Howard Thurman’s Critique and Comparison of Jesus and the Oppression of Blacks in America
Howard Thurman, a renowned scholar in the black libertarian theology, in his book “In Jesus and The Disinherited,” examines in great depth the connection of Jesus and Oppression of the Black race. As a theologian, he deeply understands the role of faith in one’s life; and finds himself at a crossroads when faced with the paradox of a society oppressive of his race despite sharing the same religion- Christianity. Can one be a Christian and be a black man? Or rather, can one be an oppressor and a be a Christian? The interplay of his intellectual understanding of the demise of his people and the principles of Christianity inspires his thought to write the book. This book will be the primary source of this paper in a way to understand and analyze Howard’s Thurman perception of the concept of Christology-the foundation of life works- and Oppression of the Black race. For Thurman, the personal and collective views of religion are inseparable because the doctrine emanates from the same source-Jesus. Thus, his inquiry into the seminal elements of religion acts as the compass that guides him throughout his quest to unravel the mystics of Oppression and discrimination directed towards the Black race in American society.
One of the primary reasons that his texts and perceptual views expressed in his book attracted interest was that on multiple occasions, it challenges the contemporary notion of his period that Christianity had answers to the question of racial Oppression. In simpler terms, his inquisitive endeavor led him through a path of immense discoveries relevant to the field of theology and this paper. More so, written in the aftermath of one of the darkest moments in history, the book offers excellent insight into the religious context of Christian beliefs and segregation laws and social constructs. The paradox of the reality that most of the oppressed people professed the same faith, Christianity, as their oppressors were of profound intrigue to Thurman. In his own words, the religion of Christ was of immense value and inspiration to the “people who stood with their backs against the wall.”(Thurman,2012, p.1). This new argumentative dimension was with significant meaning to the theological spectrum because, as fate would have, it did not exist in the scholarly paradigm of religion at the time. It was of great importance to Thurman to explore this new form of understanding that connected the life and principles of Christ to the Oppression subjected to the Black race.
The nature of his inquiry deeply ingrained the principles of his convictions that developed during significant moments of his life. Unjustly laws that alienated the Black race in several southern states, his upbringing by a grandmother conscious of the sufferings subjected to her because of her heritage and the cultural traditions practiced by the Church where he grew influenced the tenacity for the pursuit for equality(Fluker,2004, p.148). And, Thurman’s suspicion of the Church’s dogmatism became a part of his cognitive beliefs and intellectualism in investigating religious concepts. The exclusivism in the Church propagated by oppressive doctrines that alienated his father stimulated a transformation dominantly characterized by a hermeneutic form of suspicion that was evident in his boldness in examining previously unquestioned Christian traditions. His background per se was a powerful source of his motivation to pursue and seek divine enlightenment of the mysteries of Christology in the context of man’s unjustly character.
In full acknowledgment of the role of his background, this paper will seek to reveal-through critique, analysis and reflection of his works within multiple distinct contexts-the forthright discoveries of Thurman’s scholarly works. More importantly, decipher their meanings and applicability in the Christian faith aspect concerning the Oppression against the Black race. Whilst it objectively follows a theological approach and different forms of his understanding and interpretation of Jesus and the interracial relations; mainly between whites and Black in the American social, political and economic aspects of life, the paper will go the extra mile to hypothesize whether or not from a theological point of view, his efforts justifiably contributed towards a more accurate understanding of the phenomenological distinctions of what was, and what would be; of the Black oppression. Besides, using the perspectives of other peer-reviewed sources indemnify the character and personal views resonating with him throughout his career. In sum, subject his c9ontributions in form literary writings to the discipline of theology on the topic of Jesus to an impartial cross-examination to connect with his universalistic visions of the “disinherited” African American race across America as they relate to the teachings of Christ and his life.
