In a previous post, I began wading into Howard Thurman’s 1949 masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman’s distilled wisdom came as a clarion call, emerging into a world that mostly refused to listen. Many years later, his wisdom still needs to be heard.
It seems unfathomable that racism and segregation could have been kept alive for so long among professing Christians. This book benefited me by providing a lens through which I could see how racism was perpetuated through the twentieth century as the segregated decades passed. Thurman writes on page 33: “Most of the accepted social behavior-patterns assume segregation to be normal—if normal, then correct; if correct, then moral; if moral, then religious. Religion is thus made a defender and guarantor of the presumptions.” His words are a reminder that the process of self-examination and purifying is never complete but is always in process. In my own spiritual life, this is a helpful reminder.
Picking up where I left off in my first post, I now want to draw attention to the “three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited”: fear, deception, and hatred. Thurman points to Jesus, who demonstrates that fear, deception, and hatred do not have any claim on his followers.
Fear. Thurman details and illustrates how, eventually, the mere threat of reprisal is all it takes to control those who choose to live in fear. When we are threatened, we learn to fear. If we live with that constant sense of fear, we cower and become a shell of ourselves as we seek to preserve our lives at all costs. Living with fear for too long erodes our sense of who we are and does not end up saving us from oppression.
Deception. Dealing in deception, hypocrisy is a path that many oppressed people choose to follow. It is a way to appear to go along with the dominant force and undermine it at the same time. Deception continues the disintegration of the deceiver: “Whatever moral sensitivity to the situation was present at some stage in the life of the individual has long since been atrophied, due to betrayal, suffering, or frustration” (p.58). Hypocrisy diminishes anyone who chooses it.
Hatred. One of the first protections we have against the world is to hate those who hurt us. But hate is a strong emotion, and it is dangerous. When we feed the fires of our hate, we end up losing our capacity to love. And hate knows no bounds; it spreads like a fire.
Thurman makes it very clear that it is not reasonable to assume that Jesus had no understanding of hatred. He counsels the reader that Jesus said so much to eliminate hatred from the hearts of his followers because he knew that it would damage us, quickly raging out of control once it takes possession of us.
Anyone involved in creative work would do well to pause and consider Thurman’s assessment: “Above and beyond all else it must be borne in mind that hatred tends to dry up the springs of creative thought in the life of the hater, so that his resourcefulness becomes completely focused on the negative aspects of his environment. The urgent needs of the personality for creative expression are starved to death” (p.77).
Is there a better way? Thurman puts forth the love Jesus preached and modeled as the path forward for all those who live with their backs against the wall. As he points to and reveals Jesus, a sense of uplift runs as a strong undercurrent throughout the book.
Despite the evils and difficulties he seeks to overcome, Thurman can share his insight because he has his finger on the pulse of a process he has witnessed firsthand: “The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again” (p.39). This statement impressed me as a wonderful, confident challenge that Thurman was laying down for one and all to take up and examine, with the promise that his experience vouched for its truthfulness.
To think that he could write such a statement in the time in which he lived moves me as I think of how many people it must have encouraged. On the other hand, it grieves me as I consider how violently these kinds of thoughts were rejected, and how his prophetic book went unread or unheeded by those who would not see beyond the segregated vision with which they interpreted the world and the religion of Jesus.
I consider all that had not yet happened in 1949. Thurman’s book came out:
- 5 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision;
- 6 years before the arrest of Rosa Parks at a bus stop in Montgomery, AL (I stopped there about a decade ago, and tried to imagine the world in 1955—a world that would arrest someone who ceaselessly served a wide diversity of people in her community);
- 6 years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott (led by a young Martin Luther King, Jr.);
- 7 years before the shameful Mansfield, TX school desegregation incident in 1956;
- and 8 years before the world would know the Little Rock Nine.
Then and now, we will always need Thurman’s emphasis on how much God cares for us. He writes that “to the degree to which a man knows” that he is loved and cared for by God “he is unconquerable from within and without” (p.46). Thurman hoped to anchor this deep in the hearts of the oppressed of his own people in his own generation. It is still a wonderful insight for spiritual formation, since it underscores the life-giving blessings of the teaching and ministry of Jesus.
It is fitting that his greatest chapter would be the one about love. Reading his thoughts about love and how every man is potentially every other man’s neighbor (p.79) is inspirational. As he discussed different kinds of enemies (and what it means to love our enemies) I reflected upon how he must have diligently and painstakingly practiced what he preached. In this way, Thurman became part of my “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) pointing me to a reality of a richer experience of walking with God, nurturing in me a greater desire to try to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me, as Jesus teaches.
His visionary statement needs to lodge in our hearts: “Each person meets the other where he is and there treats him as if he were where he ought to be. Here we emerge into an area where love operates, revealing a universal characteristic unbounded by special or limited circumstances” (p.94).
His thoughts on forgiveness are so needed. It is painfully true that “at the moment of injury or in the slow burning fires of resentment it is poor comfort” that God says vengeance is his and that he will repay. Many of us need the hope that Thurman offers in his reminder that it is in God that we find forgiveness and the ability to forgive: “this is the ultimate ground in which finally a profound, unrelieved injury is absorbed” (p.98).
I plan to re-read Thurman’s book regularly over the course of my life in preaching. I believe I will be well-served in going back to it for greater insight through the years. In a time of racial tensions and the need for greater love and unity, it has been helpful to me this year. As I seek to have my spiritual instincts and reflexes honed by the Sermon on the Mount, and by the model and message of Jesus, Thurman provides an assist with his powerful wisdom. And for that I will always be grateful.