My bookshelf had become in much disarray and so I have begun going through books to get rid of those that I no longer want to make room for those that I want to add. What I discovered was how many books I possess that I have not yet read. One of those was Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman first published in 1949.
I am unsure how I never had read it before! According to African American Vincent Harding, whom I had the fortune to spend a weeklong retreat with only a few years ago at Ring Lake Ranch near Dubois shortly before his death, this was a book that Martin Luther King, Jr., frequently carried with him to often reread. Harding was a speech writer for King and a great civil rights worker in his own right. Harding wrote the foreword in the edition of the book I have that talks about not only how relevant this book was to the civil rights movement but also going forward in order that the struggle is fulfilled for any who are oppressed. Again, the voices of descendants of slaves who knew and lived the experience are what can help lead us forward to the land of freedom and harmony.
Thurman tells the truth about who Jesus was. Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was poor. Jesus, as a poor Jew, was a minority in the Greco-Roman world and did not have the rights of citizenship even in the place of his birth. He was one of those “who stand with their backs up against the wall,” which is how Thurman describes the situation for those who are oppressed. Jesus spoke from that point of view to the Israelites in a time and place where their very identity, culture and faith were under siege.
Thurman tells the truth about those who claim to be Christian but are the oppressors and who twisted the Bible using the words of Paul, who unlike Jesus was a Roman citizen, to keep the slaves in their subservient place. With Christianity being adopted and adapted by the oppressors, the version of Christianity today in the United States is not the voice of the Jesus for the disinherited. Thurman knew of the Christians who were also KKK members and saw nothing inconsistent with that. He knew that white people could go to the black churches on Sunday for worship, but that black people could not go to white churches.
He tells the truth about those of us who go to help the oppressed do so with “the sin and arrogance that has tended to vitiate the missionary impulse and to make it an instrument of self-righteousness on one hand and racial superiority on the other.”
Thurman says there are two choices for the oppressed: not to resist or to resist. Within those two choices are other choices. Not to resist, i.e., remaining silent, can include assimilation with the oppressor, like King Herod did, or to separate and have as little contact with the oppressor as possible in order to preserve traditions. To resist can be with anger and violence or it can be with courage and non-violence. I expect I will be writing more about this book in the coming weeks. Other chapter titles are Fear, Deception, Hate and Love. If this book helped to guide Martin Luther King, Jr., I think it might help guide us on a path for the Riverton Peace Mission.
I suggest that Jesus and the Disinherited be added to the “must read” anti-racism list of books, especially for those of us who identify as Christians who want to work together to dismantle racism. The book was written for Thurman’s brothers and sisters not yet freed from oppression, but we can all benefit if we are to stand together as our freedom as human beings is entwined.
Fear not. Be bold. Build relationships. Be humble. Do justice.