Book Notes

Book Review: Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman Jesus and the Disinherited

To introduce the subject of this book and the need for it, Thurman observes, “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 back against the wall. 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.”

Thurman (1899-1981) sets the stage for the universality of his argument by quoting a basic and unavoidable tenet.

“To some God and Jesus may appeal in a way other than to us: some may come to faith in God and to love, without a conscious attachment to Jesus. Both Nature and good men besides Jesus may lead us to God. They who seek God with all their hearts must, however, some day on their way meet Jesus.” -Heinrich Weinel and Alban G. Widgery, Jesus in the Nineteenth Century and After

Both an academic and an ordained minister, friend of Martin Luther King, Sr., Thurman worked out these issues with other leading men and women of his era.

“His [Jesus’s] message focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. He recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them.”

“The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.”

To the existence of these injustices, Thurman offers Jesus as the answer to salvation first, which takes care of one’s eternal life, and only afterwards may the question of earthly injustice be addressed.

“This is the position of the disinherited in every age. What must be the attitude toward the rulers, the controllers of political, social, and economic life? This is the question of the Negro in American life.”

This was also Jesus’s status, as a Jew, a minority living in a dominated by the Romans. His people kept under the thumb of a ruling majority, Jesus lived under racism and segregation as a way of life.

“He [Jesus] recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of 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 in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.”

“And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which us able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” -Matthew 10:28

Making the conscious choice to put people in their proper place, rejecting fear of those who can’t hurt your eternal condition, allows an unbiased appraisal of others, especially your antagonists. This perspective protects the bearer from inaccurate or exaggerated estimations of another person’s significance or influence.

Become aware of your status in God’s kingdom, and the status of all his other children, whether they know him or not. Within this framework, you can begin to see life with, what Thurman calls, an “almighty clarity.”

Howard Thurman’s short, 112 page treatise asks of each man, “How did he relate himself to the central issues of his time?” This book is Thurman’s answer for himself.  The central issue in Thurman’s day to day life was the inequality and segregation of black and white people in post-World War 2 America. In a religion buttressed by the equality of all men under God, the great Christian nation had failed to find that equality. Thurman insightfully, if at times pedantically, presents Jesus as the model, in both practice and theory, for oppressed people of all times and places.

Picture: Flickr/TCDavis