Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

The threshold to add a book to my reading list is very, very low. A reference to a book in another book I’m enjoying, in a podcast I like, or even an offhand quip from a friend is likely to result in an addition to my list and soon, to my shelves. This approach rarely fails though sometimes months or years pass before I actually read the book and often, I can no longer recall its source.

And so, I come to Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. My eldest daughter, a freshman in college this year, has been dipping into this book through the Episcopal Student ministry there and, in an effort to remain connected to her and her activities, I picked up the book and it sat on my desk for the next few weeks. Then I read Love is the Way by Bp. Michael Curry in which he references the book, alongside Martin Buber’s I and Thou, several times. Then I listened to the recent (and excellent) On Being podcast with Krista Tippett and her guest, the Rev. Otis Moss III.

God or the Universe began putting this book in my path. Every time I moved this book from my desk, I seemed to find it back where it started, improbably in the way again.

And so, I read it and it left me utterly, irrevocably changed.

Howard Thurman was born Nov. 18, 1899 and died, April 10, 1981. He was a preacher, a teacher, an author, a theologian, and a civil rights leader and activist, as well as the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University. Along the way he formed and informed the thoughts and actions of many other civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr., foremost among them.

At only 100 pages, Jesus and the Disinherited is a deceptively simple, but deeply important book published in 1949, very early in the civil rights movement as we know it. Somehow, like so many other books, it escaped my notice and now I can only ask, “how does everyone not know this book?” And why, as a high school student, was I required to read Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, but no one told me about Jesus and the Disinherited?

Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.

This is not another theological polemic, but an insightful perspective as to why Jesus, in the fullness of His humanity, did the things He did and, in the fullness of His divinity, loves those He loves.

The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life.

Through this book I came to better understand a scene I witnessed two years ago on a trip to the Holy Land, when our bus had to stop and turn in its tracks…young Palestinian men in t-shirts and running shoes throwing rocks at even younger Israeli conscripts in riot gear with automatic weapons and tear gas; rocks thrown in frustration and futility by a people with their backs against the wall and no agency, no voice.

I came to better understand the near hopelessness I have witnessed on numerous trips to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota; a people stolen from and lied to, time and time again, disenfranchised, swindled, forgotten, ignored, blamed; a people with their backs against the wall and no agency, no voice.

And I came to better understand how the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests so quickly and dare I say having read Thurman’s book, predictably, escalated into violence. A people, a race of people, who have spent hundreds of years with their backs against the wall.

The disinherited experience the disintegrating effect of contempt in some such fashion as did Goliath. There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.

Throughout the ages the powerful have strengthened and defended their positions of power, through words if possible and violence if necessary and the disinherited are left to find their way forward, to remind each other of their worth. This is a seemingly impossible task, but we are reminded by Thurman that we…all of us, we…are more than that.

When I was a youngster, this was drilled into me by my grandmother. The idea was given to her by a certain slave minister who, on occasion, held secret religious meetings with his fellow slaves. How everything in me quivered with the pulsing tremor of raw energy when, in her recital, she would come to the triumphant climax of the minister: “You – you are not niggers*. You – you are not slaves. You are God’s children.”

And if God’s children then, of infinite worth. Worth invested in me and you and them, by no man. Worth that can never be taken away, but in weakness or frustration can be forfeited.

To the child of God, a scale of values becomes available by which men are measured and their true significance determined. Even the threat of violence, with the possibility of death that it carries, is recognized for what it is – merely the threat of violence with a death potential. Such a man recognizes that death cannot possibly be the worst thing in the world. There are some things that are worse than death. To deny one’s own integrity of personality in the presence of the human challenge is one of those things. “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do,” says Jesus.

It is with the illustration of Jesus’s teaching that Thurman reminds His reader that Jesus too, was disinherited, living under Roman occupation. He too lived with the ever-present threat of violence, of death, but reminded His followers…they may kill you physically, but don’t permit them break your spirit. Don’t allow them to make you forget who you are and Who’s you are.

And yet Thurman is a human being. He knows and has lived that fear of violence and death that remains an ongoing concern for too many today. He knows that, for the sake of self-preservation and protection of loved ones, it becomes easy to make moral compromises. To make concessions for the sake of personal safety.

On the subsistence level, values are interpreted in terms of their bearing upon the one major concern for all activity – not being killed. This is really the form that the dilemma takes. It is not solely a question of keeping the body alive, it is rather how not to be killed. Not to be killed becomes the great end, and morality takes its meaning from that center. Until that center is shifted, nothing real can be accomplished. It is the uncanny and perhaps unwitting recognition of this fact that causes those in power to keep the disinherited from participation in meaningful social process.

I cannot identify with that feeling. As a white man born and raised in the Southern United States, I have never feared for my safety because of my skin color. I have never worried my children would not survive a traffic stop. But there are those who worry about that and similar fears all over the US. All over the world. Thurman laid bare fears and anxieties in a way I never could have understood or appreciated on my own, try as I might.

Jesus and the Disinherited traces the psychological arc of the disinherited from fear, to deception, to hate.

Hatred, in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness – a bitterness that is made possible by sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis for self-realization.

