Howard Thurman offers us a path forward in terms of addressing this question of where do we begin.
A number of years ago, I read Jesus and the Disinherited
, with the leaders of the church I pastored at the time, and have recently been revisiting it in preparation for a talk I’m giving at the Southern California Quarterly Meeting of Quakers on Jesus Against Empire
. For the uninitiated, Jesus and the Disinherited
is Thurman’s classic work that links the life of Jesus to the struggle of the poor throughout time, but especially in the lives of African Americans struggling for survival in our time. The book was critical in the freedom struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and was known to be one of three books that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. carried on his person all the time.
I am re-learning - much later than I should - the power of Thurman’s writing in this book. It is helping me address some of the bigger questions I’ve been wrestling with recently. Not least of which because as a person in my social location, I want to know how and what it means to align myself as best as possible with those whose “backs are against the wall.”
Then I came across this beautiful gem in Vincent Harding’s forward for Jesus and the Disinherited:
“So Jesus’ guidance for the disinherited may be available only through some direct, creative, perhaps disguised encounters between those whose wounded backs and spirits testify to the continuing reality of the walls and those who may no longer be forcibly pressed against them but who know the walls and the continuing struggle against the house of fear, hypocrisy, and the hatred, and have determined to overcome. In the unofficial, unprivileged, and dangerous encounters as the wall [of injustice]: perhaps that is the way Thurman would prefer us to meet his Jesus at the close of the twentieth century.”
I see two main things in this passage I want to pull out for today’s discussion:
We cannot understand the gospel without first accepting that Jesus was Poor. As Thurman writes, God purposefully chose Jesus who was in a disinherited position in the world, embodied in the person of a poor Jew, and one who was living under the oppression of the imperial regime of Roman (pp 5-8). No understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings is faithful or complete unless it begins and ends here: that Jesus was disinherited and because of this is linked to all those throughout human history who are themselves the poor and disinherited, revealing again that God not only stands with but is disinherited.
For those of us who are not or are no longer disinherited ourselves, we must align ourselves with the poor and disinherited in order to be aligned with God. For Thurman, this second group must, “know the walls and the continuing struggle against the house of fear, hypocrisy, and the hatred, and have determined to overcome.” How can we know the walls and the continuing struggle if we are not in regular and ongoing relationship and in communion with those whose backs are against the wall? Liberal politics, “woke” language, progressive faith on their own are not enough. It is the ongoing commitment to and communion with the disinherited in our time makes it possible for us to be a part of the struggle for liberation. I would add that because of the struggles due to classism and racism in our country an ongoing re-alignment will always be needed.
Of course this also means that there are those who may say they care but who, on further analysis, are found wanting. It reveals what is needed - true communion and solidarity - if one wants to begin to “know the walls.” It also gives a rubric for understanding what puts someone or some movement in line with the Freedom Church of the Poor, whether it is an explicit or implicit connection, and where religion is co-opted by empire which finds its main commitments in power and money.
What I love Thurman’s work here is that it reveals a thread that holds these various movements together throughout time and it offers an entry point to all of us. It gives me, someone whose back is not against the way, a way in to the multitude - something I long to be a part of and connected to. I appreciate how Thurman’s analysis reminds us that this struggle for liberation involves building a broad coalition, while being clear about what its center is.