What were the personal convictions that drove Thurman’s ideological principles, distinct to his personality and beliefs? Did challenging the pre-existing doctrines that oppressed the Black race achieve great strides towards equality? Well, these questions are relative to the understanding of the essential outcomes of his writings. An un-distortable truth is a fact that Howard Thurman’s personality and faith anchored his principles firmly on the belief of the teaching of Christ. Thus, the firm convictions of the scriptures of Christ had a significant impact on his ideological principles and the pursuit of social justice for the oppressed(Fluker,2004, p.152). Later, at the peak of his career, the scope of writing revealed a person transformed towards understanding the plight of Oppression beyond the prisms of his race. Notably, he was an enlightened soul aware of the holistic harmony of humanity as part of the larger creation of God rather than a singular identity of race, gender, and ethnic affiliation.
His writing, to a significantly high degree, inspired a collective and mystical commitment, not just among his people but all minority and a section of the white majority towards racial equality It galvanized Christians around the idea of the inherent natural right and equal status of men, not by the standards of man-made laws but rather by those of Christ. In the literal sense, his efforts were a provocation of thought that led to a new debate of racial Oppression and radical activism of Black rights. One of his most notable students, Martin Luther King Jr. became a shining star that gave hope of restoration to the Black race in America. So, I would say his efforts yielded tremendous results indirectly through changing the minds and hearts and minds of people from across all races. They became part of the canons ushering in a new era of civil equality in American society. The new dawn, while many have been attributed to a struggle that began many years before his time, was did benefit from his efforts. An enigma in the world of modern theology, Howard Thurman made a mark in his life as a force that set the stage for the new reckoning of the civil rights movements in the 1950s with impeccable success through inspiring a religious connection of religion and equality.
The life of Howard Thurman’s manifests in his writing. Most of the individual perspectives not just about religion but also the inhumane treatment subjected to the Black race. According to Flucker (2004) “Jesus and the Disinherited” was the culmination of a rebellious sentimental feeling against the oppressive nature of religious doctrines in the American church-state. While it was to him, from an intellectual point of view, of the psychological form of Oppression that an image of “white Christ” had on him, a visit to Mahatma Gandhi in the 1940s conceptually shifted his thoughts on the issue. Throughout his life, Thurman always finding inspiration to pursue ideological clarity of the underlying moral responsibility of the Christian, remained relatively conflicted between his faith and accommodating the white mentality of the Black people being of inferior traits (Cartwright, 1985, p.83). On the one hand, his absolute conviction on the importance of Christ towards achieving elevated consciousness kept his faith strong. On the other hand, embracing the fight for equality of the Black race within the constructs of the teaching of Jesus.
The title of the text, “Jesus and the Disinherited”, resonated with him because it helped him to identify with the life of Christ and the aspiration of his race to one become free from the negative impacts of Oppression. “The people with the back to their wall” faced an immense test of their faith because, while Christ taught of resilience and the denouncement of violence as an end to a means, it was seemingly becoming more apparent to him by the day it was the only way to win back their liberty. He was lost with his faith, but so was he with it. Disinheritance, a form of curse or punishment in the old testament, made him question his position, both as a scholar and a theologian. At a very young, Howard experienced various forms of brutality and racial discrimination. However, he firmly believed the oppressive system and the use of violence was s gin of weakness rather than a representation of strength. He says, “The threat of violence within a framework of limitless power is a weapon by which the weak are held in check. Artificial limitations are placed upon them, restricting freedom of movement, employment, and participation in the common life. These limitations are given formal or informal expression in general or specific policies of separateness or segregation. These policies tend to freeze the social status of the insecure.”(Thurman, 2012, p.41)
Although it was only one form of the tribulations of the Black race, it disturbed him that he was not at peace with the realities of the day. Therefore, in his pursuit of truth and understanding of Christ, he became obsessed with understanding the relationship between the suffering of the black race and the life of Christ. It is during seeking the truth that he met with Gandhi, who triggered a new line of thought that intimately build his connection and understanding of the life of Jesus. The white racist system’s use of Jesus, depicted in a white race to suppress self-pride and conscious embracement of their heritage, became a subject of his theological journey. He began to understand the image of Christ beyond the physical aspect. This was the birth of libertarian theological perceptions that dominated academic spheres and the contemporary debates. No longer was he constrained to the physical character of Christ but rather his spiritual character. A series of conversations of the spiritual relevance of the life of Christ and the suffering provoked a new school of thought among the theological class of Black intellectuals.