At night, when the lights were out and you were safely tucked away in bed, you reached down into the quiet places of your little heart and lifted out your bundle of hates and resentments growing out of the family situation, and you fingered them gently, one by one. In the darkness you muttered to yourself, “They can keep me from talking about it to them, but they can’t keep me from resenting it. I hate them for what they are doing to me. No one can prevent me there.” Hatred become for you a source of validation for your personality. As you consider the family and their attitude toward you, your hatred gives you a sense of significance which you fling defiantly into the teeth of their estimate of you.

The emotion in this beautiful, painful passage is the wellspring from which peaceful demonstrations turn into broken glass, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Experience Thurman’s words and measure the distance to the thoughts and actions of children of God. It is this festering, spiritual wound that compels a companion of Jesus to draw his sword and cut off the ear of another, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest.

Jesus admonishes us, not just then but today, “Put your sword back in it’s place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Matt 26:52

Living by the sword and lashing out at other, sharpening our grudges to a razors edge, are the implements through which we remain divided from one another and from God, Himself.

Howard Thurman concludes his book with a chapter titled, “Love,” reminding us as Jesus did, that love is the only true weapon of the disinherited. Love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor.

Every man is potentially every other man’s neighbor. Neighborliness is nonspatial; it is qualitative. A man must love his neighbor directly, clearly, permitting no barriers between.

Jesus and Thurman permit no ability to regard another human being as something less than or more than we are. All of us, created in the likeness of God…children of God…have equal and infinite worth and barriers and labels are not of the Kingdom. How, you may ask, do we accomplish this? By actual, human interaction, Thurman responds.

The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free.

In a moving example from Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman recounts the story of the woman accused of adultery.

This is how Jesus demonstrated reverence for her personality. He met the woman where she was, and treated her as if she were already where she now wished to be. In dealing with her he “believed” her into the fulfillment of her possibilities. He stirred her confidence into activity. He placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.

That passage, when I read it then and when I type it now, smothered me.

May we all see in one another the possibilities for love, for compassion, for understanding that Howard Thurman saw in us; that Jesus sees in us.

May we all come to read this book, Jesus and the Disinherited, and to see one another as children of God; people of infinite and immeasurable worth.

May we all spend the rest of our lives trying to grow tall enough to wear the crowns Jesus has placed over our heads.

*Please know, dear reader, I do not mean to offend by the use of this word. This is a direct quote from Howard Thurman. I would not publish or use that word otherwise.

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6 thoughts on “Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

  1. First off, I owe you a debt for introducing me to Thurman, and I share your embarassment for not finding him sooner. This essay is beautiful and a worthy celebration of Thurman’s work. Tell your daughter she has helped save at least two souls.

    Two observations:
    – Thurman doesn’t capitalize the pronouns for Jesus. No one capitalized the names – or rather, in the horrific langauge of the day, their “names” – of slaves. And Thurman rightly knows that Christ would not have wanted an honorific that was not bestowed upon one of the disinherited. That act in itself cast a spell of wonder and humility on me as I read.

    – Similarly, he in referred to Christianity in a kind of perjorative. When he wanted to talk about the beauty of Christ’s message, Thurman talked about “the religion” or “the message” of Jesus or the Christ. He knew that Christianity as a system had been hijacked by those who wanted to enslave, to disenfranchise. Thurman realizes that Jesus’s message is to reject any notion of the person – the creature capable of thought and love and reflection – as ever being rejected as an equal of Christ himself.

    This book changed me as well. Thanks to the eldest daughter for bringing it to us!

    1. Peter,
      As always, I value your thoughts immensely. Please consider these, not as a defense, but simply as further expansion of my thoughts.

      You’re right, of course about the capitalization of the pronouns. Thurman didn’t do it and we’ve talked about how you struggle with it. But I capitalize the pronouns for the same reason I make the sign of the cross at certain points during worship. It is a personal discipline. No more, no less.

      And yes, Thurman (and Jesus) were both highly critical of religion. I would simply offer that there is often a gulf between faith and religion.

      I’ll pass along the good word to the eldest.

  2. Matt,
    Having first read Jesus and the Disinherited in seminary at Trinity School for Ministry, I was struck by Thurman’s distinction between “The Message” of Jesus and the religion that was to follow him!

    I brought it to The Episcopal Student Center in this season because I wanted to discuss racial reconciliation. Knowing that the historical distance of Thurman was helpful, and his insight is both keen and thoughtful and truly Christian.

    I am so happy that your eldest was able to offer it to you and that she has found it to be a help to her!

    1. Fr. Keith…I’m glad people continue to put this book, now 71 years after its initial publication, in front of those who need to read it. I read and discussed it with a group of friends today and one of the questions we wrestled with was, “To whom was Thurman writing?” Was it to the disinherited or to those of us who circumstances have favored? My guess is a bit of both.

  3. Matt,

    I would think the same that it was initially a balm for those who were disinherited, and afterwards it was picked up and noted for its deep theological implications. I believe its resurgence is due to its honesty about racial reconciliation, its deep Christian roots, and the social distance that is helpful in addressing societal issues.

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