During the week of March 18, the Office of Faith and Practice in cooperation with Campolo Scholars, Palmer Seminary and Templeton Honors College welcomed scholar and author Dr. Reggie Williams for three days of invigorating conversation. The conversations centered around Williams’ acclaimed book, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. Williams, who has degrees from Fuller Seminary and Westmont College and teaches Christian ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary, spent his doctorate studying the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian and pastor who was assassinated by the Nazis in 1945 for his political resistance to the Nazi party. Williams occupied his educational years by engaging his Black heritage and identity with his white professors and authors he was assigned. He is also an ordained minister in the Progressive National Baptist Church. Throughout his life, he has always asked, “what does the Gospel do on the ground? […] what is the lived implication of our faith?” which led him to his focus on Christian ethics — and to the study of one individual who was deeply aware of this faith-led “lived implication,” so much that he suffered death for them.
Bonhoeffer is widely hailed as a hero for his prophetic yet singular calls to social justice for the church in a time of mass suffering when most had given in to Nazi rhetoric or were too afraid to take action. Williams’ study of Bonhoeffer asks why this privileged German man was able to form and loudly espouse such necessary and Christlike insights into Christian discipleship and Christ-powered justice; Williams answers that it was Bonhoeffer’s time living in Harlem in 1930, while he attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City, that was essential for, in Bonhoeffer’s words, a shift from “the phraseological to the real.” It was Bonhoeffer’s time in and around the Black church and the Black community in Harlem that showed him how to resist injustice, advocate for the oppressed and live bravely in Christ amidst the ongoing threat of death enacted by the state. It was the picture of Black Jesus that Bonhoeffer learned to worship: non-racialized, non-specific, yet the face of every oppressed person who suffers by regimes of injustice — as Jesus of Nazareth himself was oppressed. Experiencing the vitality of the Black church and Black community in Harlem, Bonhoeffer was a changed man — converted to a theology of political resistance, and ready to return to Germany to decry that regime of injustice.
When asked about the concept of “white Jesus” — a view that whitewashes the historical Palestinian man from Nazareth in order to co-opt him and his words for the purposes of white supremacist Christians — Dr Williams asserted that the worship of “white Jesus” is in fact a modern christological heresy rooted in gnosticism. Making salvation accessible to only the supposedly enlightened people (white people), who then in turn attempt to gatekeep the true Christ for the unenlightened (people of color), the fabrication of “white Jesus” is a product of white supremacy. Dr Williams, however, wants us — regardless of race — to look to Black Jesus to identify, listen to, advocate for and love those who are oppressed: those who are marginalized and othered, all of whom Black Jesus represents. The concept of Black Jesus asserts that Jesus was truly oppressed — politically, socially, economically — and together with our modern, postcolonial understanding, the Black Jesus clarifies the real suffering of the Christian Savior from Scripture and turns our attention to the real suffering of the oppressed today.
When asked about how to understand Christians who oppress, enact harm, and adopt a “theology of the status quo,” Dr. Williams said that “in the U.S., we have Christianities, with many different narratives. […] Apathy [is one of those] Christian moral standard[s, … and] perpetrating suffering is a faith practice, a Christian practice.” He says that it’s “fact” that suffering is not only caused by some Christians, but that those Christians have a view of God and of Jesus that constructs for them an orthodoxy of oppression. To that, Dr. Williams asks us to examine our world with the question: “which Christianities are faithful to Black Jesus?,” i.e., which Christianities are faithful to a God who suffered as much as we do and who sees the oppressed of our day?
Lastly, Dr. Williams reminded us that “we are always becoming.” The three days he visited our campus were filled with engaging, thought-provoking and spirited conversation, with plenty to bring us forward into a new day for Christ and his people.