Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, Part 1

See all four parts of this series:

Howard Thurman was an influence on Martin Luther King Jr. The Stanford King Encyclopedia says that during the Montgomery bus boycott King read and reread Jesus and the Disinherited. I am documenting my reading of the book as a result of my appreciation for it and the legacy of the book in the work of Martin Luther King Jr.

Chapter 1: Jesus, an Interpretation

Howard Thurman is wants the disinherited to find help in Christianity. He writes, “to those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail.” (p. 11) Too often Christianity has been a movement of the strong over against the weak. Yes, there is a sort of moral self-importance in helping the weak. But the weak ask for help and support, when they ask for the relational accountability that comes from common brother hood, the strong often respond with self-righteous contempt. After all, there is a limit to charity. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how relations of power work to maintain hierarchies along racial lines. Thurman’s book details how these dynamics hurt the disinherited psychologically, leading to fear, deception, and hatred. His book is a guide for how to manage these and for how to love.

So, Thurman wonders, what does Christianity really have to say to the disinherited, the masses of people with their backs against the wall?

Thurman begins to answer this question by considering Jesus as a “religious subject,” not merely as a “religious object.” In other words, he wants to consider Jesus teaching and actions in his social-historical context. He sees in the teaching and actions of Jesus a sort of roadmap for comfort to those who are dispossessed, because Jesus was of their sort. Yes, Jesus was a unique expression of the Jews’ communion with God, but he also was a poor Jew, a marginalized member of a marginalized people. This was the psychological context of his life.

In the face of Roman oppression there were three obvious alternatives, to imitate the ruling group, to withdraw from the ruling group, or to actively resist the ruling group. Jesus offered a fourth alternative. The fourth alternative is what this book seeks to describe. It begins with a humility that is above humiliation, an inner source of life and strength that unlocks the possibility of realism with authenticity.


Chapter 2: Fear

The format of Thurman’s approach for the rest of the book is to introduce his topic, which is generally a problem for the dispossess, then to ask, where can the religion of Jesus be help here? In this chapter he likens the fear that haunts the dispossessed to the fog of San Francisco or London. He writes, “It is a mood which one carries around with himself, distilled from the acrid conflict with which his days are surrounded. It has its roots deep in the heart of the relations between the weak and the strong, between the controllers of environment and those who are controlled by it.” (p. 37)

The root of this fear is a sort of force or violence that is without “the element of contest.” There is no protection or recourse here. And there is a deep humiliation that comes from suffering violence without cause or purpose. It is not just suffering violence, but senseless violence. “No high end is served. There is no trumpet blast to stir the blood and to anesthetize the agony. Here there is no going down to the grave with a shout; it is merely being killed or being beaten in utter wrath or indifferent sadism, without the dignity of being on the receiving end of a premeditated act hammered out in the white heat of a transcendent moral passion.” (p. 38)

In this sort of fog only the threat of violence is necessary to produce fear. If an “example” is set, the threat becomes an effective instrument. This creates a climate where “The underprivileged in any society are the victims of a perpetual war of nerves. The logic of the state of affairs is physical violence, but it need not fulfill itself in order to work its perfect havoc in the souls of the poor.” (p. 40)

This fear is an embodied safety device for the underprivileged. It habituates the body toward necessary precaution, to reduce exposure to possible violence. It restricts freedom of movement and employment.

Segregation resulted from and reinforced this climate of fear. The very notion of “segregation” can only apply to a relationship of groups involving weak and strong (p. 41). Segregation is not voluntary separateness, but an unequal arrangement where the strong have freedom to move back and forth between the groups, but the weak do not. The situation breeds fear in the weak, and this, in turn, breeds fear of retaliation among the strong. But this fear among the strong is not like the fear of the weak because it cleanses the conscience of any sense of wrongdoing in enacting the policy of segregation (p. 44). When someone is my enemy, I am justified to treat them as I deem safe. Segregation deepens mutual antipathy.

The effects of this fear on the disadvantaged is devastating and degrading. This inter-group antipathy is the context for any individual conflict. A conflict is not merely between two individuals in this sort of segregated society, but between representatives of group antipathy. In in this situation, “the interpretations of law will be biased on the side of the dominant group.” (p. 45)

The result of this situation is often evacuation of agency. Fear conditions a person to dodge all encounters. Then there is “there is but a step from being despised to despising oneself.” (p. 44) It is clear, then, that this fear, which served originally as a safety device, a kind of protective mechanism for the weak, finally becomes death for the self. The power that saves turns executioner.” (p. 46)

So, what help is to be found here in the religious of Jesus? Thurman reminds us that Jesus does deal with these problems created by fear. He announced his mission as “setting at liberty those who are bruised” (Luke 4:18). He offers the kingdom to those who are lowly. Jesus deals with the disease of fear in two ways, by telling the dispossessed (1) that they do belong, they do count, and (2) that by providing the internal integrity necessary for a life free to appraise and exercise their gifts and capacities.

