I reviewed Howard Thurman’s stirring book, Jesus and the Disinherited, a couple of years ago (LINK). This is a book that Martin Luther King, Jr. carried with him during the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956). In fact, King and Thurman’s families had a long history together as they grew up in Atlanta. (Who Was Howard Thurman? – suggested reading!). In light of our current troubles in America, I decided to spend a little time with it again. I think it would be good if every American did – Christian or not.
The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall has always seemed to me to be crucial … Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion, and national origin?From the Preface
Howard reflects on the missionary zeal of Christianity. “There is a certain grandeur and nobility in administering to another’s need out of one’s fullness and plenty.” One of the subtle dangers of the missionary enterprise, though, is the temptation to look down upon those who are being helped.
The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?
Thurman patiently paints a picture of Jesus, layer by layer, to expose the religion of Christianity as it was birthed in the life and times of the Messiah. The fact that Jesus was a Jew, and more, a poor Jew. “The economic predicament with which he was identified in birth placed him initially with the great mass of men on the earth. The masses of the people are poor. …Jesus was a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group.” Here all wealthy Christians should pause and consider Jesus as He is presented in the New Testament setting of His life. Perhaps we all imagine Jesus to be just like us. If you are white, wealthy, comfortable … do you see Jesus as the same? Thurman wants us to see that Jesus does identify with the masses of humanity – indeed every human being. But he does not live among the powerful and influential.
As a Jew under the power of Rome, he is never far from the question of attitude toward Rome. “No Jewish person of the period could deal with the question of his practical life, his vocation, his place in society, until first he had settled deep within himself this critical issue.” The Jew could simply give up his Jewishness and fall into the position of imitation of Rome and hope that there can be some peace in that. Or he could live in nonresistance and just isolate from the enemy as much as is possible, keeping “one’s resentment under rigid control and censorship.” Another alternative is to take up arms and resist the imperial power.
Armed resistance is apt to be a tragic last resort in the life of the disinherited. Armed resistance has an appeal because it proves a form of expression, of activity, that releases tension and frees the oppressed from a disintegrating sense of complete impotency and helplessness.
Jesus, however, seems to offer a third alternative.
The solution which Jesus found for himself and for Israel, as they faced the hostility from the Greco-Roman world, becomes the word and the work of redemption for all the cast-down people in every generation and in every age. … Whenever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over him.
Thurman compares the privileged position of Paul and the impoverished social position of Jesus. Paul was a Jew, but he was also a citizen of Rome. There was a security that Paul enjoyed that Jesus did not. Thurman makes his case that, using his language, American Negroes can find some identity in the impoverished life of Jesus and learn from his manner of survival in his context.
The Negro has felt, with some justification, that the peace officer of the community provides no defense against the offending or offensive white man; and for an entirely different set of reasons the peace officer gives no protection against the offending Negro. Thus the Negro feels that he must be prepared at a moments notice, to protect his own life and take the consequence therefor. … Living in a climate of deep insecurity, Jesus, faced with so narrow a margin of civil guarantees, had to find some other basis upon which to establish a sense of well-being. … Deep from within that order he projected a dream, the logic of which would give to all the needful security. There would be room for all, and no man would be a threat to his brother. ‘The kingdom of God is within.’ ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.’
I find this portrait of Jesus to be true to the Scriptures, and it reminds me to be true to Jesus in how I relate to my fellow human beings. Thurman then turns his attention to the shades of experience the African American (a term he did not use) has, and how the teachings of the poor and disinherited Jesus lifts the heart.
Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited…. it arises out of the sense of isolation and helplessness in the face of the varied dimensions of violence to which the underprivileged are exposed.
One expression of fear is the existence of segregation in society. “It is obvious that segregation can be established only between two groups that are unequal in power and control. … All over the world, wherever ghettos are found, the same basic elements appear – a fact which dramatizes the position of weakness and give the widest possible range to the policing effect of fear generated by the threat of violence. “
Thurman points to the teachings of Jesus that relate to finding a sense of self and security in the awareness of being a child of God. He shares the memory of his grandmother’s encouragements as she recounted the teachings of a certain slave minister who taught in secret religious meetings. She quoted him, “You – you are not niggers. you – you are not slaves. You are God’s children.” He says, “This established for them the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth could absorb the fear reaction. … A man’s conviction that he is God’s child automatically tends to shift the basis of his relationship with all his fellows.”
The discussion of this chapter turns to children and growing up in oppressive and impoverished circumstances. To know that one belongs to God and to know that God cares for every individual empowers one to live without fear. Howard tells of being a small boy when Haley’s comet would pass near the earth. He asked his mother what would happen to them if the comet fell out of the sky. She replied, “Nothing will happen to us, Howard; God will take care of us.” He reflects…
Many things I have seen since that night. Times without number I have learned that life is hard, as hard as crucible steel; but as the years have unfolded, the majestic power of my mother’s glowing words has come back again and again, beating out its rhythmic chant in my own spirit. here are the faith and awareness that overcome fear and transform it into the power to strive, to achieve, and not to yield.
Chapters on Deception and Hate contain such wisdom and reflection that I cannot convey here. The final chapter is on Love … and it is profound. Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies is firmly set in his own context. For Jesus to love the Roman, the ruler, was to be regarded as a traitor to his own people (and by association, to God). The implications of loving all people are evident to all.
There is great intimacy between whites and Negroes, but it is usually between servant and served, between employer and employee. Once the status of each is frozen or fixed, contacts are merely truces between enemies – a kind of armistice for purposes of economic security. … It is necessary, therefore, for the privileged and the underprivileged to work on the common environment for the purpose of providing normal experiences of fellowship. … The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value.
Thurman is focused on Christians, and here he bears down on the church. Rightly so.
…American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption. Churches have been established for the underprivileged, for the weak, for the poor, on the theory that they prefer to be among themselves. Churches have been established for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Korean, the Mexican, the Filipino, the Italian, and the Negro, with the same theory in mind. The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established – in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth, or the like – this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers.
Love is, of course, the answer to the struggles. But it is not simple nor easy.
The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of men which is committed to overcoming the world. It is universal, knowing no age, no race, no culture, and no condition of men. For the privileged and underprivileged alike, if the individual puts at the disposal of the Spirit the needful dedication and discipline, he can live effectively in the chaos of the present the high destiny of a son of God.
A Few Concluding Thoughts
In this week, following significant unjust deaths of African Americans at the hands of those we all should be able to trust, our confidence is shaken. Reactions to these horrendous actions have been extreme. Howard Thurman wrote in a time of civil unrest and similar racial tensions. His language is not contemporary, but his concerns are very much so. As a Christian, he seeks to find answers in Jesus and his teachings. He points us to the culture and time of Jesus in such a way that the poor and disinherited will identify with Him. He warmly understands the reactions of fear, hypocrisy, and hate – but shows how Jesus’ way of responding to those can bring about the highest good characterized by love. This is the message that should also resonate today. It is not going to come from our world leaders, but must spring up from the ground level of individual Christians. It is a call to Christians to stop placing their security and hope in a powerful person, but to look to the impoverished and disinherited Jesus for strength. No one ever influenced human life on earth more than Jesus of Nazareth. That is not going to change.
No one ever influenced human life on earth more than Jesus of Nazareth. That is not going to change.
This is a long post, so if you read it all – thank you. Pick up a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited and spend some time with it. Your world will be a better place.