Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited. Beacon Press, 1976. (102 pages)
…this richly endowed, seminal work (vii) can be more accurately and helpfully described as a profound quest for a liberating spirituality, a way of exploring and experiencing those crucial life points where personal and societal transformation are creatively joined. … Ultimately his goal was to offer this humanizing combination as the basis for an emancipatory way of being, moving toward a fundamentally unchained life that is available to all the women and men everywhere who hunger and thirst for righteousness, especially those “who stand with their backs against the wall.” (viii)
In essence he was surveying the world of the oppressed and asking how it might be possible for human beings to endure the terrible pressures of the dominating world without losing their humanity, without forfeiting their souls. (viii)
And there was never any doubt in his mind that the life and teachings of Jesus, “the poor Jew” of Nazareth, the disinherited, threatened subject of Roman power, were especially relevant to the ever-present contingent of Black men and women who lined the serrated cutting surfaces of the wall called America. (ix)
A profound piece of surgery has to take place in the very psyche of the disinherited before the great claim of the religion of Jesus can be presented. The great stretches of barren places in the soul must be revitalized, brought to life, before they can be challenged.
Shall we gather at the wall?
This is the question which individuals and groups who live in our land always under the threat of profound social and psychological displacement face: 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? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself? The question is searching, for the dramatic demonstration of the impotency of Christianity in dealing with the issue is underscored by its apparent inability to cope with it within its own fellowship. (xix)
I do not pretend that I have found an answer in the pages that follow; but I am deeply convinced that in the general area of inquiry is to be found the answer without which there can be little hope that men may find in Christianity the fulfillment which it claims for its gospel. (xx)
I. JESUS-AN INTERPRETATION
To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail (1)
…a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering … has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples. (2)
It is exceedingly difficult to hold oneself free from a certain contempt for those whose predicament makes moral appeal for defense and succor. (2)
It has long been a matter of serious moment that for decades we have studied the various peoples of the world and those who live as our neighbors as objects of missionary endeavor and enterprise without being at all willing to treat them either as brothers or as human beings. (3)
It is urgent that my meaning be crystal clear. 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? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life. (3)
We drank our coffee in silence. After the service had been removed, he said to me, “What are you doing over here? I know what the newspapers say about a pilgrimage of friendship and the rest, but that is not my question. What are you doing over here? This is what I mean?
More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the western coast of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians. One of your famous Christian hymn writers, Sir John Newton, made his money from the sale of slaves to the New World. He is the man who wrote ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds’ and ‘Amazing Grace’–there may be others, but these are the only ones I know. The name of one of the famous British slave vessels was ‘Jesus.’
The men who bought the slaves were Christians. Christian ministers, quoting the Christian apostle Paul, gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery. Some seventy years or more ago you were freed by a man who was not a professing Christian, but was rather the spearhead of certain political, social, and economic forces, the significance of which he himself did not understand. During all the period since then you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. Even in the church, I understand, there is segregation. One of my students who went to your country sent me a clipping telling about a Christian church in which the regular Sunday worship was interrupted so that many could join a mob against one of your fellows. When he had been caught and done to death, they came back to resume their worship of their Christian God.
I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. 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. I am wondering what you, and intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.
