MLK Day Talks

Between the sessions we watched clips from “King: a Filmed Record” (Trailer) and the short history of housing policies directed at segregation titled “Segregated by Design,” directed by Mark Lopez. The point of each of these was to give visual cues about how white people in America have said “stand over there” to our brothers and sisters.

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.

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)