Howard Thurman, author of “Jesus and the Disinherited”

The Mystic in MLK’s Pocket.

On Howard Thurman, christian mystic, mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.

Two days ago was “Martin Luther King Jr. Day”, and of the many things I hold in reverence of this mountain of a man on this day, one is a book he would carry with him on his travels as a guide for how a christian activist might respond in coming upon oppressive societal sickness, conflict with the oppressors, and even the possible resulting violence. The book was written by a man many have never heard of, but who was of great influence to MLK and most other leaders of the original civil rights movement. The book is “Jesus and the Disinherited”, and its author was Howard Thurman, a spirited theologian, christian mystic, and civil rights leader.

I became obsessed with Howard Thurman when I discovered a quote of his many years ago that had somehow totally encapsulated my work helping leaders find their true self, inner purpose, and outer positive impact (in that necessary order). It’s a quote I still read at the beginning every single engagement and workshop I do:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.”

I decided if I was going to use this quote, I should learn a bit more about the gentleman who said it. While this quote represents a radical shift as it pertains to seeking and creating from purpose, this needs to remain a story for another day.

Today’s story is about Howard Thurman courageously calling out the hypocrisy of what I’ll call our time’s “religious christianity” (as opposed to what I regard as “spiritual christianity”) and his call for christian society to reunite with its true spiritual roots in order to understand and avoid hypocrisy in relating to issues of racism, oppression, disenfranchisement, and disinheritance. And also, just as strongly, how to avoid hypocrisy on the activist side in choosing what the nature of powerful response and action to those issues would ideally be.

I am glad I sought to learn more about this majestic man because when I read, “Jesus and the Disinherited”, as a christian who always felt outside, like I had little in common with mainstream christianity, I believed I had finally found Home. Someone was expressing so eloquently what had laid heavy in my heart for so many years. Decades ago, as a teen with a terminal cancer prognosis, I had entered a quite unexpected love affair with this one they called Christ, but try as I might, I could never find a church or community that seemed to have read the same words of his as I had, and so our relationship remained a profound and personal one.

At the time, as a radical, army-jacket-wearing, college activist, organizing buses to DC to protest Iran-Contra, discrimination, etc., I discovered in shock that my radicalism, which I was so proud of at the time, could not even touch the radicalism I was reading in Jesus’s words: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” ?!, “Forgive them for they know not what they do?” ?!, “Turn the other cheek” ?!, the idea to love everyone unconditionally, even if we see them as “bad” or “evil”, or worse yet, on the “wrong side” of my righteous progressive views and political-correctness?!! WHAT?!! To discover that my radicalism and progressiveness, and even my ideas of what peace and love are, were totally dwarfed and could not hold a candle to the kind of radicalism, peace, and love, proclaimed on a dusty mount 2000 years ago, literally knocked me to my knees. And also, that 2000 years later, those of us who identify as christians, or a society that simply identifies with the same values, still can’t even come remotely close to handling and living within the radicalness of those teachings. We claim to do so, and pretend, but we don’t. We still can’t integrate the absoluteness of them (and I of course include myself in that). And neither “side” can, although both love to claim rights to the preference of their author. Everyone says they love everyone unconditionally until they watch FOX or CNN, and see who today’s “bad person” is to blame, curse, and hate, or get cut-off on the freeway, or have someone jump in their parking spot at CVS. At that point, it quickly becomes very conditional — brothers and sisters in humanity become “them”, people get cancelled instead of reprimanded, rehabilitated, and healed, the route to betterment defaults to the all-too-easy against-ness of the old we want to change, instead of toward the work in for-ness of the new we we want to create. Quite different from the words of Jesus that Howard Thurman might point us to in this moment, “How can you remove the splinter from your brother’s eye when there is a log in your own? First remove the log from your own eye, that you can then see clearly and remove the splinter from your brother’s.”

