Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, Part 2

See all four parts of this series:

Chapter 3: Deception

Howard Thurman’s next topic raises a very strategic moral question for the strong. Why is it that disempowered people deceive? He writes, “Deception is perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong. Through the ages, at all stages of sentient activity, the weak have survived by fooling the strong.” (p. 58)

Thurman cites a litany of examples: the deceptions of birds in nature, of children against the parental will, of women toward men, of slaves toward their masters. Deception is a very old and tested defense against power, which raises serious ethical questions. Is truth required in the face of oppressive force, violence, or the threat of death?

Thurman argues that there are three basic alternatives: (1) to accept that given one’s situation there is no choice but to deceive; (2) to place deception on a scale of moral hierarchies and compromise given certain circumstances; or (3) a complete and devastating sincerity.

In the first case, when a man knows he is defeated before he has started, there is no question of fair dealing, no sense of community. A person must do what is necessary to survive.

Thurman writes,

“The fact is, in any great struggle between groups in which the major control of the situation is on one side, the ethical question tends to become merely academic. The advantaged group assumes that they are going to be fooled, if it is possible; there is no expectation of honesty and sincerity. They know that every conceivable device will be used to render ineffective the advantage which they have inherited in their position as the strong. The pattern of deception by which the weak are deprived of their civic, economic, political, and social rights without its appearing that they are so deprived is a matter of continuous and tragic amazement. The pattern of deception by which the weak circumvent the strong and manage to secure some of their political, economic, and social rights is a matter of continuous degradation. A vast conspiracy of silence covers all these maneuvers as the groups come into contact with each other, and the question of morality is not permitted to invade it.” (pp. 63-64)

The consequences of such a situation are devastating. A man who feels forced to life will eventually lose the capacity to see the truth. “The penalty of deception is to become a deception, with all sense of moral discrimination vitiated.” (p. 65)

In the second case, compromise is a sort of deliberate strategy as occasion necessitates. The whole business of these sort of deceptive compromises is “sordid and degrading.” But even so, they are generally seen to be necessary in extreme circumstances to the extent that they are seen to be amoral.

A consequence of this is that religion is seen to be applicable only in those areas where it is seen to be “reasonable,” given contextual difficulties. It is hard to see these sorts of deceptions as in any way harmful to the disinherited. “Not to be killed becomes the great end” of moral action. (p. 69) But this justification of these sorts of deceptions are also present in groups like the Nazis and the KKK. The exaggerated emphasis on not being killed cheapens life.

Therefore, Thurman recommends the third alternative, complete and devastating sincerity. One can be completely truthful “whatever the cost may be in life, limb, or security.” (p. 69) He writes, “There must always be the confidence that the effect of truthfulness can be realized in the mind of the oppressor as well as the oppressed. There is no substitute for such a faith.” (p. 70)

Jesus challenges the disinherited with a powerful revolutionary appeal, “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (p. 71) Was Jesus naïve? Is he counseling suicide? Thurman argues no. Jesus was well aware of the great social pressures in which he operated. His words must not be dismissed so easily.

We must always remember that we live in the presence of God, under his scrutiny. And “there is no really significant living for a man, whatever may be his status, until he has turned and faced the divine scrutiny.” (p. 71) We must be mindful that the judge waits to give his verdict on the significance of men’s deeds.

And we must utterly reject hypocrisy because so doing removes a major defense mechanism of the strong. (I think here of the reasons why people do not give to homeless people.) Sincerity is not itself a defense against the dominant, but it leaves the dominant with not defense, no lasting sense of moral superiority to lean on in their own self-deception.

Hypocrisy from the weak is a sort of tribute, or tithe, paid to the dominant group. By withholding this tribute, by offering simple sincerity instead, the dominant group loses its advantage. “Instead of relation between the weak and the strong there is merely a relationship between human beings. A man is a man, no more, no less. The awareness of this fact marks the supreme moment of human dignity.” (p. 73)

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