SUMMARY: When a major cultural event, such as George Floyd‘s murder, shifts the focus of a country, it is easy to assume that critiques of the American church and racism are a recent phenomenon. Oftentimes we are simply unaware of prophetic voices from the the past such as Howard Thurman and his quintessential Jesus and the Disinherited. Penned in 1949, Thurman critiques the church and its seduction with power while detailing the psyche and motivation of the oppressed. His ultimate conclusion is that belief in Jesus, in conjunction with community, can empower the disinherited.
“Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak,” Thurman writes. “This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples.”
Thurman condemns the Christian church for siding with the powerful while also calling out leaders who use religion as a weapon. Those two things have created segregation between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Because of the abuse of power and the bastardization of religion, Thurman says the disinherited are consumed with the “three hounds of hell” – fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. They fear violence and being stripped of their self worth and dignity. They see the hypocrisy of Christians using power and privilege to justify evil, though Jesus grew up poor, under Roman rule, not in power and privilege. The disinherited hate being stripped of self worth and dignity. They hate hypocrisy, and this hatred leads to bitterness.
Thurman deftly points out that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred exist when sympathy is absent between those in power and those that are not. This situation flourishes when there is “contact without fellowship.”
“Contacts without fellowship tend to express themselves in the kind of understanding that is strikingly unsympathetic,” Thurman says. “Unsympathetic understanding is the characteristic attitude governing the relation between the weak and the strong.”
That is where true Christianity can change the dynamic. It can interrupt the cycle of fear, hypocrisy, and hatred.
“The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power,” Thurman writes. “If a man’s ego has been stabilized, resulting in a sure grounding of his sense of personal worth and dignity, then he is in a position to appraise his own intrinsic powers, gifts, talents, and abilities.”
With Christianity should come a community where relationships between different socioeconomic groups, genders, and skin colors are established. Unfortunately, as Martin Luther King pointed out in 1963, and is still true today, “11 o’clock on Sunday morning” is the most segregated time in America.
“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. The experience of the common worship of God is such a moment,” Thurman says.
“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.”
That is a wake up call for the church.
KEY QUOTE: “To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail. The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples.”
BONUS: After reading the book, or if you want to know more before reading it, listen to the trio at Round Hill Radio discuss Jesus and the Disinherited in a two part series.
DID YOU KNOW? Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.
Our latest curated books on racism:
To this day church services across the nation are some of the most segregated times of the week. Is this by random chance or was this intentional? Author Jemar Tisby details the sordid history of the American church and its complicity with racism in the New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Color of Compromise.Read more
Grounded in Genesis in the Imago Dei The Gospel in Color firmly traces the evolution of racism back to the garden of Eden when sin entered the world. But, Jesus coming into the world and dying on a cross allows us to be reconciled to him while modeling what it takes to be reconciled to each other.Read more