March 3, 2019
For the Disinherited and Afflicted
I am going down to New York to see Martin. I am not sure why, but I must talk to him personally if the doctors will permit.[ii] Upon seeing his face, Howard Thurman knew what he needed to do. He told his wife Sue, [i]It happened to him before. There—in his mind’s eye—a face appeared. This time the face was Martin’s. At that moment, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Harlem Hospital recovering from a near-fatal stabbing.
[iii]this would give him time away from the immediate pressure of the movement to reassess himself in relation to the cause, to rest his body and mind with healing detachment, and to take a long look that only solitary brooding can provide. too soon and then King would throw himself back into the struggle for civil rights. Thurman pleaded with him to extend his rest by two more weeks. As Thurman said, go ahead King answered, but the answer did not satisfy Thurman. The doctors were going to give the what do the doctors say about the length of your convalescence before they will okay the resumption of your work?When Thurman and King were alone in the hospital room, Thurman asked,
Jesus recognized 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.[iv]This was 1958. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum. But Howard Thurman advised a pause. King had to confront the inner life of the spirit. Years before, Thurman wrote:
It was a reminder to everyone engaged in the struggle that the life of the movement depended on the spiritual lives of its members. Knives, whips, fire hoses, dogs, tear gas, and bullets wounded the flesh, but these could not destroy a people alive in the spirit. Discrimination, segregation, and alienation devalued human life, but these could not degrade a people defined by God. [v], a book King carried around in his briefcase as he traveled.Jesus and the DisinheritedThese are words from,
, the truth he worked out in a lifetime. working paper His basic belief was that God cares for all created things. This was, what he called his [viii] within all things. signature of God, the Creator of life His core conviction was the indelible[vii] who lives within us all.living spirit of the living God He was the spiritual mentor of the movement, always turning people to the [vi]Howard Thurman was not found marching Selma to Montgomery or seated on freedom rides, but his writings were circulated among those who were.
God made us each children and cares for us all.[xi].God will take care of us, she said. Nothing will happen to us Thurman never forgot this, nor did he forget what his mother said to him when, after seeing Halley’s Comet, he feared it might fall from the sky. you—you are not slaves. You are God’s children.[x] who preached to her in covert worship gatherings of fellow slaves. The minister’s message always came to this: slave minister She told him that there was a [ix]Born in Daytona Beach at the turn of the century, Thurman was nurtured by his grandmother who endured slavery.
[xiii]I only know I cannot drift beyond God’s love and care. When he did find himself at the pulpit, indeed as pastor of the first major intercultural and interdenominational church in North America, he proclaimed the reversal, quoting Quaker poet John Whittier: never to have anything to do with the church.[xii]. On the buggy ride home from the cemetery, Thurman vowed preached my father into hellTwo occasions challenged Thurman’s thesis. The first was when his father died. His father never found his place in the church and when he died the church refused to find a place for him. The pastor of their local church denied the family a burial and ceremony. When they eventually found an officiant for the funeral, Thurman recalls, he
While in Ceylon, Thurman had coffee with an academic who took him to task, saying:[xiv].a representative of the Christian religionThe second challenge came when, as dean and professor at Howard University, Thurman traveled to India as
[xv]What are you doing over here? More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the western coast of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians…The men who bought the slaves were Christians…During the period since [emancipation] you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. Even in the church, I understand, there is segregation…Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.
. Recognizing that the Christian religion had been used to disinherit people of their land, culture, and dignity, Howard Thurman dug into the roots of the religion to see if it had anything to say to the disinherited. Jesus and the DisinheritedThough Thurman spent five hours in dialogue with this man, his answer came in the form of the book,
[xviii]projected a creative solution to the pressing problem of survival for the minority of which He was a part in the Greco-Roman world., Thurman wrote, The religion of Jesus [xvii], eyes ever upon them, nowhere to move.with their backs against the wall The Jewish people were humiliated by the Romans, made to be pawns in power plays. Jesus was part of a people whose inheritance—whose identity and dignity—was taken. They stood [xvi].a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group was a poor JewHere is what he found: Jesus, .
