Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard ThurmanSummary: A view of Christianity as the empowerment of the poor and disenfranchised.

Jesus and the Disinherited has been recommended to me a number of times. This month the kindle edition is on sale for $2.99 and I picked it up. This is a brief book. Just over 100 pages. It famously was carried by Martin Luther King Jr almost everywhere he went as inspiration.

Howard Thurman was a classmate with King Sr and the Dean of the Chapel at Boston University while Martin Luther King Jr was working on his PhD. Jesus and the Disinherited was based on a series of lectures and originally published in 1949. (Before Martin Luther King Jr was at Boston.)

The first chapter of Jesus and the Disinherited is about Jesus and how his role as a member of a minority group and in poverty impacted the message of Jesus. Much of this I have heard others say previously. (I really don’t remember anyone citing Thurman, but based on the date of the book, I know that much of my reading would have been influenced by Thurman without citation.)

What is interesting and a new thought to me in that first chapter is Thurman’s contrast between Jesus and Paul and their different positions in society and how that seems to have impacted their theology. Jesus was poor and outside of Roman society. Paul was a Roman citizen and one that used that status.

Thurman cites Romans 13 and other passages as an example of how Paul’s status as citizen is woven into Paul’s theology. Thurman is clear that Paul also subverts cultural assumption of status in Galatians (neither Jew nor Greek, Male or Female, slave or free). But that Paul does not subvert the system as much as Jesus does.

I had to stop myself from highlighting too much of chapter 2, on fear. Thurman is connecting the role of Jim Crow and the threat of violence to both a disabling fear and a protective fear. The disinherited need the protective fear to keep them safe and sane in a world where systems do not protect them and where violence can occur at any time, the threat of violence is constant. The protective fear becomes disabling when we are unaware of a greater power or purpose.

“When I was a youngster, this was drilled into me by my grandmother. The idea was given to her by a certain slave minister who, on occasion, held secret religious meetings with his fellow slaves. How everything in me quivered with the pulsing tremor of raw energy when, in her recital, she would come to the triumphant climax of the minister: “You—you are not niggers. You—you are not slaves. You are God’s children.” This established for them the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth could absorb the fear reaction. This alone is not enough, but without it, nothing else is of value. The first task is to get the self immunized against the most radical results of the threat of violence. When this is accomplished, relaxation takes the place of the churning fear. The individual now feels that he counts, that he belongs. He senses the confirmation of his roots, and even death becomes a little thing.” (page 50)

By the end of chapter two I realized how much my own white privilege was influencing my reading. I already had the sense that I had not been disinherited. I knew that God’s love of me as an individual gives me purpose and meaning. I could listen to how Thurman was speaking of empowerment and dignity, but not really understand that message as a new one.

(Thurman does not bring up in Jesus and the Disinherited, even in a precursor form, the concept of intersectionality. But I do think it is relevant to the reading of the book as a White male. It is not that I am inherently not disinherited because I am White and male. But that because I have absorbed the cultural assumptions and because I have been brought up loved and encouraged, apart from violence and fear, with above average education and access to resources, I have multiple layers that remove me from an assumption of disinherited-ness. So my reading needs an additional layer of introspection to see not only how Christianity must be about empowering the disinherited, but also how I participate in a system, and as an individual, that disempowers others.)

Chapters Three and Four, were also well worth reading (on Deception and Hate), but in an already too long post, I am going to skip to the end, the chapter on Love. Thurman is making an explicitly Christian argument about the problems of race and oppressions. He isn’t explicit here, but the chapter on Love is the underlying theological justification for complete non-violent protests. It also makes me think of Richard Beck’s book Unclean. That book is about how in group and out group thinking works and how within the church it should be broken down.

Thurman is rejecting the idea that Jesus’ commands about loving your enemies is primarily about personal enemies. It is about that as well. But Thurman suggests there are three types of barriers that Jesus was trying to break down. His first category is the personal enemy within your group. He suggests that this is what is taught about most in the church.