The clue to my own discussion with this probing, honest, sympathetic Hindu is found in my interpretation of the meaning of the religion of Jesus. (5)
Jesus was a Jew. The miracle of the Jewish people is almost as breath-taking as the miracle of Jesus. (5)
The second important fact for our consideration is that Jesus was a poor Jew. (7)
The third fact is that Jesus was a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group. (8)
A word of caution is urgent at this point. To place Jesus against the background of his time is by no means sufficient to explain him. Who can explain a (8) spiritual genius–or any kind of genius, for that matter? (9)
Jesus inherited the same traits as countless other Jews of his time; he grew up in the same society; and yet he was Jesus, and the others were not. Uniqueness always escapes us as we undertake an analysis of character. (9)
In the midst of this psychological climate Jesus began his teaching and his ministry. His words were directed to the House of Israel, a minority within the Greco-Roman world, smarting under the loss of status, freedom, and autonomy, haunted by the dream of the restoration of a lost glory and a former greatness. His message focused on the urgency o a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them. “To revile because one has been reviled–this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself.” Jesus saw this with almighty clarity. Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual. With increasing insight and startling accuracy he placed his finger on the “inward center” as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people. (11)
It was this kind of atmosphere that characterized the life of the Jewish community when Jesus was a youth in Palestine. The urgent question was what must be the attitude toward Rome. Was any attitude possible that would e morally tolerable and at the same time preserve a basic self-esteem–without which life could not possibly have any meaning? … 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. (12)
| This is the position of the disinherited in every age. What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social, and economic life? (12)
In the main, there were two alternatives faced by the Jewish minority of which Jesus was a part. Simply stated, these were to resist or not to resist. But each of these alternatives has within it secondary alternatives. (13)
Under the general plan of nonresistance one may take the position of imitation. The aim of such an attitude is to assimilate the culture and the social behavior-pattern of the dominant group. It is the profound capitulation to the powerful, because it means the yielding of oneself to that which, deep within, one recognizes as being unworthy. It makes for a strategic loss of self-respect. The aim is to reduce all outer or external signs of difference to zero, so that there shall be no ostensible cause for active violence or opposition. Under some circumstances it may involve a repudiation of one’s heritage, one’s customs, one’s faith. Accurate imitation until the façade of complete assimilation is securely placed and the antagonism of difference dissolved–such is the function of this secondary alternative within the broader alternative of nonresistance. Herod was an excellent example of this solution. (13)
The other alternative in the nonresistance pattern is to reduce contact with the enemy to a minimum. It is the attitude of cultural isolation in the midst of a rejected culture. Cunning the mood may be–one of bitterness and hatred, but also one of deep, calculating fear. To take up active resistance would be foolhardy, for a thousand reasons. The only way out is to keep one’s resentment under rigid control and censorship. (14)
The other major alternative is resistance. … For the purposes of our discussion resistance is defined as the physical, overt expression of an inner attitude. Resistance in this sense finds its most dramatic manifestation in force of arms. (15)
Jesus had to resent deeply 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.” – Simkhovitch, Toward the Understanding of Jesus, pp. 60-61
It seems clear that Jesus understood the anatomy of the relationship between his people and the Romans, and he interpreted that relationship against the background of the profoundest ethical insight of his own religious faith as he had found it in the heart of the prophets of Israel. (18)
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. (18)
Wherever 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 them. (19)
| I belong to a generation that finds very little that is meaningful or intelligent in the teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ. … For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time deeply victimized by the Christian Church’s betrayal of his faith. (19)
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.” (24)
| The basic principles of his way of life cut straight through to the despair of his fellows and found it groundless. By inference he says, “You must abandon your fear of each other (24) and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea–Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” (25)
The ever-present fear that besets the vast poor, the economically and socially insecure, is a fear of still a different breed. … It is nowhere in particular yet everywhere. It is a mood which one carries around with himself, (26) distilled from the acrid conflict with which his days are surrounded. It has its roots deep in the heart of the relations between the weak and the strong, between the controllers of environment and those who are controlled by it. (27)
…it is not the fear of death that is most often at work, it is the deep humiliation arising from dying without benefit of cause or purpose. … The whole experience attacks the fundamental sense of self-respect. (28)
Such is the role of the threat of violence. It is rooted in a past experience, actual or reported, which tends to guarantee the present reaction of fear. (29)
Fear, then, becomes the safety device with which the oppressed surround themselves in order to give some measure of protection from complete nervous collapse. How do they achieve this? In the first place, they make their bodies commit to memory ways of behaving that will tend to reduce their exposure to violence.
[via: sounds like “the body keeps the score.”]
It is clear, then, that this fear, which served originally as a safety device, a kind of protective mechanism for the weak, finally becomes death for the self. The power that saves turns executioner. (35)
In the absence of all hope ambition dies, and the very self is weakened, corroded. There remains only the elemental will to live and to accept life on the terms that are available. There is a profound measure of resourcefulness in all life, a resourcefulness that is guaranteed by the underlying aliveness of life itself. (36)
| The crucial question, then, is this: Is there any help to be found in the religion of Jesus that can be of value here? (36)
Did Jesus deal with this kind of fear? If so, how did he do it? it is not merely, What did he say? even though his words are the important clues available to us. (36)
The core analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature and guarantees (38) all the intricacies of the life-process itself. Jesus suggests that it is quite unreasonable to assume that God, whose creative activity is expressed even in such details as the hairs of a man’s head, would exclude from his concern the life, the vital spirit, of the man himself. This idea–that God is mindful of the individual–is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease. (39)
…the child of the disinherited is likely to live a heavy life. … If on the other hand, the elders understand in their own experiences and lives the tremendous insight of Jesus, it is possible for them to share their enthusiasm with their children. This is the qualitative overtone springing from the depths of religious insight, and it is contagious. It will put into the hands of the (44) child the key for unlocking the door of his hopes. (45)
Nothing will happen to us, Howard; God will take care of us.
