Jesus and the Disinherited

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Jesus and the Disinherited

As I’ve just started my sabbatical, 8 years in the waiting, I’m shooting to read at least 10 books in the next 4-5 weeks. I might be able to read more, but 10’s probably reasonable. The first book I finished was one for a seminary class by Howard Thurman – Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman was a pioneer of the civil rights movement prior to its actual inception in the 50’s. Figures like Martin Luther King Jr. studied under him and learned from him.

Thurman captures much of the Christ-centered love ethic that is required to follow Christ amidst social, economic, and racial injustice. At one point he writes,

“A man’s conviction that he is God’s child automatically tends to shift the basis of his relationship with all his fellows. He recognizes at once that to fear a man, whatever may be that man’s power over him, is a basic denial of the integrity of his very life. It lifts that mere man to a place of pre-eminence that belongs to God and to God alone. He who fears is literally delivered to destruction. 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.” pg. 52-53

Part of his thesis is that the oppressed or “disinherited” actually can contribute to their own dehumanization by succumbing to the temptations of fear, deception, and hatred. Only living, loving, and serving out of the identity that comes through being a son of God through Christ can free one from those temptations so that one might truly live and reflect God’s glory whatever their station in life is.

One of Thurman’s concluding thoughts is as follows:

“The religion of Jesus makes the love-ethic central. This is no ordinary achievement. It seems clear that Jesus started out with the simple teaching concerning love embodied in the timeless words of Israel: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy might,” and “thy neighbor as thyself.” Once the neighbor is defined, then one’s moral obligation is clear. In a memorable story Jesus defined the neighbor by telling of the Good Samaritan. With sure artistry and great power he depicted what happens when a man responds directly to human need across the barriers of class, race, and condition. Every man is potentially every other man’s neighbor. Neighborliness is nonspatial; it is qualitiative. A man must love his neighbor directly, clearly, permitting no barriers between.”

Thurman’s ideology and theology was developed through an era where he himself experienced great suffering and racism. He found in Christ the power and strength to respond to injustice and oppression without violence, hatred, fear, and deception. Today the powers of oppression still abound, yet the calling of believers is the same – to love out of humility. Regarding the power of authentic humility, Thurman on page 27 poignantly quotes Simkovitch in referencing the means of oppression in the civil rights era who writes, “Natural humiliation was hurting and burning. The balm for that burning humiliation was humility. For humility cannot be humiliated.”1

What a great reminder that as we encounter situations where fear, anger, or hurt may tempt us to compromise our integrity or true identity, true humility cannot be humiliated. Christ himself humbled himself beyond compare by dying the death of a criminal on a tree, but indeed his humility cannot be humiliated as his victory, power, and love conquers free, anger, hatred, and deception. I take away from Thurman that authentic humility anchored in the life of Christ is of central importance for the victorious Christian life in this world.

1. Simkhovitch. Toward the Understanding of Jesus. Macmillan Co. pg. 60-61, 1947.

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