Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Reggie L. Williams)

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, Reggie L. Williams (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) 170 pages including extensive endnotes.

Through the years I have developed somewhat of a credo for my reading/education: I cannot learn anything from someone with whom I agree 100%. I may be encouraged, challenged, edified, reminded, or entertained, but very, very, rarely can I be educated. When I want to learn something, I must reach outside my circle of experience and understanding. In terms of fulfilling that credo, Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

I first came to meet Dr. Williams in a seminar hosted by Wheaton College on the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and culture in April, 2012. I was finishing up my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and much to my joy and everlasting gratitude, Fuller allowed me to create a guided study of the theology of Bonhoeffer. The professor assigned to guide me in this study was Dr. Glen Stassen who was a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller, and a devoted Bonhoeffer scholar. Dr. Williams completed his Ph.D. under Dr. Stassen, so in an academic sort of way there were a number of stars that were aligning themselves that would finally come together during this seminar.

Dr. Williams’ topic at the seminar was on the impact of the year Bonhoeffer spent in New York, 1930-31, and in particular, his exposure to the world of Black Christianity in Harlem. If you are interested in Bonhoeffer, you can read all the seminar’s lectures in the book, Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2013). If you want to be fully educated about Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, you need to read Williams’ complete exposition in this volume, listed above.

To be perfectly honest, reading this book was difficult for me. I am, to a very large extent, the product of the very protected and dominating white culture that Williams identifies in this book as the evil that Bonhoeffer witnessed in Harlem. Reading what Bonhoeffer witnessed during his year in New York was not pleasant. (Note: I had read Bonhoeffer’s account numerous times, but reading the same words through the eyes of Dr. Williams was enlightening – in a very disturbing sense. I had read Bonhoeffer’s words, but through Dr. Williams I actually felt them. It was, as I said, disturbing.)

To provide an exhaustive review of this book would require much more space than I typically aim for in these blog posts. Suffice it to say that Dr. Williams writes as an insider to the injustice Bonhoeffer identified in his work at Abyssinian. While this is truly an academic product, it is also a labor of love – and a gripping account of Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem. Williams provides a lucid explanation of the “Black Christ” to whom Bonhoeffer would have been exposed to in Harlem, the economic and cultural background of the Harlem Renaissance, and draws a clear line of contact between that experience and Bonhoeffer’s work with and for the hated Jewish community in Nazi Germany.

This book would be an extremely valuable purchase if you are interested in: Bonhoeffer and his life; Black theology and its impact not only on Bonhoeffer, but also later 20th century theology; racism, ethics, and/or the role of the gospel of Christ in confronting culture in any age. My only criticism of the book is that it tends to read in somewhat of a stilted manner, and not at all like the wonderful manner in which Dr. Williams speaks.

I actually was able to speak to Dr. Williams following his presentation at Wheaton. I was desperately seeking a topic for my dissertation, and somehow I managed to catch Dr. Williams when he was not the center of a huge group of people (NOT an easy task!) I explained my situation as hurriedly as I could, and to my great surprise and pleasure, Dr. Williams took a number of minutes to question me about what I had studied, what I was attempting to accomplish, and what ideas I already had. In about 15 minutes I felt an inviting warmth and welcome that touched me deeply. I know that experience has influenced my reception of Dr. Williams’ book – and so I want to stress again – this book identifies the racial divide that continues to trouble the Lord’s church. If you are unwilling, or unable, to look in the mirror and examine your own life in light of this reality, do not bother buying or reading this book. If you are willing, and if you can invest in the effort to examine your own ideological weaknesses, then I highly recommend this book.

Charlottesville, Racism, and a Chilling Prospect

Trigger alert: the following blog post contains some truths that may be difficult for little snowflakes to handle. If you cannot consider any opinions that differ from your rigid worldview, you might want to skip this one.

I’m sure the topic of the Charlottesville, VA riots were the topic of many sermon addresses this morning. I happened to think my thoughts on the book of Job were more appropriate for the moment, but that does not mean I do not have some thoughts on the events of the weekend. My reaction is threefold:

  1. ┬áThe rhetoric and the beliefs which underlie the white supremacist movement are vile, repugnant. That much is without question and every Christian of every ethnic background should be loud and clear in denouncing the “alt-right” movement, the KKK, and every other neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. I have been pleased that the response of virtually every Christian leader that I have seen has been uniform and unequivocal. There can be no quarter given in opposing this worldview.
  2. However, the most troubling response to me is the one I have NOT seen, not after this weekend nor for the past eight years. For these eight years, and largely with the complicity of the sitting president, there has been a racist movement that has rioted, looted, destroyed property, and ruined lives. Throughout these same eight years, I have been told that these racists are fully justified in their actions, that I should wring my hands in horror at the “injustice” they have be subject to, and that I share in the guilt of the nation simply because of the color of my skin. The very spiritual leaders that are (correctly) denouncing white supremacy were either stone cold silent as the rioters destroyed homes and businesses, or they symbolically joined in, trying to absolve themselves of the guilt of their “white advantage.”

Well, folks, racism is racism, no matter what the color or ethnic background of the racist. I am glad to see some preachers, editors, and other spiritual leaders denounce the “alt-right” and their ignorant minions, but their complicity and silence as the “BLM” movement terrorized large portions of a number of cities is deplorable. Why is the racism emanating from one race acceptable, if racism from another race is to be deplored?

3. Beyond the hypocrisy of an astounding number of individuals, there is another terrifying aspect to the events over the weekend. Many are calling for a ban on the freedom for certain groups to be able to speak. This is a chilling development, and if it is not opposed with the most vehement objections we can mark this point in history as the beginning of the end of the United States. I vehemently reject the hate and violence of the “alt-right,” the KKK and the BLM movements. But, as the classic saying goes, I must defend their right to speak (speak, not perpetrate violence) to my dying breath. If they do not have the right to speak their lies, how am I to be guaranteed that I can speak my truth to their lies?

It has already been proposed in many places that limits should be placed on “hate speech” that would include denouncing sexual perversion as a sin. If hate-mongers can be legally muzzled simply because we object to their tirades, what will prevent the prohibition of the preaching of biblical truth? The “slippery slope” argument is an argument that is fraught with danger, but there is another danger here that is real and profound. We must not, we cannot, prevent some idiot from speaking just because we think his words idiotic.

What would have happened this past weekend if those who disagreed with the white supremacists had simply moved to a different part of town and held a counter demonstration, replete with racial unity and a vehement, but peaceful, denunciation of the weirdos across town? But, no – hatred was met with hatred; violence was met with violence, and the world must wonder what ever happened to the great American dream.

As much as I do not want to hear them, I have to allow the bigots to have their say. But I do not have to listen. Let them march – and vacate the entire region around them. Let their words fall on empty streets and vacant buildings. Ignore them – but not their hate! Ignore their presence, but reject their ideology!

Christians must unite to condemn racism. All racism, no exceptions, no excuses.

[editor’s note: I had to correct the location of the riots – sorry, I have been a little distracted, and did not pay close attention to where the riots happened.]