Reggie Williams on Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus

Williams on Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus

Reggie Williams is an Assistant Professor of Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary, in Chicago, Illinois. His research consists of analysis of the intermingling of race and religion from the modern colonial period to the Harlem Renaissance. Particularly, Christology within the Harlem Renaissance literary movement yields evidence of a prophetic Christianity that can guide peaceful resistance of oppression. Williams’ book Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic, recently published by Baylor University Press, examines Bonhoeffer’s exposure to Christianity in the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s effect on Bonhoeffer’s Nazi resistance. He and his wife Stacy Williams are the parents of a son, Darion (15yrs), and a daughter, Simone (13yrs).

KW: How did your interest in this topic first develop?

RW: I first became interested in this topic while I was a PhD student of Glen Stassen’s. Glen argued that Christianity in America suffers from a problem of reducing the way of Jesus to thin principles (like personal responsibility, modesty, humility, etc…), which can be inserted into any ideology and turn Jesus into divine support for harmful ideologies. Glen saw that the slave trade in America did exactly that with Jesus, and whole traditions of Christianity in America continue to suffer from the effects of thinning Jesus down in order to see American race-based slavery as a legitimate Christian practice. That is an American injustice that we’ve not yet recovered from. But, there are other American traditions of Jesus that have not suffered from the need to make Jesus accommodate practices of domination. African American traditions of Jesus were born in the heat of domination, and tend to center on Jesus with more attention to concrete commandments (rather than abstract ideals) and social expectations. For Glen, Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem demonstrates the power of that historical reality; Jesus appropriated for domination and authoritarianism in Germany meeting Jesus identified with the marginalized and oppressed in Harlem, resulting in a transformative effect upon Bonhoeffer’s Christian identity. Glen introduced the story to me, and I took it from there.

KW: Can you compare/contrast Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and practice before and after his experience with black Christianity and the Harlem Renaissance?

RW: Years after his return from his time in Harlem, Bonhoeffer claimed that during his student years, (which scholars interpret as ending upon his return from New York in the summer of 1931) he wasn’t really a Christian, yet. In his words, he was arrogant, uninterested in the Bible, or in prayer. He didn’t attend church much, but in New York, he became a lay leader at Abyssinian Baptist Church. Upon his return to Germany, he continued to take church attendance very seriously, and he was now making use of the Bible, interpreting scripture as relevant for daily Christian living. Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer began talking about racism, and “ethnic pride” as sin. Bonhoeffer recognized the Nazi race language as the German equivalent of American white supremacy after Harlem where he learned that white supremacy is a Christian problem.

KW: Can you briefly summarize how you think this affected Bonhoeffer’s work against the Nazi regime in Germany?

RW: After New York, Bonhoeffer was familiar with an African American tradition of Jesus that associated Jesus with suffering humanity, rather than with the powerful and the elite. Within an African American Christian worldview, Christian faithfulness was re-calibrated for Bonhoeffer, from the perspective of the marginalized, in whom he came to recognize Jesus hidden in the world in suffering and shame. By positioning himself as a white German man, next to black Christians in America, Bonhoeffer was enabled to interrogate Christian identity and Christian faithfulness in a way that called into question his formation as a white man, and consequently in Germany, he was equipped to do the same self reflection as a German Aryan Christian in relationship to Jewish people.

KW: Why do you think this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s experience hasn’t been explored significantly before? 

RW: Well, first, I think matters like Harlem, race, black theology and church life have been an enigma for many white theologians. The theological implications of race are legion and they are perplexing. Second, only in recent years have Bonhoeffer scholars, in America and in Germany begun to give Bonhoeffer’s study time in Harlem any serious attention. Many years ago, one Bonhoeffer scholar by the name of Ruth Zerner wrote an article that claimed Harlem was influential for Bonhoeffer’s theological development. Bonhoeffer wrote to his best friend Eberhardt Bethge after he was imprisoned by the Nazis that he hadn’t changed much in his life except under the influence of his father’s personality, and after his first trip abroad. Zerner made a convincing case that he was referring to his trip to America as a post-doctoral student in 1930-31 when he mentioned his first trip abroad. Other scholars have begun to follow Zerner’s interpretive lead about Bonhoeffer’s transformative trip abroad, but they had to swim against the tide of opinion that was still arguing that Bonhoeffer was referring to an earlier trip to Rome and Africa that he took with an older brother. In all of this debate stands the difficulty of interpreting the impact of theology on our Christian identity, and Christian social interaction. Race is a complicating source of that interaction, and it has been missed precisely because it has not been respected or understood. Yet, we cannot really discern all that was going on with Bonhoeffer’s advocacy for the Jews in Germany without attention to the theological implications of race.

KW: Having studied Bonhoeffer so deeply, what do you think he would say about his rising popularity and exposure in America today?

RW: I’m sure Bonhoeffer would be shocked by his popularity. When the Nazi government arrested him in 1943, he was not a very popular person in Germany. The Confessing Church movement that had been his outlet of theological resistance to the Nazis was no longer in existence by the time of his arrest. Large numbers of the confessing church membership succumbed to Nazi demands that they show loyalty to the Nazi government by swearing allegiance to the Führer.  In that process Bonhoeffer was pushed out and to the margins of the community of his colleagues, nearly alone in his Christian opposition. Today many regard him as a hero, but in his day, he was just a young radical professor/pastor, struggling to encourage faithfulness to Christ among his colleagues. I’m sure he’d want the same faithfulness for Christians, today. I’m also sure that he’d be surprised by the many different interpretations of his radical Christian claims, and his international acclaim.

Bonhoeffer was not one who sought the limelight. He was instead one who preferred humble solidarity with other Christians within community. The urge to follow a charismatic leader was not one that he respected. Life within Christian community as the practice of submission to the will of God who is present in Christ, was Christianity for Bonhoeffer.

KW: What is your hope for those who read this book? Is there a practical application for everyday Christians?

RW: I read Bonhoeffer as one who helps us to ask important questions about Christian identity and identity formation. Our understanding of what it means to be human is tethered to notions of ideal humanity, religion and ideal community. These themes of ideal humanity and ideal community have calibrated Christianity to correspond with harmful ideologies that inform our collective understanding of race. Bonhoeffer helps us to interrogate the harmful connection between ideal humanity and ideal community as people who seek to live in the real world, in faithfulness to the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. We really cannot do theological education, or Christianity, well in America without paying attention to the formation of our identity as human and Christian. I hope that readers will see the kind of work that Bonhoeffer had to engage in order to advocate for people pushed to the margins of society by the dream of an ideal community.



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