The antiracist reading group at my church has dedicated the month of February to Howard Thurman’s classic work Jesus and the Disinherited.
We’ve spent the last six months exploring the history of racism in the United States by looking at the experience of black, Latinx, and Indigenous people and looking at the long legacy of slavery. Now we’re using Thurman’s book as a way to pivot to exploring the role of the church and Christianity in combating racism and righting these wrongs.
As a jumping off point, we’re using one of Thurman’s own questions to guide our discussion for the month. In his preface, Thurman poses the following questions: 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 to a basic weakness in the religion itself?
As we were planning for these sessions, I told the group that I liked this question because it was the one I didn’t want to answer. Why hasn’t Christianity been able to deal effectively with racism? Is there some inherent weakness in the religion or is it something else? That’s a question I’ve asked myself frequently over the last ten years.
There are too many days I look at what some American Christians are up to and feel like we should just give up.
There’s plenty to be upset about. Christian nationalism remains rampant in the United States — an unquestioned part of many white Christians’ lives. We’ve spent 4+ years witnessing most evangelicals’ unwavering support for Donald Trump and his most abhorrent policies. Many white evangelicals don’t seem to want to coexist in a pluralist secular democracy. And if the Christian imagery at the January 6th Capitol riot was any indication, Christianity and far right extremism are still closely linked, as they have been for decades in the United States.
It’s hard not to look around on some days and wonder if it might be better to throw it all out. It’s hard to believe Christianity has an adequate answer to any of the myriad problems we face today. And it’s even more disheartening that Thurman was asking this same question over fifty years ago. Have we really made so little progress that the same question seems even more relevant today?
After posing the question in his preface, though, Thurman tries to provide an answer. He believes that Jesus really does have something to offer to “people who stand with their backs against the wall.” The final chapter of Jesus and the Disinherited is devoted to love and the centrality of love and neighborliness to the religion of Jesus and to the dignity of each human being. Thurman describes Jesus’ own demonstration of this ethic: “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 non-spatial. It is qualitative. A man must love his neighbor directly, clearly, permitting no barriers between.”
In a conversation with Krista Tippett for On Being, the Rev. Otis Moss III expands on Thurman’s ideas about Jesus’ love-ethic, applying it to our own time and framing it in terms of our current racial reckoning. He notes Thurman’s own emphasis on hope and contemplation as part of this process, on finding the sacred in places we might not expect, and most importantly, on building the beloved community.
As always, the answer lies in finding a more expansive faith — a more expansive understanding of Jesus, of our own potential, and of others.