In the midst of a very tough 2016 the book that most nourished my soul was Howard Thurman’s 100 page book published in 1949, Jesus and the Disinherited.
Whether it was desperate asylum seekers drowning by the boat load or a 7 year old girl pleading for the lives of Syrians from Aleppo, the brokenness of the world never felt nearer to me. The news from my passport country, America, regularly made me sick to my stomach. Instability and creeping fear in my home country became a new normal we are all adjusting to.
On a more personal level, I’ve walked with dear friends through some of the toughest situations I could imagine last year. Heard stories I’ll never forget. Marveled at the grace of God on display in their lives. Pleaded for Him to intervene.
Thurman wrote his book 68 years ago, but it felt incredibly relevant this year to read his words written to “those who stand with their backs against the wall.”
To understand this book you have to understand Mr. Thurman’s place standing between white cultural “Christianity” and black culture in 1940s America.
Mr. Thurman wrote from a time where Jim Crow laws institutionalized segregation, long after the official end of legalized slavery. Though black Americans were technically given voting rights in 1870, a host of discriminatory requirements would keep most African Americans from registering to vote until 1965 – 15 years after this book’s publication. Lynchings were still commonplace. Justice for black victims was slow or nonexistent.
One of the greatest indictments of this era was the way in which Christianity was used as a tool for white oppressors. The American South was at once the epicenter of slavery and the most “Christian” region of the country – a fact which should continue to horrify us today.
Mr. Thurman was caught between the cross winds of culturally dominant Christianity and the push-back from people of color.
In the first few pages Mr. Thurman recounts his conversation with a baffled Sri Lankan law college principal. As a Hindu, he couldn’t fathom how a black man could subscribe to a religion whose white adherents became slave traders – where there were incidents of Sunday worship being put on pause to form a lynch mob and murder a black man, after which the congregation came back to continue worship.
“I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth” (p5).
Thurman wrote, “I belong to a generation that finds very little that is meaningful or intelligent in the teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ. It is a generation largely in revolt because of the general impression that Christianity is essentially an other-worldly religion, having as its motto: ‘Take all the world, but give me Jesus.’ The desperate opposition to Christianity rests in the fact that it seems, in the last analysis, to be a betrayal of the Negro into the hands of his enemies by focusing his attention upon heaven, forgiveness, love and the like” (p19).
What does “the religion of Jesus” have to say into this context?
An interpretation of Jesus and his message
Thurman argues that understanding Jesus’ background as a poor Jew living within a minority group under dominant control is central to understanding the revolutionary character of Jesus’ insights.
“[Jesus] recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny” (p18).
Somewhat controversially, depending on your view of how Scriptural inspiration and human personality intersect, Thurman contrasts Jesus’ teaching with Paul’s writings.
Paul, he argues, though a Jew, belonged to a privileged class as a citizen of Rome. This sense of security was a background influence that led Paul to encourage slaves to obey their masters, and to say all government is ordained of God. His place in the world shaped the emphasis of his writings.
“It would be grossly misleading and inaccurate to say that there are not to be found in the Pauline letters utterances of a deeply different quality – utterances which reveal how his conception transcended all barriers of race and class and condition. But this other side is there, always available to those who wish to use the weight of the Christian message to oppress and humiliate their fellows” (p22).
This isn’t pure theory to Mr. Thurman. He recounts Paul’s letters being regularly preached to his own enslaved grandmother, with a repeated emphasis on “slaves, obey your masters,” such that this devout woman never allowed Thurman to read Paul’s letters to her.
“Unless one actually lives day by day without a sense of security, he cannot understand what worlds separated Jesus from Paul at this point” (p23).
Facing the giants of fear, deception, and hate
Thurman brilliantly speaks to both oppressor and oppressed through the central sections of his book. He explains fear, deception and hate as natural outcomes, while simultaneously pastoring his disinherited readers into freedom.
“It makes sense that fear becomes a way of life”, I can almost hear him saying, “that deception becomes a defense mechanism, and hate rises up. But I plead with you to throw them off – they’ll eat away your soul!”
As I read and re-read these chapters, I thought of friends who are Kurds – members of a homeless nation. I held in my mind the state of women around the world and the quiet desperation of many women I know personally. I thought of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and the bubbling over of racial tensions in a country claiming to be “post-racist.” I read aware of the global discussion around treatment of refugees.
There are too many insights for me to do them justice, so let me leave you with several quotes from Mr. Thurman, with a few of my thoughts thrown in.
“When the power and the tools of violence are on one side, the fact that there is no available and recognized protection from violence makes the resulting fear deeply terrifying” (p27).
“It ill behooves the man who is not forced to live in a ghetto to tell those who must how to transcend its limitations” (p45).
“Of course God cares for the grass of the field, which lives a day and is no more, or the sparrow that falls unnoticed by the wayside. He also holds the stars in their appointed places, leaves his mark in every living thing. And he cares for me! To be assured of this becomes the answer to the threat of violence – yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a man knows this, he is unconquerable from within and without” (p46). (I mulled this over for days, and prayed this truth, “He cares for me!” over my own life and that of my friends.)
“It is an ancient device that a man-dominated social order has forced upon women, even down to latest times. […] Much of the constant agitation for an equal-rights amendment to the Constitution grows out of recognition of the morally degrading aspects of deception and dishonesty that enter into the relationship between men and women” (p49).
“Unwavering sincerity says that man should always recognize the fact that he lives always in the presence of God, always under the divine scrutiny, and that there is no really significant living for a man, whatever may be his status, until he has turned and faced the divine scrutiny” (p61).
“In the presence of an overwhelming sincerity on the part of the disinherited, the dominant themselves are caught with no defense […] They are thrown back upon themselves for their rating” (p62). (All last year I pondered how to convince people of a truth they don’t want to hear. “Overwhelming sincerity” has become the guiding principle for me since.)
“During times of war hatred becomes quite respectable, even though it has to masquerade often under the guise of patriotism” (p64). (Oh the political commentary I could insert after this comment!)
“When hatred serves as a dimension of self-realization, the illusion of righteousness is easy to create. Often there are but thin lines between bitterness, hatred, self-realization, defiance, and righteous indignation” (p72).
“Jesus rejected hatred. It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength. It was not because he lacked the incentive. Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father” (p78).
The antidote: Love
[After recounting the story of the woman caught in adultery] “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” This is how Jesus demonstrated reverence for personality. He met the women where she was, and he treated her as if she were already where she now willed her to be. In dealing with her he ‘believed’ her into the fulfillment of her possibilities. He stirred her confidence into activity. He placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear” (p96). (This brings tears to my eyes. Oh to treat people this way! To love and stir confidence in people like Jesus!”)
“It is clear that before love can operate, there is the necessity for forgiveness of injury perpetuated against a person by a group. […] In Jesus’ insistence that we should forgive seventy times seven, there seems to be the assumption that forgiveness is mandatory for three reasons. First, God forgives us again and again for what we do… Second, no evil deed represents the full intent of the doer. Third, the evildoer does not go unpunished” (p98).
…and Mr. Thurman’s closing words:
“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.”