it can overcome the weak and disheartened.[11]

This glimpse into the young Bonhoeffer and his vision for the German church is far from the hero we celebrate today. In his early career, Bonhoeffer believed that the German nation was special and privileged, destined by God to regain its lost glory. And in ways disturbingly similar to the patriotic faith of many Americans today, Bonhoeffer makes no distinction in these words between his church and nation—the spirit of his early ecclesiology was a desire to make Germany great again.

In Bonhoeffer’s early theology, the “weak and insignificant” are merely in the way. Until his encounter with that influential black church in Harlem, he could not see beyond his own nationalism. He was affected by what M. Shawn Copeland calls a “racially bias-induced horizon,”[12] bound to the “Europe-as-center mentality,”[13] until he saw the Christ of the oppressed. Christ and his church, Bonhoeffer discovered, were not in the middle but on the margins. As he wrote later in Life Together, “The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from everyday Christian life in community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; for in the poor sister or brother, Christ is knocking at the door.”[14] Through his experiences in Harlem—getting to know black people, seeing and hearing how they were marginalized (in both the northern and the southern states), serving as a Sunday school teacher there, and sitting under black leaders—Bonhoeffer’s early idealism was filled in by lived, sociohistorical realities.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany transformed, for through participation in the church at Harlem, he also discovered the Bible:

For the first time, I came to the Bible. That, too, is an awful thing to say. I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, had spoken and written about it—and yet I was not yet a Christian but rather in an utterly wild and uncontrolled fashion my own master. I do know that at the time I turned the cause of Jesus Christ into an advantage for myself, for my crazy vanity. . . . The Bible, especially the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from all this. Since then, everything has changed.[15]

As a black church taught Bonhoeffer to appreciate the Scripture, Christ’s call in the Sermon on the Mount intensified for him. And so, when he saw the disparity between the ethical teaching of Jesus and the later actions of the German churches, Bonhoeffer discerned with prophetic insight the shallowness of their religion. Scripture was not important for its own sake, he realized; it was central to the church because through it we know Christ and God in the form of the marginalized.[16]

Finally, one of the clearest and most overlooked differences between Communio and Life Together is in their form. The first work is a dissertation and the second is not, but Life Together is no less an ecclesiology. If anything, Life Together is a truer ecclesiology: informed by Harlem and Finkenwalde, articulated through remembered practice, and calling the church to greater faithfulness. Both works discuss the nature and mission of the church from within a particular tradition, but there is a grave urgency in Life Together that is missing in Sanctorum Communio: the rise of Hitler to power and his co-opting of the German churches tug insistently at the pages of Life Together.

Life Together presents readers with two powerful images of church: the family and the monastery, both of which are powerfully connected to his experiences in Harlem. First, Bonhoeffer was attracted to the sense of family he found at Abyssinian Baptist Church where many are referred to as “brother” or “sister.” His friends and former students testify to him continuing this practice at Finkenwalde, the underground seminary he formed in Nazi-controlled Germany in the 1930s.[17] The very title Life Together indicates a relational ecclesiology, a progression from the “communion of saints.”

Second, Bonhoeffer had grown disillusioned with German state churches and the universities that trained their pastors. Before his year at Finkenwalde, he wrote the following:

I no longer believe in the university, and never really have believed in it. . . . The entire training of young theologians belongs today in church, monastic-like schools in which the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship can be taken seriously which is really not the case with all three things at the university and, in present-day circumstances, is impossible.[18]

Bonhoeffer was not attempting to create something new; he was seeking a concrete way to obey Christ. For this reason he, like Benedict of Nursia, renounced the academy of his roots for a monastic model like the Benedictine abbeys he visited after Harlem,[19] abbeys that he visited after first seeing and experiencing the significance of Christian community in forming a vital, collective spirituality and in resisting disintegrating pressures from without.

This monastic turn is the key to the chapter divisions in Life Together: while the first chapter, “Community,” may be an updated and biblically saturated ecclesiology, the subsequent chapters come directly from monastic practice and were adapted by Bonhoeffer to address new challenges;[20] they contain instructions for silence, meditation, reading Scripture, and other monastic disciplines. Thus, in light of Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the race problem in America and to the dehumanization of the Jews in Germany, Life Together represents more than a pastoral restatement of Sanctorum Communio; like the Rule of St. Benedict, it is a liturgy or spirituality of renunciation, a rejection of the hoped-for political redemption that Bonhoeffer discovered to be inconsistent with Christ’s example. That year in Harlem shifted Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology from a desire for national redemption to an ecclesiology of resistance and an outright liturgy of renunciation. Indeed, when compared with Bonhoeffer’s own theological training, the Finkenwalde way was characterized by familial love, spiritual discipline, simple obedience, and radical Christ-centeredness. Bonhoeffer hoped that such training and the words he shared in Life Together would serve as an ecclesiology of resistance against the forces to which most German churches so easily succumbed, and this, he knew, would require a determined, communal, and sacrificial spirituality.

These ecclesiological developments—from conceptual to concrete, from the middle to the margins, and from redemption to renunciation—shed light on the impact of Harlem on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy. But they can also help us to participate more faithfully in God’s activity today. As a pastor who serves Filipino Americans in Chicago, I see a clear parallel between Bonhoeffer’s insights after Harlem and the needs of many of my fellow Filipinos.

