Howard Thurman: Jesus and the Disinherited

Theologian, pastor, professor, Dr. Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman

During the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly carried a copy of a book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited with him. The author of the book was Howard Thurman, a theologian, pastor and professor, who, by some accounts, would become a mentor to several leaders of the non-violent civil rights movement. Inspired by the Gospels, Jesus and the Disinherited offers four basic principles to the marginalized and underprivileged, to prevail in their struggle against injustice and oppression, to realize their rightful place as full human beings with rights endowed not by man but by God. 

Howard Thurman was born in Daytona, Florida, in 1899. [1] As a child Thurman’s faith was influenced by his grandmother, who was born a slave.

He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, [2] then went on to Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, NY, the oldest Baptist seminary in the United States.

While a student, Thurman began working as a youth movement leader, mainly through the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). He graduated from Colgate-Rochester in 1926, and was ordained a Baptist minister [3] He began his first pastorate at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio. [4]

In the late 1920’s Thurman became the first African American board member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). [5] an ‘interfaith organization’ whose current mission is ‘ to organize, train, and grow a diverse movement that welcomes all people of conscience to end structures of violence and war, and create peace through the transformative power of nonviolence.’ [6]

By 1929 Thurman was studying at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania, with Rufus Jones, an influential Quaker, and author of the book, Social Law in the Spiritual World. [7] The book argues that ‘the Quaker concept of “listening to the Spirit, being guided by the Inner Light of Christ” must be coupled with a “call of duty … an appeal to help build a better world for unborn generations… Keep your feet on the ground and get something done … a true and noble life must move on both these legs and not a single one of them alone.”’ [8] Jones’ philosophy would greatly influence the young Thurman.

By 1932, he was chairman of the Committee on Religious Life and Professor of Theology at Howard University. Four years later, he was appointed the first dean of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel. [9] During this time Thurman worked with notable intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and leaders in the fight for civil rights such as A. Philip Randolph and Mary McLeod Bethune. [10]

In September of 1935 Thurman led the ‘Pilgrimage of Friendship’, a delegation of African-Americans, to India, Burma (now Myanmar), and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  The World Student Christian Federation and the Student Christian Movements of India and the United States sponsored the trip. [11] In India he met Mahatma Gandhi. This encounter ‘completed his conversion to nonviolent social activism.’ [12]

In 1953 the president of Boston University, Harold Case, invited Thurman to become Professor of Spiritual Resources and Disciplines in the School of Theology and Dean of Marsh Chapel. Thurman then became ’the first African American to hold the position of dean at a majority-white university.’ [13]

Thurman’s time as professor at BU overlapped with the young Martin Luther King Jr.’s time as a student at the institution. [14]

King earned a doctorate in theology from BU in 1955. [15]

While at BU, Martin Luther King Jr. not only attended Thurman’s sermons, but turned to Thurman as his mentor and spiritual advisor. ‘Among the lessons that inspired him most were Thurman’s accounts of a visit to Mohandas Gandhi in India years earlier. It was Thurman who educated King in the mahatma’s ideas of nonviolent protest. As the bridge between Gandhi and King, BU’s progressive dean helped sow the seeds of change in the U.S. and beyond.’ [16]

Thurman is the author of numerous essays, sermons, speeches and books, including an autobiography, With Head and Heart (Harcourt, 1980). His most influential book however is Jesus and the Disinherited, first published in 1949.

Jesus and the Disinherited

In Jesus and the Disinherited Thurman brings the gospel of Jesus Christ, Jesus’ life and teaching, directly to bear on the condition of African-Americans.   For many, Christianity was viewed as a religion used to dominate and disenfranchise members of the African-American community. Thurman turns this construct on its head, emphasizing Jesus as a member of an underprivileged class, yes, even as a member of a despised minority.  He states, for example:

If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in a ditch. Standing always beyond the reach of citizen security, he was perpetually exposed to all the “arrows of outrageous fortune.” And there was only a gratuitous refuge—if any—within the state.’

The similarity to the status of African-Americans is clear.

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…It is the similarity of a social climate at the point of a denial of full citizenship which creates the problem for creative survival. [17]

Thurman then describes four basic principles of Jesus’ life he argues are applicable to the lives of African-Americans.

‘[These principles] cut straight through to the despair of his [Jesus’] fellows and found it [the despair] groundless. By inference [Jesus] identifies the principles as follows: Fear: ‘You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God.’ Deception: ‘You must not indulge in any deception or dishonesty, even to save your lives’. Hatred: ‘Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike.’ Love: ‘Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.’ [18]

Fear

Fear is described as a ‘safety device with which the oppressed surround themselves to give some measure of protection from complete nervous collapse.’

Through bitter experience [the weak] have learned how to exercise extreme care, how to behave to reduce the threat of immediate danger from their environment.  Fear then becomes a form of life assurance, making possible the continuation of physical existence with a minimum of active violence.  [19]

‘The threat of violence within a framework of well-nigh limitless power is a weapon by which the weak are held in check.’ [20] The fear experienced by the weaker group is the mechanism by which they reduce their exposure to violence. Jim Crow and segregation, and the implicit threat of violence, are weapons for instilling fear on the weak and controlling their lives.