O simplehearted mother of mine, in one glorious moment you put your heart on the ultimate affirmation of the human spirit! Many things have I seen since that night. Times (46) without humber 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 the awareness that overcome fear and transform it into the power to strive, to achieve, and not to yield. (47)
Through the ages, at all stages of sentient activity, the weak have survived by fooling the strong. (48)
There must be two heavens–no, this cannot be true, because there is only one God. God cannot possibly be divided in this way. I have it! I am having my hell now. When I die, I shall have my heaven. The master’s having his heaven now. When he dies, he will have his hell.
Does the fact that a particular course of action jeopardizes a man’s life relieve him of the necessity for following that course of action? Are there circumstances under which the ethical question is irrelevant, beside the point? If so, where does one draw the line Is there a fine distinction between literal honesty and honesty in spirit and intent? or is truthtelling largely a matter of timing? Are there times when to tell the truth is to be false to the truth that is in you? These questions and many related ones will not be downed. For the disinherited they have to do with the very heart of survival. (52)
With reference to the question of deception the disinherited are faced with three basic alternatives. (52)
| The first alternative is to accept the apparent fact that, one’s situation being what it is, there is no sensible choice offered. (52)
The fact is, in any great struggle between groups in which the major control of the situation is on one side, the ethical question tends to become merely academic. The advantaged group assumes that they are going to be fooled, if it is possible; there is no expectation of honesty and sincerity. They know that every conceivable device will be used to render ineffective the advantage which they have inherited in their position as the strong. The pattern of deception by which the weak are deprived of their civic, economic, political, and social rights without its appearing that they are so deprived is a matter of continuous and tragic amazement. The pattern of deception by which the weak circumvent the strong and manage to secure some of their political, economic, and social rights is a matter of continuous degradation. A vast conspiracy of silence covers all these maneuvers as the groups come into contact with each other, and the question of morality is not permitted to invade it. (53)
A house…divided against itself…cannot stand.
That is to say, if a man continues to call a good thing bad, he will eventually lose his sense of moral distinctions. (54)
The second alternative is a possible derivation from the first one. The underprivileged may decide to juggle the various areas of compromise, on the assumption that the moral quality of compromise operates in an ascending-descending scale. (56)
Tremendous skill and power must be exercised to show to the disinherited the awful results of the role of negative deception into which their lives have been cast. How to do this is perhaps the greatest challenge that the religion of Jesus faces in modern life. (58)
It is not solely a question of keeping the body alive; it is rather how not to be killed. Not to be killed becomes the great end, and morality takes its meaning from that center. Until that center is shifted, nothing real can be accomplished. (59)
Speak the truth, without fear and without exception, and see everyone whose work is related to your purpose. You are in God’s work so you need not fear man’s scorn. If they listen to your requests and grant them, you will be satisfied. If they reject them, then you must make their rejection your strength. – Mahatma Gandhi to Muriel Lester
Sincerity in human relations is equal to, and the same as, sincerity to God. If we accept this explanation as a clue to Jesus’ meaning, we come upon the stark fact that the insistence of Jesus upon genuineness is absolute; man’s relation to man and man’s relation to God are one relation. (62)
If the position of ascendancy is not acknowledged tacitly and actively by those over whom the ascendancy is exercised, then it falls flat. (62)
Instead of relation between the weak and the strong there is merely a relationship between human beings. A man is a man, no more, no less. The awareness of this fact marks the supreme moment of human dignity. (63)
hating is something of which to be ashamed unless it provides for us a form of validation and prestige. If either is provided, then the immoral or amoral character of the hatred is transformed into positive violence. (65)
| Christianity has been almost sentimental in its effort to deal with hatred in human life. It has sought to get rid of hatred by preachments, by moralizing, by platitudinous judgments. It has hesitated to analyze the basis of hatred and to evaluate it in terms of its possible significance in the lives of the people possessed by it. This reluctance to examine hatred has taken on the character of a superstition. It is a subject that is taboo unless there is some extraordinary social crisis–such as war–involving the mobilization of all the national resources of the common life to meet it. There is a conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and its meaning. (65)
| Hatred cannot be defined. It can only be described. (65)
Thus hatred becomes a device by which an individual seeks to protect himself against moral disintegration. He does to other human beings what he could not ordinarily do to them without losing his self-respect. (72)
…if they hate the enemy, then that hatred will immunize them from a loss of moral self-respect as they do to the enemy what is demanded of them in the successful prosecution of the war. (73)
It is not difficult to see how hatred, operating in this fashion, provides for the weak a basis for moral justification. Every expression of intolerance, every attitude of meanness, every statute that limits and degrades, gives further justification for life-negation on the part of the weak toward the strong. It makes possible for an individual to be life-affirming and life-negating at one and the same time. (74)
Is it reasonable to assume that Jesus did not understand the anatomy of hatred? In the face of the obvious facts of his environment he counseled against hatred, and his word is, “Love your enemies… that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” Why? (75)
I am rearing my boys so that they will not hate Negroes. Do not misunderstand me. I do not love them, but I am wise enough to know that if I teach my boys to hate Negroes, they will end up hating white people as well.
