Howard Thurman’s profound masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited, was first put on my radar early in 2018 by one of my teachers, Dr. Jerry Taylor. Dr. Taylor is the founding director of the Carl Spain Center on Race Relations and Spiritual Action. I was fortunate to take his course “Preaching in Contemporary Contexts” (through Abilene Christian University’s Doctor of Ministry program).
In this post and the one to follow (adapted from a perspective paper I wrote for Dr. Taylor), I will share the impact Thurman made on me. I have come to appreciate the wisdom in this book even more in 2020 as we struggle against racism and seek to faithfully follow Jesus.
Thurman’s insightful book strikes at the heart of what Jesus has to say to those whose backs are against the wall. Thurman is a writer of unusual ability, and his hard-won and deeply distilled wisdom is evident in every chapter of his powerful book.
I do not have the words to adequately express what a gift Howard Thurman’s book was to my heart and to my ministry. I’ve been an avid reader for most of my life, reading an average of around 50 books per year for more than 20 years now. This is one of the very best books I have ever read. I am in awe of Thurman’s insight. He writes in such a concise way, with no wasted words (my copy clocked in at 102 pages). There is wisdom pulsating on every page.
The fact that he could write this book with such a spirit of Christ in him and with such a prophetic word of clarity for his world (and even for ours today) is truly remarkable. It is an astounding achievement. I will have to limit myself and pass over many gems in this book, but I will focus on a few of the highlights that meant the most to me in my personal spiritual formation and preaching.
First published in 1949, Jesus and the Disinherited explores the question of racism among powerful, white Christians in America: is it evidence of a failure inherent in the teaching of Jesus? Or, is it a failure of following the essence of the teachings of Jesus among white Christians? If Christianity has failed, then the white man has nothing to offer the African-American people except bigotry and a flawed, misguided religion.
Thurman says it is not a flaw in the teachings of Jesus. Far from it! Jesus identifies with the poor and the disenfranchised. His model and his message have much to offer those whose backs are against the wall, in any and every age, for Jesus lived and died among an oppressed people.
Thurman points out that it is not a religion that only offers eternal bliss while ignoring the pain of the present. Jesus has much to offer those whose pain is palpable. He offers real world strategies that penetrate the soil of the heart and permeate the soul with the dignity that comes from knowing one is a person made in the image of a God who loves them.
Thurman’s interpretation of Jesus is powerful. He writes on page 3, “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited.” By examining Jesus, born a poor Jew and a member of a minority group being dominated by the Romans, Thurman is able, with laser focus, to point to the significance of how that positions Jesus to stand in solidarity with the masses of men throughout history.
On page 6, he eloquently (and somewhat wistfully) asks, “What might have happened if Jesus, so perfect a flower from the brooding spirit of God in the soul of Israel, had been permitted to remain where his roots would have been fed by the distilled elements accumulated from Israel’s wrestling with God! The thought is staggering.” The book is full of profound comments such as this one, words calling out for deeper reflection.
Thurman writes that the message of Jesus “focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people…Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual” (p.11). In contrast to the way of Herod and the way of the Sadducees (and the opposite extreme of the path chosen by the Zealots), Jesus presented a kingdom alternative. In this context, Thurman points to the humility of Jesus and concludes that “the basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed” (p.18).
One of the greatest moments for me personally is found in this part of the book, as Thurman brings in the insights of Vladimir Simkhovitch from his book Toward the Understanding of Jesus. Thurman applauds Simkhovitch’s “profound contribution to the understanding of the psychology of Jesus. He reminds us that Jesus expressed his alternative in a ‘brief formula—The Kingdom of Heaven is in us'” (p.17).
Thurman quotes Simkhovitch pointing out that Jesus would understand the deep resentment among his people, reeling from:
the loss of Jewish national independence and the aggression of Rome…Natural humiliation was hurting and burning. The balm for that burning humiliation was humility. For humility cannot be humiliated…Thus he asked his people to learn from him, “For I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Reading this section, I was both amazed and humbled. It strikes at the heart of identity. Jesus knew who he was. No humiliation could downgrade his dignity. Nothing could deal a blow to his identity in any way, because it did not need to be defended.
As followers of Jesus today, our identity is secure, given to us by God in Christ. We are sons and daughters of the kingdom. As 1 John 3:1 says, “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him” (NLT). We can rest and trust in our identity, even if we cannot expect the world to see us through the eyes of God. Humility cannot be humiliated.
In my next post, I’ll conclude this look at Thurman’s book, beginning with his discussion of the “three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited” (fear, deception, and hatred).