But there is a secondary effect of the essentially reflexive fear-response of the weak, Thurman argues. The oppressed must then seek to avoid all encounters that may bring him into conflict with the dominant group, a conflict the oppressed knows that he can never win. The devastating emotional effects of avoiding conflicts due to fear is nothing less than death to ‘self’.  I interpret this to mean a ‘death to one’s dignity, to one’s very humanity.  ‘[T]his 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…’ [21]

How, then, do the teachings of Jesus address fear, and its crippling effects? Thurman points to passages where Jesus proclaims his role to relieve the oppressed from their burdens.

He quotes Jesus’ teachings in Matthew, where he exhorts his followers not to fear, not to fear them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him who which is able to destroy both the soul and body in hell, [22]

He also refers to Jesus’ teachings on caring for his followers, his children. ‘Take no thought for your life, what you shall eat, what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on…’ [23] The argument is that if God were to know how many hairs are on your head, would he not ensure the deliverance of your spirit, your life? [24]

Another aspect of Jesus teachings is that the disinherited are children of God. This realization releases him from viewing himself through the eyes of those who ‘are largely responsible for his predicament.’ [25] Instead his belief in his relationship with God –‘The awareness that a man is a child of the God of religion, who is at one and the same time the God of life, creates a profound faith in life that nothing can destroy.’ [26]

Thurman argues that fear exists in the dominant group as well, resulting in their need for segregation from the oppressed. This fear ‘insulates the conscience’ of the dominant group against a sense of wrongdoing. It rationalizes segregation–without it, there would be no protection against invasion by the oppressed. [27]

Deception

There are instances where the disinherited resort to deception to survive. Inherent in this survival technique is an acceptance of the status quo, of the current state. They adjust their behavior accordingly to live within that system. Thurman assesses the viability of this survival technique by listing three options.

The first is to determine that there is in fact no viable alternative. In the face of overwhelming odds, deception is the only option.  Thurman recalls a story where an African-American man was shot by police. A eulogy was not permitted at the funeral for fear of rioting. The pastor got around this by transferring the text from the eulogy to a prayer. [28] Thurman criticizes this technique, arguing that this kind of deception will eventually infect the whole person, that the person who lies to survive will himself eventually become a lie—he will eventually be overcome by this behavior.

The second option is to select the areas in which deception for survival is necessary, and those in which it is not. The individual then determines the level of compromise he is willing to endure, or not endure.

The third alternative is ‘a complete and devastating sincerity’. He cites a letter written by Mahatma Gandhi, that said:

‘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.’ [29].  He then argues that just as man is called to be truthful to God, we are equally compelled to be sincere when dealing with one another. Thurman makes no distinction between sincerity to God and sincerity with one another. “‘Let your communication be Ye, ye; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh from evil.”’ [30]

He adds: ‘[T]he insistence of Jesus upon genuineness is absolute; man’s relationship to man and man’s relationship to God are one relation.’ [31]

Hate

The weak and disinherited are denied basic human rights, the simple validation of being human, a God-given right endowed upon them by their creator. This humiliation, Thurman argues, gives fertile ground to building up of hatred in the mind of the weak and disinherited. In the face of this injustice, hatred becomes ‘morally justified.’ [32] However hatred ultimately destroys the ‘core of life of the hater’ guaranteeing final isolation from fellow human beings. [33] Hatred knows nothing of the injustice that may have brought about its birth.  Its ultimate consequence is nothing less than the death of the spirit and the disintegration of ethical and moral values. [34] Thurman then affirms Jesus’ rejection of hatred:

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. He affirmed life, and death was the great denial. [35]

Love

Jesus teaches love of enemies. Thurman discusses three types of enemies: personal–those with whom you come into contact on a personal level; those who are in positions of authority and have the power to ‘shame and humiliate’ you. The third category is that of the occupying force, Rome being the obvious example. [36]

Love of the enemy requires a ‘fundamental attack’ on the ‘enemy status’. [37] This requires personal contact with the persons of the ‘enemy’ class, contact not based on the existing, pervasive structure of the strong and the weak, the privileged and underprivileged, but contact based on equality of both parties.  This implies the need for integration and the ‘complete and ethical moral evil’ of segregation. [38]

Here Thurman directs some of his harshest criticism to ‘American Christianity’.

‘American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption. Churches have been established for the underprivileged, for the weak, for the poor, on the theory that they prefer to be among themselves…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.’ [39]

The natural extension of this argument, then, is that, places of worship, the church, should be at the forefront of harmony between the races, of the privileged and of the oppressed. How can both groups claim to love the same God, and yet live in isolation from one another?