And so, even with “Jesus and the Disinherited” being written in 1949, for me it went relentlessly right at the very heart of these matters that are still so pronounced today. Howard Thurman had been witness to Jim Crow America. He had seen the multitude of christian churches that actually did not allow black people in them (churches in America remain some of the most segregated of all institutions — I wonder what book they read every Sunday). Imagine that. Imagine being him and knowing the true words so well. Knowing not only the truth of the words, but that they were realized into wisdom by a homeless man, of a minority, roaming the day’s random tattered slums, living through hand-outs, all while under a giant wealthy empire. One who spoke almost exclusively to the poor, oppressed, and disinherited.

Thurman starts the book with,

“Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.”

1949. Could be 2022. The “back against the wall” has simply become the neck against the curb.

But there is something of utmost importance to share here: It appears Howard Thurman did not define himself as an activist. He defined himself as a mystic and christian, and his motivations for addressing the inequities of our society as coming from these imperatives. After attending Morehouse, Colgate Theology, and Howard, he also studied with the Quaker, Rufus Jones, himself a mystic christian. Both communed in the knowing that true intimacy with the Divine and its application to the issues at of the day could not be had through the day’s religious constructs and institutions but only available through first a personal journey inward — within ourselves (again, in alignment with the words of Jesus, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within”) and within the magnificent emergence of a divinity, of which we are a part, we call “Nature” (“Thurman is talking to trees. Trees!” — Walter Earl Fluker, Editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project). And so Thurman’s position on illuminating the hypocrisy of the christian establishment in service to a more peaceful and equal society was less from a place of righteousness and justice, but from simply seeing the healing and ascension possible in our world through the alignment and application of the simple truths as the one he called “the genius of the religion” had relayed them: How can we separate, segregate, or even buy into the mental construct of race (“Judge ye not by appearances sake, but judge only righteous judgment”) as a means of “othering” each other, when it is abundantly clear we are simply all of the same source — each wholly diverse as individuals while also each perfect, and by our very birth and nature, indisputably equal children of the Divine with our seminal divinity in us in equal parts?

And before we on the “progressive” and liberal end of things feel we can now slip away vigorously nodding and saying “Amen”, Thurman’s clear as crystal christian lens in “Jesus and the Disinherited” provided direction in terms of how we apply and adjust ourselves and respond to these issues. They are timely given the growing proliferation in liberal social feeds of phrases like “time to burn, baby, burn” and “by any means necessary.”

One of the reasons Martin Luther King visited Ghandi in India was because many years before that, Howard Thurman had made the trip to India, visited with Ghandi, and his powerful impressions got passed onto many civil rights leaders. Ghandi at the time expressed to Thurman that he believed the way non-violent non-cooperation would enter the West would be through the oppressed black population of America and that it would hopefully spread from there to other areas of injustice in America and beyond. Thurman probably gained validation on that trip, but given his already pronounced christian mysticism and his deep study of the relationship between the oppressed of those times and the Romans, he had likely already been in Ghandi’s zone as seen in his words in “Jesus and the Disinherited”:

“He [Jesus] recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine his INNER life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny. If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It’s a man’s reaction to things that determine their ability to exercise power over him.”

And before we allow the assumptions frequently jumped to from such statements, we need to be thoroughly clear that Thurman is in no way suggesting non-action. Non-violent non-cooperation is full of action —much more creative and effective action — see Ghandi on a beach in Dhandi making salt and changing the power structure of the world, see Rosa Parks refusing to leave her seat in a bus in Montgomery, and changing history. Why can I use these examples here as opposed to the multitude of acts of anger and destruction that have also transpired over the years? Because you know them. Because their creative power has had them endure and become the beginnings of real transformation. With his words above, Howard Thurman is defining how we can be assured the creative action we take, because of the intentional architecture and energy behind it, can avoid creating a world of hatred whack-a-mole, and instead, of true lasting change. And also assure us in the meantime, that the“haters”, on all sides, cannot turn the rest of us, into them:

“Wherever his [Jesus] spirit appears, the oppressed gathered 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.”

If this sounds in some way familiar, remember it was often in the pocket of the miraculous man we celebrated a couple days ago, who said these:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.”

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

We are all made of love, so where can we find that enemy?



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