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Jesus and the Disinherited (1949)

by Howard Thurman

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6891026,866 (4.42)8
In this classic theological treatise, the acclaimed theologian and religious leader Howard Thurman (1900-1981) demonstrates how the gospel may be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised. Jesus is a partner in the pain of the oppressed and the example of His life offers a solution to ending the descent into moral nihilism. Hatred does not empower--it decays. Only through self-love and love of one another can God's justice prevail.… (more)

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A small but powerful book. One that Martin Luther King Jr carried with him. I certainly understand why. This book's chapters are in larger chunks than Howard Thurman's Meditations and requires more attention. It is well worth it. ( )
  njcur | Jul 27, 2021 |
His orotund writing style hasn't aged well, but his heart is so clearly in the right place that is easily forgiven. A book to treasure, especially at a time when his vision of dialogue and understanding seems more threatened than ever. And as a healthy reminder that wild-eyed televangelists don't speak for all of Christianity. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Jul 19, 2021 |
What do “the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.” This is the starting point for Professor Thurman’s short and powerful book that guided Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout his life. The point in history was the aftermath of the Second World War, and the people with their backs against the wall were black Americans, referred to properly by Therman in the language of the 1940s as Negros.

He draws a parallel between ancient Palestine under Roman occupation and the United States in 1949. The Jews were disinherited of their land and power and under the heel of a powerful empire. This also was the plight of twentieth century African Americans. Both they and the Jews were outnumbered, oppressed, and without rights or human dignity. In the case of the descendants of enslaved Africans their ancestors had been torn from their homes, family, friends, culture, and religion. Every attempt to retain any of those ties was repressed by the slave owners. The disinheritance of the enslaved was extreme.

It is the fate of minorities, argues Thurman, that the psychological impact on those unfavored members of society, the disinherited are fear, deception, and hate. Then he presents his central thesis:

“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion if the powerful and dominant, used as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind of Jesus. ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men.’ Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”
… “For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time deeply victimized by the Christian Church’s betrayal of his faith.” (pages 18-19)

… “The basic principles of his way of life cut straight through to despair of his fellows and found it groundless. By inference he says, ‘You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea—Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in Heaven.’” (pages 24-25) ( )
  MaowangVater | Jul 19, 2021 |
Howard Thurman in his classic Jesus and the Disinherited addresses the challenging affront of how he can claim to be a Christian, while it was Christians who brought Africans over to the Americas and Christians that propagated slavery in the U.S. What significance does “the religion of Jesus” have for those “with their backs against the wall?”

Thurman begins by delving into the historical context of the Jews during the first century. They were in many ways similar to African-Americans in the U.S. particularly before the civil rights movement – a marginalized people living under the power of another group. Further, not only was Jesus part of the unprivileged, being a Jew, but he was also a poor Jew. How should a person respond given such circumstances? Often people assume that they can either resist, like the Zealots, or not resist, like the Pharisees. Yet, Jesus provided another way. Thurman writes that Jesus “recognized... that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys of his destiny (28).” The religion of Jesus was not what we see in the powerful and oppressive, but rather was “a technique of survival for the oppressed (29).”

This mindset is exemplified through overcoming what Thurman calls the “persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the disposed, the disinherited (36).” Fear is constant for those at the margins. Feelings of helplessness lead to a type of fear that the privileged cannot understand. “It is spawned by the perpetual threat of violence everywhere (37).” The religion of Jesus reaffirms one’s identity. Thurman retells a sermon given to black slaves where they triumphantly proclaim, “You-you are not niggers. You-you are not slaves. You are God’s children.” This affirms who they are and grounds their personal dignity where they can absorb some of the fear reaction. Further, it levels the playing field in a sense. “This new orientation” allows for “an objective, detached appraisal of other people, particularly one’s antagonists,” which can “protect one from inaccurate and exaggerated estimates of another person’s significance (52).” Furthermore, the message of Jesus builds a place for hope to blossom and grow even amidst the worst of situations. To know that God cares for you can spur one to purpose and a life without fear.

A second pervasive hound of hell for the poor is the tendency to fight their disadvantages and to protect themselves through working to deceive the strong. Thurman believes that this constant lying and deceiving tarnishes the soul. “If a man continues to call a good thing bad, he will eventually lose his sense of moral distinctions.... A man who lies habitually becomes a lie, and it is increasingly impossible for him to know when he is lying and when he is not (64-65).” How is Jesus relevant to those who (seemingly) must lie, cheat, and deceive in order to survive? Surely we cannot fault them. Acts of survival are amoral; they are simply required. Thurman exposes the folly of this logic. The end goal that propels the poor in these situations is to “not be killed” and “morality takes its meaning from that center (69).” Occasionally this center is swallowed by something larger. Patriotism for instance gives meaning beyond simple survival. Thurman argues that Jesus proclaims to center on living within God’s will. One’s purpose and moral center focuses on being a part of God’s work; therefore, there is no fear of scorn. He writes, “There must always be the confidence that the effect of truthfulness can be realized in the mind of the oppressor as well as the oppressed (70).” Such a profound challenge calls the disinherited to “an unwavering sincerity” that is honest, true, unhypocritical, and life-giving.

Thurman deals with the third hound of hell – hate – by describing the process. It “often begins”... with “contact without fellowship (75),” cordiality without genuine feelings of warmth. These situations lead to relationships lacking any sort of sympathy. He writes, “I can sympathize only when I see myself in another’s place (77).” And is this type of unsympathetic attitude that undergirds most relationships between the weak and the strong. Third, “unsympathetic understanding tends to express itself in the active functioning of ill will (77),” which leads finally to full-embodied hatred for another. Hatred is born in the mind of the oppressed through great bitterness. It can become “a source of validation for [one’s] personality (80)” by giving a sense of significance in defiance to those you hate. Similarly to deception above, Thurman believes that “hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater (86).” It “is death to the spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values (88).” Thurman concludes simply that “Jesus rejected hatred.” It runs contrary to creativity of the mind, vitality of the spirit, and squelches any sort of connection to God.

The final chapter explores the central ethic of Jesus’ message: love, and in particular love of enemy. According to Thurman, Jesus exemplified three types of enemy love. The first is to love those in your community who have become enemies. For Jesus these included the household of Israel, your personal enemies. Second, Jesus proclaimed love that stretched even to tax-collectors. These people were also sons and daughters of Abraham. But further than that – Jesus called his disciples to love even the Romans, those who marginalized and oppressed the Jewish people. This means “to recognize some deep respect and reverence for their persons (94).” Love is what frees everyone to see the other as human like themselves; it is what brings forgiveness and allows the disinherited to experience full life.

Howard Thurman’s understanding and description of Jesus was both enlightening and convicting. He brings deeply personal insight to the plight of the marginalized. Although written for African-Americans in the late 1940s, Jesus and the Disinherited applies to people today by giving hope for the disinherited and forcing empathy on the privileged.
( )
  nrt43 | Dec 29, 2020 |
"The significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall has always seemed to me to be crucial." - Howard Thurman
  levering | May 3, 2020 |
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and to the future of their generation
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In this classic theological treatise, the acclaimed theologian and religious leader Howard Thurman (1900-1981) demonstrates how the gospel may be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised. Jesus is a partner in the pain of the oppressed and the example of His life offers a solution to ending the descent into moral nihilism. Hatred does not empower--it decays. Only through self-love and love of one another can God's justice prevail.

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