Westmont Magazine Lamenting the Door of No Return
Reggie Williams ’95 is a Black social ethicist and ordained reverend at a Black church who studies how faith shapes human social conduct. In particular, he has explored the influence of the Black church on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian and author executed for his opposition to the Nazi regime. Reggie’s book, “Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance” (Baylor University Press, 2014), traces the influence of the Harlem Renaissance and Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church on Bonhoeffer, who spent a year doing post-doctoral work at Union Seminary in New York, 1930-31.
“Bonhoeffer remains the only prominent white theologian of the 20th century to speak about racism as a Christian problem,” Reggie says. He argues that Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the Black church during the Harlem Renaissance profoundly shaped his thinking and his subsequent opposition to Hitler. The Reich’s ideology and the German Christian movement depicted Jesus as a racially pure Aryan, risen to dominate. But in Harlem, Bonhoeffer met the suffering Christ who identifies with the oppressed, embraces justice as the work of God in the world and shuns the practice of authoritarianism and domination. This experience inspired Bonhoeffer to take faith in Christ seriously and informed his fight against Nazi atrocities when most Christians in Germany simply went along with Hitler.
In February, Reggie spoke in chapel as part of the Gaede Institute’s Conversation on the Liberal Arts “Still Dreaming: Race, Ethnicity, and Liberal Arts Education.” His talk, “Reading Bonhoeffer at the Door of No Return,” described the physical space Africans passed through on Ghana’s coast when they left their home as enslaved people. “The door is a metaphor to discuss the toxic ideology of human difference we know today as race,” Reggie says. Starting with Bonhoeffer and the Nazis, he worked backward and traced the origin of the racist ideology that killed the German pastor to the Door of No Return.
In 1935, Hitler promoted an ideal community populated with the right people and raised fears of savages reverse-colonizing Germany. His white supremacy developed from earlier concepts of human difference that legitimized domination and cruelty during European interactions with Africa. In 1885, 14 nations met at the Berlin Conference to divide Africa into colonial possessions, seeking to exploit the continent’s wealth and justifying their actions with propaganda about shouldering the burden of civilizing inferior African people. In fact, European greed and claims of African sub-humanity date back to the 17th century when millions of kidnapped people from Africa became cargo to be possessed.
“Consequently, Europeans developed and reinforced ideas of human difference with the force of academic rigor to justify the lucrative practice of slavery,” Reggie says. “We’re moral creatures, and we want to defend what we’re doing, especially when making so much money.” The tragic trend in the church that began with the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition reached its fullest expression in legitimizing slavery and white supremacy. Nazism simply embraced and promoted these long-held beliefs. Reggie found a stark symbol of the church’s complicity with this distorted ideology: an Anglican chapel on the west coast of Ghana literally sitting on top of a slave dungeon, the site of tremendous human suffering.
For Reggie, the door of no return symbolizes the moment “ideology was linked to the bodies of people of African descent to invent the superiority of whites and co-create Black inhumanity.” He draws a distinction between whiteness and white people. “The invention of whiteness is an act of violence, a process of organizing human life around an ascendant type,” Reggie says. “Racism is the manufacture and maintenance of systems and structures for whites only.”
Reggie is familiar with the impact of systemic racism on the lives of Black people. As a student at Westmont, he served as co-captain of the men’s basketball team, majored in religious studies and met his wife of 25 years, Stacy Williams ’95. After serving as a youth pastor and joining a professional basketball team in Australia, he returned to Westmont in 2001 and spent four years as the resident director in Ocean View. He established the college’s Black Student Union to support Black students and held its first meetings in his apartment.
While working at Westmont, he enrolled at Fuller Theological Seminary and Azusa Pacific University to study theology and college student affairs. As a master’s student he encountered people like him in an academic setting: Black scholars. The world of theology he knew had never looked like that. A Black professor, Rev. J. Alfred Smith, encouraged Reggie to enter a doctoral program. Inspired and empowered, he completed a Doctor of Philosophy in Christian ethics at Fuller.
Today Reggie serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, a predominantly Black institution. He publishes extensively and has three books in progress: “Interrogating Theological Anthropology in the Harlem Renaissance: The Figure of the Human as a Problem for Christian Ethics,” “Night Voices: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Problem of Christianity in the Third Reich” and “Commentary on Joshua and Judges.” In 2018, he launched McCormick’s Initiative for Incarnational Ethics to help articulate Christian ethics grounded in social justice and embodied encounters—and to connect his scholarly work to society through the local church.
The tragedy of the door of no return—creating human beings as white only and Black people as property—stubbornly persists. Police killings of unarmed Black people and the disproportionate number of people of color contracting and dying from COVID-19 present two recent examples. Rather than blaming inequity on the behaviors and decisions of Black people, Reggie points to pervasive structural factors: connecting insurance to jobs so the unemployed lack medical care; the absence of healthy food in Black urban neighborhoods that contributes to diabetes, hypertension and obesity; the history of trauma on Black bodies; inferior schools in Black areas; and race-based forms of state justice.
“Each of us has to come to terms with how whiteness has shaped us,” Reggie says. Bonhoeffer’s faith compelled him to act against Hitler. Reggie asks how our faith leads us to respond today.