Jesus, His teaching was symbolic of the suffering they were undergoing. He questioned the meaning of Christology in its relevance and value to the Black race in the context of their Oppression. Smith (2019) asserts that it was not a mere discovery because the new trail of thought was a divine revelation on his part from Christ through His teaching in the new testament. In the view of this paper, this was the turning point in his life, or precise terms- in his view of life in its literal sense. The significance of this new form of divine enlightenment helped him to transcend to a new level of higher understanding of the mistreatment and injustices of the people (Smith, 2019, p.359). In retrospect, God was on the side of the oppressed, always had been, only that it had not become clear to him. Consequentially, the new dimensional wisdom would be of significance if he made no effort to communicate and share it with Christians. In his view, it was a gift whose true meaning and value to humanity would manifest if he shared it. This new spectrum was the beginning of a long journey towards ensuring that he fulfilled his destiny. For by no means was he obligated to share the wisdom, but he felt and intimately understood it was his to share the discovery with the Christian faithful, not just of the Black race, but of all races. “Jesus and the Disinherited” was his way of sharing his gift as the discussions in subsequent sections will show.
The privileged Christians was a good point to begin to minister to the world of the essence of equality because they not only shared similar doctrines but also were part of the larger society that created the problem of segregation. Weaving the life of Jesus to the narrative of the suffering of the Black race, greatly made the people see things his way. Accordingly, in a majority of the scholarly analysis of his writings, this new approach made all the difference in his life and the work and the pursuits of his later works. In the context of his background, his resentment that triggered his boldness and inquisitive nature of his nature played a huge role in the creation of “Jesus and the Disinherited”. Humanity, in the eyes of God, was not deserving of mistreatment and oppressive. However, the imperfect nature of human beings made them susceptible to mistakes and corrupted beliefs. Such was the major cause of the conflict among the black race. In a literary context, libertarian philosophical principles were a dominant theme in his works. The distinction between Thurman’s views and other scholars was his divine connection to the divine understanding of the contextual meaning of the life of Christ (Powery, 2019, p.6). Black Oppression was a not strange phenomenon in the ministry of Christ because, in several scriptures, Jesus identifies with the suffering group of people at several levels.
After a reflection of his early life and the ignorance that guided his beliefs, Thurman made it a personal duty to speak and inspire a new form of theological understanding of Christianity, the life of Oppression of the Black race dating back seral centuries back. The epigraph of the theologian was in many ways connected to the life he lived and the different forms of suffering that he witnessed in his earlier days and those he continued to witness throughout his life(Flucker,2004, p.155). The socio-political implications of his teachings and perceptual understanding of the faults of Christianity was a tremendous step towards finding the answers and desires of her achieve equality. The imperfection of the systems did not deter his efforts but rather passionately drove his agenda throughout his career.
In his view, the ineffectiveness of life to expressively change to the systematic forms of injustices only required a new form of perceptual views of the relations between people of different backgrounds and faith. Not once did he rebuke their ignorance, but rather, he focused on questioning their lack of commitment to the truth. Through his works, he brought the reality of the marginalized to the doorsteps of those who did not previously have access to the life of the suffering race (Smith,2009, p.362). Jesus and the oppressed were not just united in spirit but also in their experiences of life. Several chapters of his book probed, to a great degree, the relevance of the values of Christianity and the actual role they played fighting against Oppression that gave a white advantage over other minorities. He asserts,
“In a society in which certain people or groups – by virtue of economic, social, or political power – have dead-weight advantages over others who are essential without that kind of power, those who are thus disadvantaged know that they cannot fight back effectively, that they cannot protect themselves, and that they cannot demand protection from their persecutors”- (Thurman,2012, p.286)
The inability for society to change was, in the view of the book, not because of the lack of guidance in the scripture but because the faithful were unwilling to take the first step towards righting the wrongs. They lacked the courage, and the pre-requisite convictions of character and belief to begin the process of change. In the book, Thurman wonders, if the Christians were unable to set the standards for a fair and just co-existence, then what was even the meaning of their role as a tool of offering guidance to the community (Marty,1990, p.312). However, Thurman did not judge their ignorance because he somewhat saw a connection between the failure of the Church and the societal impotence to create a fair society for all, founded on the principles of Christian value. Strife, despair, and a broken spirit was the absolute terms that defined the world he lived in, but through the teachings of Christ, God did not give up on his people, especially, those oppressed by the unjust laws and social constructs of the day. The correlation defining the life of Christ and that of the Back Oppression was accurately shown in the book.