The dispossessed can learn that they are a child of God, stabilizing their sense of self and enabling courage and power. They may be immunized against the threat of violence, to be able to relax in the confirmation of identity and hope. This frees also them to rightly appraise the strengths and weaknesses of others.

The dispossess can also learn that, being a child of God, they possess equipment (“powers, gifts, talents, and abilities”) suited for meaningful action in the world. (p. 53-54) Thurman stresses that children need this sort of assurance. He writes, “The doom of the children is the greatest tragedy of the disinherited. They are robbed of much of the careless rapture and spontaneous joy of merely being alive. Through their environment they are plunged into the midst of overwhelming pressures for which there can be no possible preparation. So many tender, joyous things in them are nipped and killed without their even knowing the true nature of their loss….the child of the disinherited is likely to live a heavy life.” (p. 54-55)

But it is possible even in the midst of adversity for a child to grow up with this strong internal sense of self, assured of being a child of God and equipped to do his purposes. Not that this is easy. “Nothing less than a great daring in the face of overwhelming odds can achieve the inner security in which fear cannot possibly survive.” (p. 56) But the care of God that Jesus teaches can yield a faith and awareness that can overcome fear and transform it “into the power to strive, to achieve, and not to yield.” (p. 57)

Joseph Ratzinger on Suffering

“Pain and disease can paralyze one as a human being. They can shatter one to pieces, not only physically, but also psychologically and spiritually. However, they can also smash down complacency and spiritual lethargy and lead one to find oneself for the first time. The struggle with suffering is the place of human decision-making par excellence. Here the human project becomes flesh and blood. Here man is forced to face the fact that existence is not at his disposal, nor is his life his own property. Man may snap back defiantly that he will nevertheless try to acquire the power that will make it so. But in so doing, he makes a desperate anger his basic attitude to life. There is a second possibility: man can respond by seeking to trust this strange power to whom he is subject. He can allow himself to be led, unafraid, by the hand, without Angst-ridden concern for his situation. And in this second case, the human attitude towards pain, towards the presence of death within living, merges with the attitude we call love.”

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, 95-96.

Trauma, Suffering, and the Community

On the Mere Orthodoxy blog Patrick Stefan has written an appreciative critique of an article recently written on trauma and Reformed evangelicalism by Paul Maxwell. I want to weigh in with a question for Patrick. But before I get to this, I need to give a quick fly over of the discussion.

First, Paul’s piece was a reflection on his experience within evangelicalism and particularly at Westminster (Philadelphia). Paul was connecting a general observation about the culture of Reformed evangelicalism—its divisiveness and in-group vs. out-group dynamics—with the tendency of the traumatized to re-create trauma. He writes, “abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse.”

Not only is this re-creation a recipe for perpetuating abuse, but it is also a pretty terrible context for working through trauma. He writes, “But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for ‘survivors’ and ‘healing’ by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism . . . I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.”

Patrick Stefan builds on Paul’s article by telling his own very moving story of trauma. He suggests his narrative has two stories: “there’s the well-rehearsed one that demonstrates my theological acumen and ability to find truth, then there’s the back-story of a boy in an unsteady world looking for some semblance of certainty.” He gives his own account of Reformed evangelicalism highlighting the doctrine of the fall, the nature of trauma within this doctrine, and biblical examples of coming to terms with suffering.

While generally building on Paul’s article, he thinks “Maxwell has painted Reformed Evangelicalism with too broad a brush.” I wish Patrick had said more about this. Frankly, I am not sure he’s even talked about Paul’s most significant complaint, not about Reformed theology (Paul’s dissertation is on this), but the culture of the community.

It strikes me that Patrick has actually unwittingly contributed to Paul’s point by talking about the two narratives of his life. This leads to my question for Patrick: What kept you from telling your story to your church community? He says, “Behind the closed doors of my home I struggled with anger, hyper-vigilance, and sleeplessness, though I put on a good face in public.” This is precisely the point the Paul was making.

What struck me most about this piece—knowing Paul pretty well—is that it signaled a break with a sort of protective pretense. The fact is, this is remarkably courageous for a person in Paul’s position (Who wants to hire “damaged goods”?). The fact is our church communities do have informal in-groups and out-groups, those who are qualified for “leadership” and those who are not. There are the sufferers and the helpers. Emotional stability is a sign of spiritual maturity, and vice versa–circumstances notwithstanding.

I want to suggest that the reason that the community does so poor a job of supporting sufferers and the reason why Patrick was hesitant to show his suffering is precisely because we still tend to assume that negative emotion is a direct and simple manifestation of sin. Negative emotion, especially statements of anger, regularly disqualify people from being “in.” This creates a devastating catch-22 where people want to communicate strongly and risk rejection for doing so.

Many thanks to both Patrick and Paul for their vulnerability. I applaud them both for their courage. But perhaps, we could bring about a community where courage isn’t necessary for sharing suffering?