Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, Part 4

See all four parts of this series:

Chapter 5: Love

Jesus clearly identified love for God and love for neighbor as the two greatest commandments. But who is my neighbor. In Luke 10, Jesus memorably teaches about the disinherited Samaritan who was a neighbor to the (Jewish) traveler. Thurman writes, “With sure artistry and great power he depicted what happens when a man responds directly to human need across the barriers of class, race, and condition. Every man is potentially every other man’s neighbor.” (p. 89)

Thurman illustrates the genuine boundaries that Jesus encountered in his work. He needed to love his Jewish countrymen who were beginning to hate him, Samaritans and tax collectors, who were the social outcasts, and Romans who were his social superiors. These three groups represent three types of “enemies” that we might encounter.

The first represents hostility from within one’s primary group. An “enemy” in this sense is a personal acquaintance that has some sort of grievance. This is the standard restricted meaning of enemy in religious teaching. The solution to this enmity is reconciliation.

The second group of “enemies” are those within that make life difficult for the group to live without shame and humiliation. Jewish tax collectors are the exemplar. Traitors to their group, to be associated with them meant “a complete loss of status and respect within the community.” (p. 93) Thurman writes, “In every ghetto, in every dwelling place of the disinherited throughout the ages, these persons have appeared. To love them means to recognize some deep respect and reverence for their persons. But to love them does not mean to condone their way of life.” (pp. 94-95) The pathway to love here is to recognize this person not just as a tax collector, as a criminal, etc., but as a “son of God.” (p. 95)

The third group is personal and impersonal at the same time. A Roman could easily be seen as a token of the political enemy, Rome. For the Roman to emerge as a person, “The basic requirement was that the particular Roman be established in some primary, face-to-face relationship of gross equality. There had to be a moment when the Roman and the Jew emerged as neither Roman nor Jew, but as two human spirits that had found a mutual, though individual, validation.” (p. 95)

On the surface this is not difficult. But in reality each side, Jew and Roman, carried with them the background of status difference. The Roman would always be subject to distrust given his birthright. The Jew would always be aware of disadvantage and in danger of accusations of “consorting with the enemy.” (p. 96) This might lead to doubts and fears about the wisdom of loving.

To love an enemy requires that “a fundamental attack must first be made on the enemy status.” Too often intimacy is achieved only by maintaining categories of servant and served, employer and employee. “The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value.” (p. 98) This is how genuine fellowship occurs.

Thurman writes, “The religion of Jesus says to the disinherited: ‘Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous, but you must do it.’ For the Negro it means that he must see the individual white man in the context of a common humanity.” (p. 100)

This responsibility begins with the self; “the underprivileged man must himself be status free.” (pp. 100-101) Who initiates this sense of status freedom might depend on who initiates the interaction, but “love is possible only between two freed spirits.” (p. 101) The privileged and underprivileged must discover mutually that they are men.

But this discovery raises the deeper problem that we cannot get to know every member of a class at this level. Some technique is needed for implementing this discovery to a class. Thurman warns against labeling individuals or even groups the “exception” to which love does not apply. We must not assume that another person or group is incapable of mutual dealing as human beings. The deadly consequences of this are too evident.

The technique Thurman recommends is “reverence for personality.” By this he seems to me the capacity to free ourselves from false pride or false shame to take our place among fellow human beings on a level of equality. He cites the Roman man who initiated fellowship with Jesus, appealing to his unworthiness that Jesus should come under his roof. He did not come as a Roman or as a captain, but with the humility of desperation.

When “each person meets the other where he is and there treats him as if he were where he ought to be,” this is the arena where love can operate. (p. 105) Jesus demonstrated this also to the woman caught in adultery, placing her on the level with common humanity.

But his treatment of her goes well beyond this. His way of engaging with her bestowed on her human dignity to be lived into. Thurman puts it this way, “In dealing with her he ‘believed’ her into the fulfillment of her possibilities.” (p. 106) Her experience of shame and humiliation diminished her humanity and diminished her capacity to live without dependence on sinful, self-destructive patterns.

Thurman writes, “He placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear. Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.” (p. 106)

But can reverence for humanity become a part of our character even in the heat of conflict? For this “concrete experience” is needed; painstaking discipline is needed. It is necessary to adopt this posture over and over with real people. And moreover, “The ethical demand upon the more privileged and the underprivileged is the same.” (p. 106) Both must take responsibility.

What makes this mutual responsibility difficult is that it demands far more from the underprivileged group, who must overcome their hatred. Thurman writes, “The disinherited man has a sense of gross injury. He finds it well-nigh impossible to forgive, because his injury is often gratuitous. It is not for something that he has done, an action resulting from a deliberate violation of another. He is penalized for what he is in the eyes and the standards of another. Somehow he must free himself of the will to retaliation that keeps alive his hatred.” (pp. 106-107)

Is this another area where perhaps Jesus didn’t understand the difficulty? Thurman makes an observation about Jesus based on his difficult words from the cross, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.” He writes, “It does seem that Jesus dealt with every act of forgiveness as one who was convinced that there is in every act of injury an element that is irresponsible and irrational. No evil deed—and no good deed, either—was named by him as an expression of the total mind of the doer.” (p. 107)

There are three reasons why forgiveness is mandatory, even seventy times seven:

  1. God forgives, again and again, what we intentionally or unintentionally do
  2. No evil deed represents the full intent of the doer
  3. The evildoer does not go unpunished

These whispered words can sustain when all other means are exhausted, “There is forgiveness with God.”

What does the religion of Jesus have to say to those with their backs against the wall? First, there must be unadorned clarity over what they face, fear, deception, and hatred. Then there is the possibility of seeking a freedom in the determination to love which renders them immune to domination knowing that the contradictions of life are not ultimate. “[T]here is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of men which is committed to overcoming the world.” (pp. 108-9) The Spirit empowers men and women to live effectively amidst the chaos.

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