This type of enemy is overcome by personal reconciliation, which requires honest confession and restitution. But as is normally taught, you can’t have a personal enemy if they are outside of your in group. In Thurman’s illustrations from Jim Crow south, a Black man is not the personal enemy of a White man because the Black man is not fully human to the White man.

The second type of enemy is those who, “by their activities, make it difficult for the group to live without shame and humiliation.” Thurman’s biblical example was Matthew the tax collector. The one from the oppressed group that works with those more powerful for their own personal gain against those that are in their in-group.

The third type of enemy was the powerful outgroup. Thurman illustrates this enemy as Rome, the political and spiritual enemy. Thurman is explicitly moving into theology of empire, which is a current popular theology topic. Jesus as Lord, was replacing Cesar as Lord. But for a Jewish Christian to relate to a Roman citizen was not only to cross ethnic and political and religious boundaries, but also to be seen as becoming the second type of enemy to those that are around you.

Thurman suggests that to overcome and love all three types of enemies, an ‘unscrambling’ process has to be started. Thurman thinks this should be within the context of the church.

It is necessary, therefore, for the privileged and the underprivileged to work on the common environment for the purpose of providing normal experiences of fellowship. 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.

This is essentially the same prescription as Richard Beck made in Unclean. The problem that Thurman points out is that Christians worship primarily among their own racial, cultural and class groups. Thurman cites a sociological book, The Protestant Church and the Negro by Frank Loescher that says that only about 6 percent of ‘Negro Protestants’ worship in predominately White denominations. And most of those are in predominately minority congregations within White denominations. Loescher makes the concessions that only one-tenth of one percent of Black Protestants worship in interracial worship, and most that do, are in small communities where there are not enough people to have a segregated worship space.

The most dated part of this book I think is the conclusion. Thurman isn’t a complete idealist, but he is pointing to an ideal of integrated Christianity breaking down the barriers and illustrating the love that we as Christians are called to. He is calling on the disinherited to take primary initiative and begin to know and love those in power. He thinks that once those in power gain real relationship with those that are not, that barriers will come down.

He is not naive about the difficulty of real relationships, that is a large part of what the two previous chapters have been about. But he does think in times of real need (disasters, war, etc.) are the times when it is more likely to happen because normal boundaries come down because of the unusual circumstances.

Thurman cites the Roman Centurion coming to Jesus with a real need. The problem with Thruman’s approach is that the powerful, by their nature of being powerful, rarely have need of the less powerful. And the rise of the suburbs and gated communities mean that a lot of interaction between the poor and the non-poor is limited by geography, not just social position.

Thurman is writing from a pre-Civil Rights position. Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to get off the bus. But still boundaries between racial groups are a significant problem. (And we need to be clear, it is White individual and systemic racism that is the primary problem.)

The weakness of Thurman’s conclusion isn’t really that he is wrong. It is that accomplishing it is much harder than I think he understood when he wrote this. James Cone writing from his place in the 1980s about what he thought in the 1950-60s thought similarly:

“I also thought that white people’s wrongdoings toward blacks were due to a lack of actual knowledge of what the Bible said and the absence of a black confrontation of them with the truth of the gospel.”

Cone goes on to say,

“I thought, because their Christian identity was more important to them than their humiliation of blacks. I really wanted to believe that whites desired to do the right thing, because it was the Christian thing to do. How could anyone claim an identity with Jesus and be for injustice?…I began to realize that even if people know the truth, they will not necessarily do it. I also began to realize that religion did not automatically make people sensitive to human pain and suffering.”

Even though Cone and Thurman had very different theological positions in the end, the starting place was pretty similar. Christianity requires us to love, when confronted with the need for love, then those that are not loving should change in response to their faith. I need to read later work by Thurman to see how he processed this in later years (he has an autobiography that was published in 1979 just two years before his death.)

As much as I think Jesus and the Disinherited is worth reading, and it is, and I will read it again, part of what this book reminds me is how far we have to go, especially as White Christians, toward actually living out the message of Christianity.

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

2 Comments

I did Mission Year in my 20s in Atlanta, and this book was required reading. Some (white) people in the program didn’t likethe book and our director’s response was, “It wasn’t written for you.” I never forgot that.

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