by Howard Thurman
This book was written in 1949.
I start with that for context. My last review was of James Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation, which is a harsh and startling read for most white Christians. In fact many reject Cone because of his rhetoric and language. It doesn’t feel “christian” enough. It offends sensible white theologians. He should be more like Jesus and less like Malcolm X.
Thurman is everything the critic of Cone desires. He is measured. His language is eloquent, lucid, and cogent. He is articulate.1 And herein lies the rub of the context. Thurman details the elements of the racial divide in our country (and universally) in a way that is not offensive or that is harsh in its descriptions of the “oppressor.” And this message goes unheard. It preempts the criticism of Cone that says, “say it nicer.” Thurman says it nicer. The issue with racism isn’t how the oppressed express their pain, it is in the unwillingness of the oppressor to listen at all.
This book is short, a mere 5 chapters and just over 100 pages. It proves that substance is not a quality of length. His 5 chapters covers:
In this sense and with these broad categories Thurman manages to not only be specific by addressing racism in America directed towards blacks, but can apply to all contexts of oppression.
The real genius of the book is how Thurman is able to capture for us the experiences and psyche of those who live under oppression. It is also a cutting criticism of the church and its failure to effectively express its core values in light of widespread and ongoing injustice. From the preface:
This is the question which individuals and groups who live in our land always under the threat of profound social and psychological displacement face: why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically and therefore effectively with the issues of discrimination and Injustice on the basis of race religion and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?Preface, xix
What is missing for most whites when trying to hear blacks communicate their experience is context plus compassion. It is trying to imagine what their experience is like. Thurman does a great job of communicating the effects of oppression on the oppressed and the oppressor alike. Here he speaks of fear:
The ever-present fear that besets the vast poor, the economically and socially insecure, is a fear of still a different breed. It is a climate closing in; it is like the fog in San Francisco or in London. It is nowhere in particular yet everywhere. It is a mood which one carries around with himself, distilled from the acrid conflict with which his days are surrounded. It has its roots deep in the heart of the relations between the weak and the strong, between the controllers of environment and those who are controlled by it.p. 26
His chapters on Deception and Hate are especially helpful. He speaks of both of these as survival mechanisms for the disinherited. He is helpful in describing their utility and consequence and then reframing them both from the perspective of Jesus. With regard to deception he says:
Deception is perhaps the oldest of all the techniques by which the weak have protected themselves against the strong. Through the ages, at all stages of sentient activity, the weak have survived by fooling the strong.P 48
After describing how this works in detail, he points to the alternative given by Jesus characterizing deception at its core as hypocritical:
A death blow is struck to hypocrisy. One of the major defense mechanisms of the disinherited is taken away from them. What does Jesus give them in its place? What does he substitute for hypocrisy? Sincerity. But is sincerity a mechanism of defense against the strong? The answer is no. Something more significant takes place…
Instead of a relation between the weak and the strong there is merely a relationship between human beings. A man is a man, no more, no less. The awareness of this fact marks the Supreme moment of human dignity.P 62-63
As to hatred he says:
Hatred in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness – a bitterness that is made possible by sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality, giving to the individual in whom this is happening a radical and fundamental basis for self-realization.p. 69
It is difficult to see how hatred is fundamental to self-realization and I initially bristled at this description, but Thurman masterfully describes the mechanism of hatred and again, its utility and consequence:
I have already pointed out that the relationship between the strong and the weak is characterized often by its amoral aspect. When hatred serves as a dimension of self-realization, the illusion of righteousness is easy to create. Often there are but thin lines between bitterness, hatred, self-realization, defiance, and righteous indignation. The logic of the strong – weak relationship is to place all moral Judgment of behavior out of bounds. A type of behavior that, under normal circumstances would call for self-condemnation can very easily, under these special circumstances, be regarded as necessary and therefore defensible.p. 72
Perhaps the most powerful passage in the book in his chapter on love as he describes the failure of the church:
The first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free.p. 88
The experience of the common worship of God is such a moment. It is in this connection that American Christianity has betrayed the religion of Jesus almost beyond redemption. Churches have been established for the underprivileged, for the weak, for the poor, on the theory that they prefer to be among themselves. Churches have been established for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Korean, the Mexican, the Filipino, the Italian, and the Negro, with the same theory in mind. The result is that in the one place in which normal, free contacts might be most naturally established – in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth, or the like – this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers.p. 88
I have to admit that this is as true in 2022 as it was in 1949. We continue to ignore this as a problem and continue to ignore his accurate and insightful analysis of the church’s failure to be the church that truly makes a place for the marginalized, the “disinherited.”
This book is a must read for those who claim an allegiance to the way of Jesus.
Books that I have found give me a better understanding of others:
- I used this word purposefully as it is the often used trope of whites when describing blacks who are in fact articulate, often with a hint of “surprise.” We highlight black authors, preachers, speakers who utilize the English language effectively and hold them up as examples, then in classic human fashion, use that characterization as an epithet.