“It is necessary to examine the religion of Jesus against the background of his own age and people, and to inquire into the content of his teaching with reference to the disinherited and the underprivileged.”
The first chapter of Jesus and the Disinherited has many rich ideas, such as how Paul’s Roman citizenship affected his views on political authority, or how the Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots stand for different ways to resist an oppressive power. I want to highlight, however, the social and political implications of Jesus’ Incarnation and teachings as expressed by Howard Thurman.
We can only touch on it in a blog post, but Thurman has 3 great points to make about Jesus:
- Jesus was a Jew, meaning he was born visually, culturally, religiously, and ethnically different. Most of world history is man subjugating or discriminating based on appearance; already Jesus identifies with the vast sea of humanity by appearing not as a Roman, the majority, but as a Jew, a minority.
- Jesus was a poor Jew. Thurman notes that when Jesus is dedicated at the Temple, the offering of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph is the offering of the poor dictated by Leviticus. Jesus displays here his preferential option for the poor. He could easily have been high-born, as Paul was. But he was born poor, lived poor, died poor. He surrounded himself with poor fishermen. Starting with Jesus, his religion was that of one for and with the poor.
- “Jesus was a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger, dominant and controlling group.” Spiritually speaking, Jesus was fully man and knew the powerful sway the demonic kingdom sought over the mind of man, except that he never succumbed to it. Temporally speaking, Jesus knew the powerful sway of sinful man and his institutions, and was never controlled by it. Even when crucified, it was on God’s timetable, by Jesus’ own free choice. He overcame them in it, and if they had known, as Scripture says, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
The great debates of the faith’s first 400 years debated Jesus’ nature as religious object: was Jesus truly man? How much of him was God? What does it mean that he is God? We settled into the orthodox view that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Ought we take up another debate in our generation? Should we ask ‘what kind of man was Jesus’? What is the significance of what kind of man Jesus was?
As we saw above, Scripture is clear that Jesus was a poor minority man, with no legal standing, living under apartheid-like conditions. Thurman believed that Jesus’ Incarnation as the sort of man he was caused a deep identification with the poor. His identification with the disinherited helped shape his theology about the kingdom of God.
Jesus grew up “in a climate of deep insecurity…with so narrow a margin of civil guarantees”. After his birth, Herod massacred children under the age of 2 in an attempt to kill him. Scholars theorize Jesus, being a carpenter, may have helped rebuild Sepphoris, nearby Nazareth, after it was destroyed by the Romans and its rebels crucified. When Jesus said, “if someone forces you to go with them one mile, go with them two” he was pointing to an actual Roman practice of forcing non-citizens to carry their packs one mile; today this is a human rights violation called ‘portering’. Unlike Paul, Jesus could not appeal to Caesar. Jesus knew what it meant and felt like to be one of the disinherited.
Incarnation was Jesus’ choice, as were the circumstances into which he was born. Why choose those circumstances? Let’s assume Jesus being a Gentile is a non-starter–why not be an aristocratic Jew, like Paul was? Simply, Jesus’ kingdom message was purposed to bring good news to the poor (Isaiah 61) and to “fill the hungry with good things, but [to send] the rich away empty” (Magnificat). Jesus’ upbringing didn’t shape his message, that was decided already, but it makes him all the more our Savior because he can identify with us in our injustices. Jesus understood how hatred consumed a Zealot’s heart or how a Sadducee could conform instead of resisting.
Jesus instead chose the path of nonviolent resistance to oppression. Re-read the Sermon on the Mount with these eyes: put yourself in the place of a 1st century minority Jew, treated as a second-class citizen, your country occupied by a foreign, violent and oppressive power. Remember your Messianic hopes of deliverance and a temporal kingdom that would overthrow the established order. The fire could light the keg at any minute. And Jesus, who you look to as (a possible) Messiah, says to you “Love your enemy, the Romans, and pray for them even though they persecute you. If they force you to carry their pack 1 mile, on your initiative gladly go 2 miles. If they hit you on your right cheek, give them the left one to hit also.” Now, imagine our President had said something like this after 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. What would your response have been?
If you’re unsettled and want to argue, that’s likely how many people felt after hearing Jesus’ Sermon. I know I am unsettled. But these are the ideas evoked by Thurman’s analysis of Jesus’ background; the Master was speaking to us on both a spiritual and temporal level, and it was a revolution not only for religion, but for the entire social order. As Thurman paraphrased Jesus at the end of Chapter 1, Jesus says,
“you must abandon your fear of each other 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.”