Just as many southern blacks migrated to Harlem “hopeful and dreaming of a promised land” only to meet disappointment and despair,[21] countless Filipinos—and others, of course—are trying to survive migration, many leaving remote villages or bundok where opportunities are increasingly scarce in search of better jobs.[22] The English word boondocks comes from the Tagalog word bundok, which means “mountain” or, nowadays, any far-off place away from the city. What to Filipinos once meant “mountain,” something wild and strong, became to occupying US soldiers during the Spanish American War, the Philippine American War, and WWI, a boondock or something foreign and dangerous. It is today assumed that if a person is from the bundok, they are ignorant and uncivilized.

Wherever they go, these Filipino migrants tend to gravitate to local Christian churches so that Filipino churches and ministries are now common throughout the Middle East, East Asia, Western Europe, and North America. Their challenges as new arrivals are not entirely different from those faced by many of the people Bonhoeffer met in Harlem. As Williams notes about Abyssinian Baptist, almost every member of the church was related to a new labor migrant.[23] Their migration was great, and ours today is global.

I draw attention to this parallel because of the congregation in which I serve. Inspired by Bonhoeffer’s legacy, I once asked our leaders to consider how we might advocate for the undocumented in our community. That very next morning I received an e-mail from one of our members with an attachment, and in the attached document this message was written: “My husband and I are undocumented, and we were too ashamed to say so. But we will stay away for a week to give you space to make a decision.” I understood that the church member included this note in an attachment because she was concerned that her e-mail was not secure, and I was saddened that they needed to distance themselves while waiting for me to help our congregation navigate questions concerning their status. After all, they were part of the church, not by legal status but by our mutual faith, and it went beyond my role as pastor to decide whether they belonged. Perhaps we, without realizing it, had disordered the church around legality or even theological literacy, forgetting that Christian community is in and through Jesus Christ alone.

So what, if anything, can we learn from these Christians on the margins? Bonhoeffer shows us that we must see that God is present with us in those who are unlike us. From their willingness to migrate, we must learn to see Abrahamic faith. The “Prayer of Overseas Workers” reads: “I have to leave for the good of my family and loved ones. I have to leave to do God’s will.”[24] Yet these sisters and brothers remind us that the poverty and desperation of the marginalized cannot be God’s will. In their ability to adapt and practice Christian faith in new, foreign contexts, we can see the missional readiness of Paul who “became all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22 ESV). In their prayers for children back home, we can hear sincere songs like the Magnificat. In our solidarity with refugees and those in diaspora, we must remember that a wandering Aramean was our father and that even the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. A church where these people are welcomed will be a church where Christ is at home—“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35).

It is easy to assume that poor people from the bundok need to learn from us, but with Bonhoeffer we must become the students and family of those on the margins, including the growing number of unwanted who are already here. Our current global system calls for a migratory turn in our ecclesiology, removing the illusion of disconnection and receiving transnational responsibility for our political and economic commitments. Just as Bonhoeffer found Christ in his people on the margins, we must consider what God has for us if we encounter him there today.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 1, ed. Clifford J. Green (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), 34. Note that the praise from Barth can be found on the back cover of this edition.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, 190. The phrase “Christ existing as community” [Christus als Gemeinde existeriend] is noted as a refinement of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s concept of “God existing as community” in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Consummate Religion, ed. Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 3:331.

[3] Ibid., 55 and 145; the description of Life Together was the subtitle given by Harper and Row, publishers of the 1954 English version that is still in wide circulation today.

[4] Recent Bonhoeffer biographies have generally been attempts to synthesize specific aspects of the original, authoritative biographies by Eberhard Bethge in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, [1967] 2000) and his successor Ferdinand Schlingensiepen in Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906–1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (London: T&T Clark International, 2010). This is true of Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Random House, 2014), and Andrew Root’s Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014). Reggie Williams’s Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) is unique among these, introducing new material rather than relying mainly on Bethge’s work as others have.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 5, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2005), 26, 30, and 34.

[6] Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 38–39.

[7] Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, 33.

[8] Ibid., 38.

[9] Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906–1945, 13.

[10] Bonhoeffer, “Basic Questions of a Christian Ethic,” in The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Clifford J. Green and Michael P. DeJonge (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013), 85.

[11] Ibid., 86.

[12] Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 13.

[13] Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 38–39.

[14] Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, 46.

[15] Bonhoeffer, “Letter to Elisabeth Zinn,” January 27, 1936, in Theological Education Underground: 1935–1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 14 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013), 134.

[16] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009), 253.

[17] Martin Doblmeier, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Pacifist, Nazi Resister, dir. Martin Doblmeier (New York, NY: First Run Features, 2004), DVD.

[18] Bonhoeffer, “Letter to Erwin Sutz, London, September 11, 1934,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1995), 412.

[19] Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906–1945, 13.

[20] Subsequent chapters were titled “The Day Together,” “The Day Alone,” “Service,” and “Confession and the Lord’s Supper.”

[21] Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 87.

[22] Global economic forces have made people the greatest Philippine export—more than 2 million of them are living abroad as laborers, medical workers, and domestic helpers—and the Philippine economy has grown dependent on remittances sent from abroad. The money sent back to loved ones in the Philippines makes up almost 10 percent of the Philippine gross domestic product.

[23] Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, 88.

[24] Several versions and excerpts of this anonymously written prayer are posted and shared in Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) online support groups for Filipinos currently laboring in dozens of foreign countries. See “Prayer for Overseas Workers,”