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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.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • mstair says:

    “It’s hard to believe Christianity has an adequate answer to any of the myriad problems we face today.”

    Where did the expectation come from that Christianity’s main emphasis should result in social change?
    The New Testament does not even condemn slavery and social divisions. Rather, it makes statements about how to practice Faith and keep Peace within them. In fact, it even uses slavery terms to describe the proper relationship of Believers to Christ – doulos = slave (Acts 2; we white western Bible readers translate it “servant,” but that’s not what it says); and Peter’s reference to Believers as Christ’s possession (a people as someone’s property).

    Christ said we are to be salt and light. We are made to be the small example in a predominantly tasteless darkness. Our Master’s return shall culminate the change into a bright, fascinating, and just reality.

    • Tom Ackerman says:

      I was struck by your opening question and, after chewing on it a bit, think that you may be posing a strawman here. The question, as it seems to me, is not whether the main emphasis of Christianity should be social change, but whether Christianity in my personal life and in the life of the Christian community to which I belong should result, inevitably, in change in my life and social change within the community in which we live.

      The Old Testament is replete with calls for justice for the poor and the disenfranchised within the people of God. The New Testament has many references to how our lives are to show the fruits of the Spirit. To chose only one, I cite Philemon 15,16: “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother”. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.”

      I think you are correct that we are called to be salt and light in a tasteless darkness. Where I disagree is the idea that we can only be small examples. When we join together as congregations of Christians locally and denominations nationally, then we should feel called to make a significant difference in the social fabric of our nation. Allison’s statement that you quote (and indeed her excellent post) is directed at the failure of the American Christian church to reflect the fruits of the Spirit in our country.

      To me, one of the fundamental hypocrisies (of which there are many) of the Christian Nationalist movement is to declare that the United States is a Christian Nation and then fail miserably to demonstrate that such a nation is showing, or should show, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. Following the thoughts of James, a Christian nation that does not exhibit the fruits of the Spirit cannot be a Christian nation.

  • Jim Payton says:

    Telling, even damning observation here: “Many white evangelicals don’t seem to want to coexist in a pluralist secular democracy.” Thank you for stating that baldly.

  • Ann McGlothlin Weller says:

    I’m always taken aback when I hear Christian people kind of glibly refer to “marginalized” and “oppressed” people without considering–or feeling any responsibility for–how that marginalization came to be and why it continues.

  • Thanks for this essay, thought provoking in a good way, and hopefully a stimulus to read the book. If it were not for the influence of Christianity, would Thurman even be asking the question? I don’t hear this question being asked during my time spent in cultures with little Christian influence where racism is just accepted as a fact of life. Nor do I find evidence that this question received much attention in ages past, when Christian influence was small or absent. Is it reasonable to identify the problem as hypocrisy rather than Christianity?

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