Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, Part 3

See all four parts of this series:

Chapter 4: Hate

The disinherited experience unpredictable gusts of hatred.

“Christianity has been almost sentimental in its effort to deal with hatred in human life. It has sough to get rid of hatred by preachments, by moralizing, by platitudinous judgments. It has hesitated to analyze the basis of hatred and to evaluate it in terms of its possible significance in the lives of the people possessed by it.” (p. 75)

Thurman gives an anatomy of hatred. Hatred starts with a contact without fellowship or warmth.

“In the first place, hatred often begins in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness. Of course, it must be borne in mind that there can be an abundance of sentimentality masquerading under the cloak of fellowship. It is easy to have fellowship on your own terms and to repudiate it if your terms are not acceptable.” (pp. 75-76)

“In the second place, contacts without fellowship tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic. There is understanding of a kind, but it is without the healing and reinforcement of personality. Rather, it is like the experience of going into a man’s office and, in that moment before being seated, when the full gaze of the other is focused upon you, suddenly wondering whether the top button of your vest is in place, but not daring to look. In a penetrating, incisive, cold understanding there is no cushion to absorb limitations or to provide extenuating circumstances for protection.” (p. 76-77)

Understanding is not always sympathetic. There is a sort of understanding that can be given even to an enemy, the kind calculated to “be used as a weapon of offense or defense.” (p. 77) This sort of understanding without sympathy characterizes the relation between strong and weak.

Unsympathetic understanding gives way to active ill will. And when ill will becomes embodied and dramatized, it becomes “hatred walking the earth.”

This is hatred is mutually reinforcing between the strong and weak. The hatred of each group is fueled by the hatred of the other. In fact, I might add, it is easier for the strong to get by without such hatred. The strong have the luxury of not really thinking about the weak, provided that they will only stay away. They have no need of them.

“I was once seated in a Jim Crow car which extended across the highway at a railway station in Texas. Two Negro girls of about fourteen or fifteen sat behind me. One of them looked out of the window and said, ‘Look at those kids.’ She referred to two little white girls, who were skating towards the train. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if they fell and spattered their brains all over the pavement!’ I looked at them. Through what torture chambers had they come—torture chambers that had so attacked the grounds of humaneness in them that there was nothing capable of calling forth any appreciation or understanding of white persons? There was something that made me shiver.” (p. 78-79)

Thurman invites the reader to imagine what it would be like to be the child “who had to do without” in a family of five children where there was always enough only for four. Perhaps the child would complain to the closest sibling and be told that this was disloyal to mother and father. Perhaps the child would speak out to his father only to be reprimanded. In the quiet of night that hatred will kindle from the smoldering fire of resentment. Hatred will soon become “a source of validation for your personality.” It gives to you a sense of significance to fling in the face of others’ estimate of you.

“It is this kind of attitude that is developed in the mind and soul of the weak and the disinherited. As they look out upon their world, they recognize at once that they are the victims of a systematic denial of the rights and privileges that are theirs, by virtue both of their being human and of their citizenship. Their acute problem is to deal with the estimate that their environment places upon them; for the environment, through its power-controlling and prestige-bearing representatives, has announced to them that they do not rate anything other than that which is being visited upon them. If they accept this judgment, then the grounds of their self-estimate is destroyed, and their acquiescence becomes an endorsement of the judgment of the environment. Because they are despised, they despise themselves. If they reject the judgment, hatred may serve as a device for rebuilding, step by perilous step, the foundation for individual significance; so that from within the intensity of their necessity they declare their right to exist, despite the judgment of the environment.” (p. 81)

“Hatred makes this sort of profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice.” (p. 82) Hatred leads to a sort of self-realization as a rallying point for personality. It unlocks our agency. “A strange, new cunning possesses the mind, and every opportunity for taking advantage, for defeating the enemy, is revealed in clear perspective” (p. 82). It also produces a preternatural endurance, that of a boy who being overpowered will say, “I’ll die before I cry.” (p. 82)

When hatred has produced this sort of self-realization, it also generates a sort of illusion of righteousness. “Often there are but thin lines between bitterness, hatred, self-realization, defiance, and righteous indignation. The logic of the strong-weak relationship is to place all moral judgment of behavior out of bounds.” (p. 82) In other words, behavior which would bring about self-condemnation is necessary and defensible. It is merely settling an account. So, hatred is a useful tool for protecting ourselves against moral disintegration. It gives us a moral clarity and courage about the rightness of own actions. This is very useful in war times to inspire young men to do things they could not make themselves do otherwise.

Devastatingly, hatred plays this role in the strong and the weak. It gives use complete immunity from self condemnation for the brutality with which we treat each other. In adopting a life-negating attitude toward the other, I am merely adopting a life-affirming attitude toward my brother and sister.

So, hatred does fulfill a creative and inspiring purpose. It is reasonable to suppose that Jesus understood this well. Yet, writes Thurman, “In the face of the obvious facts of his environment he counseled against hatred, and his word is, “Love your enemies,… that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” (p. 86)

“Despite all the positive psychological attributes of hatred we have outlined, hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater. While it lasts, burning in white heat, its effect seems positive and dynamic. But at last it turns to ash, for it guarantees a final isolation from one’s fellows. It blinds the individual to all values of worth, even as they apply to himself and to his fellows. Hatred bears deadly and bitter fruit. It is blind and nondiscriminating.” (p. 86)

“Jesus rejected hatred. It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength. It was not because he lacked the incentive. Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father. He affirmed life; and hatred was the great denial.” (p. 88)

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