Thurman also outlines the responsibility of African-Americans, of the oppressed, to initiate love for enemies. He relates the story of the Roman captain who asks Jesus to heal his servant. [40] Though the captain was a member of the privileged class, an occupying force who were guilty of oppressing his people. Jesus nonetheless granted the man’s request. Why? Because Jesus saw the captain as an individual, not just a member of an oppressive regime. Thurman calls this a ‘respect for personality.’ [41] It is an attitude that realizes that even the oppressor is a human being as well. The story of the Roman captain suggests that, with this mindset, one must realize another’s personhood when called to do so, even if that individual is a member of an oppressing force.

Finally, Thurman argues, that for those who have suffered at the hands of an oppressive group, love can only flow after forgiveness. ‘It is clear that before love can operate, there is the necessity for forgiveness of injury perpetuated against a person by a group.’ [42] Why?  He outlines three reasons: first, God has first forgiven us; second, ‘no evil deed represents the full intent of the doer’; third, the evildoer does not go unpunished. [43]

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned above Thurman wrote numerous books, letters and sermons, and a deeper understanding of his views of Jesus is warranted. The ‘Jesus’ in Jesus and the Disinherited is more a liberator than a deity, but the teachings are entirely Biblical: ‘Do not fear’ because God cares for you. Speak the truth, whatever the consequences, and do not embellish. Love your enemies, do not hate then, even though they may despise and hurt you.  Jesus of Jesus and the Disinherited is a Jesus that we hardly ever see in mainstream Christianity. He’s the Jesus who meets the marginalized and oppressed at their point of need.  He is not Jesus of violent revolution, nor of a trembling, beaten people.  He is the Jesus of strength–of   spiritual strength—the Jesus of fundamental human value, the Jesus of justice, even if it means losing your life for it.

Thurman presents a Jesus of revolution, who is difficult to understand unless you have made a conscious decision to submit to his teachings. He is a Jesus of victory—for the   poor, oppressed, marginalized, unloved, despised–disinherited.

© Weldon Turner 2017 All Rights Reserved

Next month: Sojourner Truth

Image

Dr. Howard Thurman. Jesus is A Companion: News Photo

Credit: Dick Darrell / Contributor

Collection: Toronto Star

Date created: 18 July, 1964

Getty license type: Editorial

References

[1] https://www.bu.edu/today/2011/who-was-howard-thurman/
[2] https://www.bu.edu/today/2011/who-was-howard-thurman/
[3] https://www.bu.edu/today/2011/who-was-howard-thurman/
[4] http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/howard_thurman.html
[5]  http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/howard-thurman-collection
[6] https://www.facebook.com/pg/FORUSA/about/?ref=page_internal
[7] http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/230/Rufus-Jones
[8] http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/230/Rufus-Jones
[9] http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/howard-thurman-collection
[10] http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/howard-thurman-collection
[11] http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/howard-thurman-collection
[12] https://www.bu.edu/today/2011/who-was-howard-thurman/
[13] http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/howard-thurman-collection
[14] http://www.bu.edu/admissions/student-life/community-diversity/mlk/
[15] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr
[16]  http://www.bu.edu/admissions/student-life/community-diversity/mlk/
[17] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Beacon Press, 1996 p23
[18] Thurman, pp24-25
[19] Thurman, p30
[20] Thurman, p31
[21] Thurman, p35
[22] Thurman, p37
[23] Thurman, p38
[24] Thurman, p39
[26] Thurman, p45
[27] Thurman, pp 33-34
[28] Thurman, p52
[29] Thurman, pp 59-60
[30] Thurman, p60
[31] Thurman, p62
[32] Thurman, p74
[33] Thurman, p76
[34] Thurman, p77
[35] Thurman, pp 77-78
[36] Thurman, p87
[37] Thurman, p87
[38] Thurman, p88
[39] Thurman, p88
[40] Thurman, p92
[41] Thurman, p91
[42] Thurman, p97
[43] Thurman, p98

Bibliography

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Beacon Press, 1996

Links

https://www.bu.edu/today/2011/who-was-howard-thurman/  accessed June 4, 2017

http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/howard_thurman.html  accessed June 4, 2017

http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/howard-thurman-collection accessed June 4, 2017

https://www.facebook.com/pg/FORUSA/about/?ref=page_internal  accessed June 4, 2017

http://www.quakersintheworld.org/quakers-in-action/230/Rufus-Jones accessed June 4, 2017

http://archives.bu.edu/web/howard-thurman/howard-thurman-collection  accessed June 4, 2017

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther-King-Jr accessed June 4, 2017

http://www.bu.edu/admissions/student-life/community-diversity/mlk/ accessed June 4, 2017

2 thoughts on “Howard Thurman: Jesus and the Disinherited”

  1. Thank you, I had no idea, had never heard of Dr. Thurman. Fascinating that he is the bridge between Dr. King and Gandhi. Full of admiration for his intellect and his insight of the situations of blacks in America.

  2. They are the poor, the disinherited , the dispossessed.” To the existence of these injustices, Thurman offers Jesus as the answer to salvation first, which takes care of one’s eternal life, and only afterwards may the question of earthly injustice be addressed.

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