It’s been far too long since my last post, and before February is too far gone, I want to celebrate, in a way, Black History Month. Over a series of posts, I will share key points from Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. It’s an ingenious little book containing ideas realized in the Civil Rights Movement. I also hope to bring his insights to bear on some of the socio-cultural issues we face as a people today, Christian, Black, American or world citizen.
Howard Thurman used to read the Bible to his grandmother, “who was born a slave and lived until the Civil War on a plantation near Madison, Florida.” He would read her the Bible save the Pauline epistles. It was decades before he asked her why. Her answer was striking:
“During the days of slavery,’ she said, ‘the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves… Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves be obedient to them that are your masters…, as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.”
It was her words that set him on course to write Disinherited. The critical question was how could he reconcile his faith with the words on the page, and the racism of Christians? In the book, he shares the story of a church service interrupted so they could lynch a man, then they returned to worship. Howard Thurman put the question this way:
“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what [the Christian] religion offers to meet their own needs.”
Each generation, particularly those who find themselves privileged, rich and Christian, should ask this question. We ask because the poor we will always have with us, not because the persistence of their condition is evidence of its inevitability, nor of God’s acceptance of poverty, nor his punishment of the poor man’s sins, but because we do not persistently love our brethren enough to right the systems that oppress them. Poverty exists because we allow it.
Thurman wrote his work to set down “an essentially creative and prognostic interpretation of Jesus as religious subject rather than religious object.” It’s an examination that marries the Christ of history with the Christ of faith; the Lamb who sacrificed himself to save us, and the Conquering Warrior who invaded the kingdom of satan with the Kingdom of God. And this Kingdom is good news to the poor and disinherited, those with their backs to the wall of history.
It should be a good time. Dive in, the first post will be up soon.