Hatred cannot be controlled once it is set in motion. (76)
The logic of the development of hatred is death to the spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values. (77)
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 (77) death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father. He affirmed life; and hatred was the great denial. (78)
The religion of Jesus makes the love-ethic central. (79)
To love such an enemy requires reconciliation, the will to re-establish a relationship. (82)
To be required to love such a person was the final insult. How could such a demand be made? One did not even associate with such creatures. To be seen in their company meant a complete loss of status and respect in the community. The taxgatherer had no soul; he had long since lost it. When Jesus became a friend to the tax collectors and secured one as his intimate companion, it was a spiritual triumph of such staggering proportions that after nineteen hundred years it defies rational explanation. (83)
Jesus demonstrated that the only way to redeem them for the common cause was to penetrate their thick resistance to public opinion and esteem and lay bare the simple heart. This man is not just a tax collector; he is a son of God. Awaken that awareness in him and he will attack his betrayal as only he can–from the inside. (85)
Love of the enemy means that a fundamental attack must first be made on the enemy status. (87)
The religion of Jesus says to the disinherited: “Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous, but you must do it.” (90)
Once an attack is made on the enemy status and the individual has emerged, the underprivileged man must himself be status free. (90)
…wherever a need is laid bare, those who stand in the presence of it can be confronted with the experience of universality that makes all class and race distinctions impertinent. (93)
[via: this reminds me of Andrew Solomon’s sentiment in the introduction of Far From The Tree, that we are all the same, because we all know what it’s like to be different.]
Each person meets the other where he is and there treats him as if he were where he ought to be. here we (94) emerge into an area where love operates, revealing a universal characteristic unbounded by special or limited circumstances. (95)
It is clear that before love can operate, there is the necessity for forgiveness of injury perpetuated against a person by a group. This is the issue for the disinherited. Once again the answer is not simple. Perhaps there is no answer that is completely satisfying from the point of view of rational reflection. Can the mouse forgive the cat for eating him? (97)
What, then, is the word of the religion of Jesus to those who stand with their backs against the wall There must be the clearest possible understanding of the anatomy of the issues facing them. They must recognize fear, deception, hatred, each for what it is. Once having done this, they must learn how to destroy these or to render themselves immune to their domination. In so great an undertaking it will become increasingly clear that the contradictions of life are not ultimate. The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of mean which is committed to overcoming the world. It is universal, (98) 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. (99)
I cannot help but feel so compelled (and convicted) by Thurman’s brutal truth telling, exhorting oppressor and oppressed in the same breath. His analysis of the “religion of Jesus” and the interrogation of that religion as relevant to contemporary subjugation is nothing short of brilliant. There is also, in Thurman’s writing, a “double-salvation,” at work that reflects and articulates the “religion of Jesus.” The first salvation frees the individual and community from the physical injustices that chain our bodies, liberating the oppressed from their shackles of metal, and the oppressor from their shackles of degradation and power. But there is a second salvation that loosens the inner slavery that is imposed upon our souls as a result of being victims of injustice. Both are needed, and both are found eloquently elucidated in this book.
I confess that my soul is seething with an outcry that this kind of voice is still just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. For even today, there is still unconscionable suffering, inflicted by people in power, and it will again take a miracle for these actions not to reap the destruction of humanity. In other words, Thurman’s voice has, unfortunately, not lost one iota of relevance.
It is reported that Martin Luther King Jr. carried around a copy of this book during the Montgomery Bus boycott. According to Smithsonian.com, Thurman was a deeply profound influence on MLK. And Paul Harvey writes,
The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally. – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/this-theologian-helped-mlk-see-value-nonviolence-180967821/
Come, Lord Jesus. Come. Quickly.