Christians now had a new way to view things that surrounded the book. Surprisingly, the reaction that many of the people showed after reading the book was admirable. More so, it accurately proved the powerful meaning of life and the actual teaching that was coined in the teachings of Christ. Nonetheless, it was of great importance to ensure that all society, not only re-considered its position of the matter of Black Oppression but also take the steps towards a new restoration of their life. Not a single person or organization close to the Howard Thurman made a step to oppose his views. The underlying silence and embracement of the ideological principles of life that the author expressed in his book, undeniably created a new spectrum of Black theology and in the way that it connected to Jesus(Neal,2017, p.227). The central figure in his life and the text was Jesus and the promise of redemption. It was a moment of reflection and re-examination of the conceptual meaning of life in a literal sense.
On unique elements of the book and Christology was the meaning of living a life as per the teaching of Christ. The Church was one of the most influential forces in the new socio-political struggle after remaining silent on the issue for a very long time. The foundation of the 1940s theological approaches was, in a huge way, the result of a person who did not give up on his beliefs and connected with his heritage. Howard Thurman’s influential role became a household name among scholars on the need to ensure that nothing was left unexplored on the paradigm of Christianity and social relations in society. Just like the American union was a collective society of strong Christian, so was the new wave that set the stage for the Civil Rights movements that would soon flow. According to Flucker (2004), “Jesus and the Disinherited” was part of the Black Power movement that inspired pride with the African heritage.
The notion of a “Black Jesus,” not in the physical sense but rather in the spiritual form, was a manifestation of the path that the race towards equality took. Other types of the Black liberation, would begin by the self-liberation of the “soul” and “mind” of the Christian person before any new changes started to shape. When it became clear to the Church that it was time for them to take a leading role in the struggle of self-liberation, there was no longer time to waste. Around the same time, the influential purpose of the Lutheran churches and their role in the first towards the liberation of the Black became evident with the rise of great activists such as Martin Luther King Jnr., one of the students and great admirers of Howard Thurman’s works and teaching (Marty,1990, p.312). In sum, a new dawn was coming, and Jesus was at the forefront of showing his power through the scripture that he could fight for his people.
As the discussions above show, Howard Thurman’s contributions not only became the instrument of change that he so much desired to see in the world but also became the “link” between the oppressed and the oppressor in the American post-world war period. In all fairness to the role that he played in bringing the two warring groups, Howard, strongly driven by the absolute belief in the teaching of Christ, transcended to a new position of an icon. By far, his life became the perfect example of the selfless personality who sacrificed his time and resources to drive the society through the dark period of hostility and hatred. His actions brought a consensus between the privileged and those who lived their lives under the yoke of brutal Oppression, denying them the natural right to live a free life and economic progress (Powery,2019, p.9). Jesus and the Disinherited, unlike most of the other pro-civil rights and liberty writing, did not rebuke and advance the inherent forms of hatred that existed between the whites and the Blacks.
Thurman led his people, like the proverbial Moses, in the Old Testament through a part of their most trying times towards victory by helping to embrace love and harmony in all aspects of life -theological, social, and political. This paper distills the scholars theo-ethics that created harmony and a secure connection between both divided groups in American society. Surprisingly, the despair and strife that surrounded his life did not influence him, but rather in a moment, od torment and darkness, he remained firmly to ensuring that his beliefs in Christ remained intense and unraveled. His exit from the separatist’s confines of his life was a fundamental step towards the direction change in perception and understanding. The integral attributed that he upheld in his scholarly inquiry and the sermons promoted a sober thought on the way that society should handle such issues that threatened to cause split among society.
