Thursday, December 24, 2015

Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited:
Real Prophecy

[Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Vincent Harding, foreword.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.  First published, 1949.]

Howard Thurman preached, taught, wrote poetry, and spoke as elder statesman of the Black Civil Rights movement from the middle of the last century.  But how does he earn the title of "prophet" bestowed in passing by the author of the foreword to Jesus and the Disinherited (viii)?

To appreciate Howard Thurman's prophetic vision, substitute "White America" for "Rome" and "the Black American" for "Jew" in the first chapter of his book, first published in 1949.  In his stark outline of the Jews' situation in first-century Palestine, Thurman implies a vision of his own time and of what was soon to come.

For a first-century Jew, Thurman writes, "Rome was the enemy, Rome symbolized total frustration; Rome was the great barrier to peace of mind.  And Rome was everywhere" (12).  A Jew could respond only two ways:
  1. Nonresistance, effected in two ways: 
    (a) more or less grudging compliance (e.g., Herod and Sadducees) along with hypocrisy and "strategic loss of self-respect" (13), or it meant 
    (b) strict self-isolation (e.g., Pharisees) along with bitter hatred and fear of any disturbance to the status quo that might bring down the wrath of Rome (14).   
  2. Resistance, effected in two ways:
    (a) guerrilla tactics, futility, fanaticism (as the Zealots of Jesus' own band) and danger to the community (16). 
    (b) The option proclaimed and exemplified by Jesus.
In the book's next three chapters "Fear," "Deception," and "Hate," Thurman considers three "hounds of hell" that do internal, spiritual damage to those who choose compliance, isolation, and violent resistance over the way of Jesus. Thurman writes as if with foreknowledge of those Black clergymen and white politicians who attacked King for moving "too fast" to bring change, of those isolationist Black muslims and Back-to-Africa movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the armed Black Panther party. This isn't supernatural prophecy, but just what the Episcopal Church teaches as "theological reflection," drawing on illustrations from scripture, cultural artifacts of history and literature, and from personal experience.

In a final chapter called "Love," Thurman expounds upon the preferred option, what Gandhi called satyagraha, and King would translate as "love force."  We are told to love our enemies, Thurman writes, but we apply this only to personal enemies, the easiest kind of enemy to forgive (82).  The command doesn't seem to apply to two other categories of enemy, because they are thought to be beyond our capacity to forgive.  One is the Enemy (the "Romans"), and the other is the Collaborator with the Enemy, such as the tax collectors in the days of Jesus, so contemptible that one was insulated from having to "love" them (83).

But as Thurman points out, Jesus heals the slave of the Roman centurion, and takes a tax collector to be among his chosen twelve.  For African Americans to forgive and love their white oppressors, Thurman admitted, would take some "unscrambling," such as occurs when blacks and whites work together during a flood and status is momentarily set aside, for example; or, it could happen during worship (88).  One thinks of years later when the experience of worship with white men changed even the firebrand Malcolm X. ("Will you [now] shake hands with a white man?" asked a motorist who recognized X at a stop light, soon after the publicized return from Mecca.  "I'll shake hands with a man," X replied, smiling.)

Within his elegant outline, Thurman expresses incidental insights that caught me and my friends in the Education for Ministry program by surprise.  For Thurman, whose grandmother rejected Paul's letters as her plantation owner's scriptures of choice to justify slavery, Paul's deference to Roman authority was the understandable blind spot of a man born into privilege (22), though his remarks "bore bitter fruit" throughout the remainder of history.  About fear, Thurman reminds us violence is implied even within the confines of a pleasant-seeming segregated neighborhood, where people live inhibited by fear without ever having to come into personal contact with an individual of the dominant class (31). Jesus not only preaches against fear, but lives as though there are worse than things than death for a child of God:

One of the practical results following this new orientation is the ability to make an objective, detached appraisal of other people, particularly one's antagonists.  Such an appraisal protects one from inaccurate and exaggerated estimations of another person's significance. (41)

About deception, Thurman tells how we may accept some kinds of dishonesty to survive subjugation, but he cautions against the corrosive effects of dishonesty, describing the downhill slide of Macbeth from one lie to the next into madness and misery (55).  Citing Gandhi, Thurman asserts that we must have "confidence that the effect of truthfulness can be realized in the mind of the oppressor as well as the oppressed"(60).  He concludes:

If the position of ascendancy is not acknowledged tacitly and actively by those over whom the ascendancy is exercised, then it falls flat.  [If deferential hypocrisy] is supplanted by a simple sincerity and genuineness, then it follows that advantage due to the accident of birth or position is reduced to zero.  Instead of relation between the weak and the strong there is merely a relationship between human beings. (63)
 (I wonder, however, how to apply this analysis to the current eyewitness video of Sandra Bland, a black woman, whose assumption of equality seems to enrage the white male officer who pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change in Texas this past year.  He arrested her; two days later, she was found hanging in her cell, cause given as suicide.)

About hatred, Thurman readily acknowledges that hatred releases energy, and feels positive.  Recalling then-recent wartime experiences, he tells how hatred can "masquerade" as patriotism (64), or "the illusion of righteousness" (72).  He observes that hatred, once "released," "cannot be confined to the offenders alone" (76).

Early in the book, Thurman remembers representing Christianity to a Hindu man who shook Thurman's faith with probing questions about the crimes done to "brown people" in the name of Jesus (4-5).  Thurman came to downplay the other-worldly aspect of Christianity to focus on Jesus as one responding to oppression (18).  Thurman explains how the refrain "Take all the world, but give me Jesus," though "germane" to the religion of Jesus, "has to be put into a context that will show its strength and vitality rather than its weakness and failure" (19).

My friends and I were "surprised" for a few reasons.  As friend Susan observed, just a few years ago we considered that we lived in a "post-racial America' where Thurman's concerns were "so last century." The surprise was how relevant Thurman's analysis seems now, with a movement called "Black Lives Matter" responding to the justifiable conclusion that black lives have not mattered enough to local governments, with professional chatterers decrying the presence of Latinos and Muslims in America, and with backlash against LGBT citizens among evangelical Christians who say that they feel under attack.

Then, there's the surprise how directly Thurman revises our mostly personal view of our own religion in a way that suddenly seems like common sense, so obvious.

Finally, there's surprise in seeing how much of this work applies to my own experience as a teacher of Middle School.  I guess it could be argued that teachers are the oppressors and students, the oppressed; some days, it feels the other way around.  Thurman observes how those resisting authority "measure their own significance [by] the amount of power and energy [authorities] must use in order to ... hold them back" (16).  In the chapter on "Deception," he tells of the unprepared student who throws the teacher off-task by asking a question about the teacher's pet interest (49).  Thurman holds Jesus up as a model to all teachers for the kind of love shown to the woman caught in adultery:  Jesus "met the woman where she was, and he treated her as if she were already where she now willed to be [and] 'believed' her into the fulfilling of her possibilities" (96).

Aside from all this wisdom, Thurman is direct in overall outline, economical in sentences, never chatty, polemical, or "academic."  He has gravitas.  He's just a great writer!

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