“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall,” Howard Thurman writes. “They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue,” he continues, “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,” Thurman argues, “is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life” (Jesus and the Disinherited, page 13).
In this edition of Throwback Thursday books, I want to review and appreciate Thurman’s classic 1949 work, Jesus and the Disinherited. Numerous reports indicate that this was one of the books that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., carried with him during the Montgomery bus boycott, and as he traveled to other places. It was a well-used and annotated copy that represented and continued Thurman’s impact on Dr. King and many others of the Civil Rights movement.
It was Thurman who was primarily responsible for connecting the Civil Rights movement to the principles, strategies, and philosophy of nonviolent resistance which Mahatma Gandhi practiced and pursued. Thurman traveled to India in 1935 to meet Gandhi and learn from him. During that meeting, as Paul Harvey reports in his Smithsonian magazine online article, Gandhi suggested to Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”
Thurman was a theologian and teacher of religion. More important, however, he was a mystical philosopher who was able to join the power of personal spiritual transformation to the challenges of social and political resistance and reform.
“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,” he writes at the end of the book. “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” (pages 108-109).
I am visiting this book today because it is new to me even though old to the Movement. I have been aware of this book for years but only now have taken the time to read and digest it.
Thurman reads the Good News of Jesus Christ through the lens of the disinherited and the dispossessed, those whom he describes as the people “with their backs against the wall.” In particular, he reflects on the suffering, oppression, abuse, and violence inflicted on Black people in the United States and how the Church has been integral in that horror.
“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,” he writes in the first chapter, entitled “Jesus – An Interpretation.” He continues, “The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak” (pages 11-12).
Thurman could easily have written those words yesterday, rather than over seventy years ago. Very little has changed in large parts of white Christendom in the West. Thurman sees clearly that the oppression of Black people in America is part of the larger imperial, colonial, extractive process that has driven history in the west for 500 years. At a time when America was basking in the glow of victory after World War II, his vision is clear and precise.
He notes that the process of setting Christianity against the disinherited began when Jesus was separated theologically from his impoverished and Jewish origins in Palestine. Jesus was a Jew, was a poor Jew, and was a poor Jew under the domination of a controlling imperial power. Thus Jesus addressed a significant question, Thurman asserts. “There is one overmastering problem that the socially and politically disinherited always face: Under what terms is survival possible?” (page 20).
That question hasn’t changed for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI people in the United States. Lynching may have gone underground, and assimilation is perhaps more polite, but none of it has gone away. We have only to read the headlines about children’s bodies found on the grounds of a former Christian boarding school in Canada to be reminded of the ongoing realities in our lives.
There is a certain spiritual kinship with Victor Frankl in Thurman’s writing. He begins with a focus on the inner attitude of those with their backs against the wall. Frankl noted that the one source of freedom which the oppressor cannot steal is the inner freedom to choose one’s attitude of response. Thurman puts it this way.
“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? This is the question of the Negro in American life. Until he has faced and settled that question, he cannot inform his environment with reference to his own life, whatever may be his preparation or his pretensions” (page 23).
Thurman knows that this inner resolve will be wedded to external action if it has any integrity. Transformation and resistance go together for him. He defines resistance “as the physical, overt expression of an inner attitude” (page 25). The fact that our white churches are so resistant to resistance may be the clearest evidence that we have not experienced the transformation on offer through the power of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
In Thurman’s view, Christianity began as a “technique of survival for the oppressed” (page 29). In the hands of the powerful, however, it has become a tool for the distraction of the oppressed. “The desperate opposition to Christianity rests in the fact that it seems, in the last analysis,” he writes, “to be a betrayal of the Negro into the hands of his enemies by focusing his attention upon heaven, forgiveness, love, and the like” (page 29).
Thurman echoes the enslaved who left white churches to form their own denominations. He channels Black preachers who could not remain Christian if the Bible actually endorsed enslavement. He vibrated with the passion of Frederick Douglas who saw the hypocrisy of white Christians – the more Christian they became, the more violence they did to the enslaved. He helps me understand Nebraska’s own Ernie Chambers, who seems to love Jesus and knows deeply our white Christian hypocrisy and cynicism.
While Thurman doesn’t call Jesus “Black” in this text, the connection is obvious. “The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts” (page 34).
Thurman devotes a chapter each to the fear, deception, and hate to which the disinherited are subject. Quotable lines and paragraphs come out on every page. One that is salient in the present moment has to do with the price of deception. “The penalty of deception is to become a deception, with all sense of moral discrimination vitiated. A man who lies habitually becomes a lie,” Thurman writes, “and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not” (page 65).
The number of public figures who have “become a lie” grows by the hour.
He observes that mere proximity between Black and White people is clearly not enough to overcome hatred of the Other. “Understanding that is not the outgrowth of an essential fellow-feeling is likely to be unsympathetic,” he suggests. “Of course, there may be pity in it—even compassion, sometimes—but sympathy, almost never. I can sympathize only when I see myself in another’s place. Unsympathetic understanding,” Thurman concludes, “is the characteristic attitude governing the relation between the weak and the strong” (page 77).
In fact, Thurman notes, these strategies of oppression become all that gives a sort of integrity to the perpetrators. He suggests that oppressors are terrified to surrender their tools of oppression because without these tools to hold them together psychologically and spiritually, the perpetrators may simply disintegrate. This is especially true of hatred. “The logic of the development of hatred,” he argues, “is death to the spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values” (pages 87-88).
The proper response on the part of Jesus followers to fear, deception, and hate is love – and particularly love of enemy. He describes this response first in terms of how Jesus dealt with the oppression of imperial Rome and Romans. He moves by analogy to the oppression of Blacks by Whites in the United States –especially in terms of Jim Crow segregation. He writes,
“This is one very important reason for the insistence that segregation is a complete ethical and moral evil. Whatever it may do for those who dwell on either side of the wall, one thing is certain: it poisons all normal contacts of those persons involved. The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free” (page 98).
Thurman then reminds us that such segregation is nowhere more evident than in Christian worshipping communities. Ho observes, “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” (page 98).
Little has changed.
Thurman worked to forge a genuinely multi-colored Christian worshipping community and achieved some success in that regard. But it was the exception that proves the rule – White Christianity in America remains a tool of oppression much more than a tool of liberation.
That being said, reading this book is more equipment for the ongoing struggle to be different. I’m going to read it again now.