He brought together the people who did not see things in the same and inspired by the teaching and mantra of Christ; he led them out of the darkness of social Oppression into the light. It was a momentous time in the history of American in its journey towards social, ethnic, and racial cohesion. For Howard Thurman. His efforts to reach out to all the groups played a critical role in ensuring an inclusive society guided by strong morals of unity and harmony. “Jesus and the Disinherited” was not just a book meant for the Black race but also one that was meant to stimulate thought in the eyes of the privileged and thus lead to new changes that restructured the social belief (Smith,2009, p.364). Indeed, he played a significant role in the achievement of co-existence and cooperation between the people who did not by no means say each other eye to eye. He set humanity and the American society on a path of restorative justice and consensual change of heart and the belief system through invoking the teaching of Christ and various intersection points between his life and that of the American Black race.
A cursory inquiry into the life of various sermons and various writing of Howard Thurman shows a man committed in spirit and body to uncover the truths of the teachings of Christ in the way that they apply to his life and those facing the tribulations of life. He did not choose to lament over the issues defining the suffering of his people; rather, he focused on the internal and personal spiritual elements of the human soul(Neal,2017, p.233). He chooses to address the issue of the conflict of the self by exploring the life of the individual with God- not others. The realm of spiritual personalization was one of the dominant spectrums that featured in his wrings.
In the context of the newfound freedom and relationship between the individual and God and the teaching of Christ, Thurman sets a high standard to interpret and regard the suffering of his people. At the beginning of the text, “Jesus and the Disinherited”, he begins an expository comparison between Black life in American society and the fate of the Jews under Roman rule. I must say that the comparison is, in very many ways, very similar to the life of Black Americans. Towards the end of the first chapter, he states;
“The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts. We are dealing here with conditions that produce essentially the same psychology. . . . It is the similarity of a social climate at the point of denial of full citizenship, which creates the problem for creative survival. (Thurman,2012, p.38)
Jesus was born among the Palestine Jews at a time they were being persecuted for their beliefs and faith. He chose to be born among the oppressed people despite having the option to be born among the Romans, who by then was very powerful. Like the Black Americans, Jesus comes face to face with the various forms of suffering, including being poor, mistreated, and oppressed. While the intention of Thurman’s writing on Jesus remains contentious, it is clear that he deliberately chose the Israelites in the context of their suffering to show the value of not giving up. The comparison between Black Oppression and Jesus was mainly restricted to the harsh rule that they faced.
Even though the conditions of their persecution were worlds apart, it is evident that the spiritual personalization was very similar on various counts. He proposed a love-ethic relationship with the people who persecute them. He does call for a reactionary form of relationship because it was beneath the doctrines of Christ. Following in the footsteps of Christ, he aspires to make peace, not hate. He resents hate and dubs it as being among the “Three hounds of hell”– (Thurman ,2012, p.29). Jesus, as Thurman explains, did not advocate for the hating of the individual who means him harm but instead embraced them with love. As later expressed in the book, Christ was more than a source of motivation, and he was the spirit that gave a spark to their fight for equality. No matter how worse things got for him, Christ maintained a form of sentimental love for the Romans.
In the larger discourse of theology, the comparative analysis that Howard Thurman undertakes introduces a whole new paradigm in the way that the Black Oppression affected their faith. The theological ethics that guided the actions and religious philosophies of the libertarian theological belief were very much alike to that of Christ (Cartright, 1985, p.88). Like Thurman, Cone also uses Christ as the central figure in his work. Jesus, in the book Jesus and the Disinherited, appears to be the preeminent figure who does believe in hostility, the law of Moses of an eye for an eye. He calls for love and reconciliation because it is the only to victory.
This paper does contend with the perception of Thurman asserting that God, in His infinite wisdom, chooses to offer his son to liberate all men from sin. Therefore, Thurman’s approach to Christology and the use of Jesus as the central figure in his writing does not stray from the theological styles of his time. Most of the liberal scholars of theology at the time regarded Jesus and his teaching as the basis of new salvation, therefore, invoking his name did inspire hope among the Black race; it forced a mode of thinking among the Whites on the true values of being a Christian. The extent of this study extends beyond the intellectual symbolism that Thurman, in his text, uses; it questions the relevance of this literary approach.
The efforts of Thurman were one of the major elements in various religious and social discourses seeking to deconstruct the mystical assumption that promotes the notion that Christ was just a minor character in their work to drive a narrative of equality (Neal,2017, p.242). On the contrary, Thurman’s primary source of inspiration was the main point of comparison to the contemporary issues that oppressed people face today. Accordingly, his young self-lived a simple life in the company of his father as he witnessed the suffering of Israelites. Dehumanization of people because of their ethnic or religious ideology had a huge impact on the life of Jesus.
Various criticisms on the reasons why their contributions did not match the level of discrimination that Black Americans faced in the hands of white supremacists argued that Thurman was elitist overlooked the results of his efforts. More so, according to social scholars on the social and political discourse of life, the Americans opposition the inclusion of their religious beliefs in the larger context of the debate on civil rights. In their view, individual affiliations in the public sphere of a multi-denominational society only hamper the progress and impact of their contributions. However, as the discussions above show, Howard Thurman and other Christian scholars made meaningful contributions in the liberation efforts against discrimination, social injustice, and oppressive laws directed towards the Black race.
Thurman’s views and theological constructs were not pure abstracts but a bricolage of his extensive travel, experiences, and the background of his life. Throughout his career, he remained committed to a bold approach and dared to explore experimentalism that many other theological scholars did not attempt in their life. An accurate hypothesis would be that he used prescriptive scriptural principles in his writing and expression of his views. Uncommon in his days, the theologian ventured in a new and relatively unexplored territory that made indemnified his style and perspective. He was an astute believer in Christology that allowed him to overcome the racialized constructs that may have limited his scope of understanding the concept of Black Oppression and the way that is related to the life of Jesus, in his representative role as a symbol of hope for the oppressed in society.
American society disregarded the very principles that founded the nation by upholding social injustices against the Black race. Thurman approached the matter of Oppression by applying the principles of Jesus, with as the discussions of this paper show with impeccable success. Through the reconstruction of Jesus, he brought to life a new form of philosophical assessment of social injustice and its retrogressive nature, not just to the ideological principles of Christianity but also the very canons of humanity.
Thurman transcends through a journey of spiritual recollection and reflection of Jesus and conceives the concept of Christology and how it relates to the post-world American society. He hypothesizes that eliminating the mythological elements dominant in classical Christianity would help usher in a new era of value-based Christian consciousness predominantly guided the teaching of Jesus to liberate the “Disinherited” segment of society. Jesus, or rather the virtues that he represents, plays a pivotal role in the writings of the author, as shown in the paper. Thurman vacillates Oppression as a cowardly act born of ignorance and misconception of the triage of Christianity. The pre-disposition of using non-violence means as the most effective redemptive options yield positive later as society embraces the notion of harmonious co-existence. He creates, through his writing, an interracial Theo-ethic ideological principle that reconciles the conflicts that breed division, Oppression, and social injustice.
Cartwright, J. H. (1985). The Religious Ethics of Howard Thurman. The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 5, 79-99.
Powery, E. (2019). Howard Thurman’s Jesus: Recovering a Disinherited Identity. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 1(aop), 1-16.
Marty, M. E. (1990). They Looked for a City: A Comparative Analysis of the Ideal of Community in the Thought of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.Walter E. Fluker. The Journal of Religion, 70(2), 312-312.
SMITH, L. E. (2009). Howard Thurman (1899–1981), Jesus and the Disinherited. In Christian Spirituality (pp. 357-368). Routledge.
Neal, A. S. (2017). Howard Thurman’s Mystical Logic: Creatively Encountering Oneness – A Logical Analysis of Thurman’s Theology. Black Theology, 15(3), 224-244.
Thurman, H. (2012). Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Fluker, W. E. (2004). Dangerous memories and redemptive possibilities: reflections on the life and work of Howard Thurman. Black Leaders and Ideologies in the South: Resistance and Nonviolence, 147-176.
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