Thurman said the disinherited and disadvantaged see something more. He comments:do not worry Even more, to a people dispossessed of much, Jesus says not to worry about food, drink, or clothing because God will give these things to them. For those of us for whom much has been given and little taken away, we perceive in these words a self-help saying: [xx] Members of Thurman’s church in San Francisco took this seriously as they created desegregated living spaces despite angered neighbors. mutual worth and value.[xix], they are favored by God, and that they are this before anything else. He tells them to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors because this is the way towardblessedSuch a solution is given to us in the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with Jesus telling his poor, mournful, meek, hungry, thirsty, persecuted and reviled people they are
Of course God cares for the grass of the field, which lives a day and is no more, or the sparrow that falls unnoticed by the wayside. He also holds the stars in their appointed places, leaves his mark in every living thing. And he cares for me! To be assured of this becomes the answer to threat of violence—yea, to violence itself. To the degree to which a person knows [xxi]., that person is unconquerable from within and withoutthis
A person knows this only in the repose of prayer. In the quiet calm, when all cares are momentarily muted, this is known: God cares for me among all creation. I think we can now see why Howard Thurman prescribed two more weeks of bed rest for Martin Luther King. In solitary, prayerful moments, King could find himself among the lilies and sparrows, objects of immense value and worth. In the next decade, everything was taken away from him except this—and this is all that matters in the end. What is the good news for the disinherited? No one, nothing can take away the true inheritance: we are beloved children of God. Yes, this is what we teach to children in Sunday School and LOGOS. But, for Howard Thurman, what he learned as a child, from his Mamma and Grandma, was sufficient to endure the struggle for equity.
Simone Weil wanted to know the suffering of the most afflicted. And she did.[xxiii], she quit her teaching post and took a job at an auto plant. Weil suffered physically at the factory, having finally to take leave due to pleurisy. Then, she began training to fight in the Spanish Civil War only to be deterred by an accident. When France fell under German occupation in the Second World War, Weil went south to work in a vineyard where she slept and ate as the poor peasants did. At the end of her life, just as at the beginning, she ate only what rations were given to the French in occupied territory.sympathizer and she would earn a degree in philosophy. From an early age, Weil demonstrated extraordinary empathy for suffering. When she was five, she forbid herself sugar because soldiers at the frontlines were without. During her first teaching position, she spent off hours picketing, helping the unemployed, eating only the equivalent of government rations, and giving the rest to the poor. No longer wanting to be a mathematical prodigy family. Her brother would become a agnostic who asked a similar question: what is the gospel for the afflicted? Born a decade after Thurman, Weil was raised unlike him in a privileged [xxii] his whole career. At Boston University, he taught his students the French mystic Simone Weil,working paperThurman worked on this question of his
[xxv] Soon after, she began reciting poems and prayers when she suffered headaches. It was in these painful and prayerful moments that she encountered Christ and certain freedom.[xxiv].divine love in the midst of afflictionIt was as she was suffering that she came to an understanding of Christ. During Holy Week and Easter of 1938, Weil attended services at an abbey. Her head throbbed with migraines but was somehow overcome with joy at the sound of the words. This was, she recalled, an experience of
This is good news for the afflicted: not even the worst suffering can inhibit the love of God. And where there is love, there is freedom and joy. To this, Simone Weil was testament.[xxviii].Over the infinity of space and time, the infinitely more infinite love of God comes to us…God created beings capable of love from all distances It creates distance. Still yet, Weil wrote, [xxvii].affliction makes God appear to be absent for a time Whether it be cancer, catastrophe, slavery, or despair, [xxvi].social, psychological, and physical all of life. It is the kind of pain that is at once uproots. Affliction afflictionWeil’s experiences made her wonder what Christian faith has to say to the worst kind of suffering, what she called
Thurman and Weil are prophets in that they also had words for the people of God. This is what Israel never liked about their prophets. It is what Jesus’ disciples never liked about him. The good news is God’s universal love and care and the people of God often stop the press.[xxx] Weil never joined the Church in part because she thought the Church can go collectively blind and commission harm to God’s beloved as extreme as the Crusades or Inquisition.when Christianity became an imperial and world religion, it marched under banners other than that of the teacher and prophet of Galilee.[xxix]Howard Thurman and Simone Weil looked to Jesus to find a good word for the disinherited and afflicted. Thurman found word of God’s universal love and care in Jesus’ message. Weil found this word at the cross. Both were critical of a Church that departed from this word. Thurman said,
Early this week, the United Methodist Church met in St. Louis where delegates decided by vote to strengthen the denominations prohibitions against same-sex marriages and LGBTQ clergy. It is a devastating decision for people who identify LGBTQ and Methodist. It is painful for every ally in the church. When I thought of the disinherited this week, I thought of LGBTQ persons disinherited by their home church. When I thought of the afflicted this week, I thought of the social exclusion, the mental anguish of knowing that who you are is not accepted, and even the physical pain caused by brutes and bullies. What, then, is the good news for these disinherited and afflicted friends? It still is that every single person is the child of a God whose love stretches wider and goes deeper than any love we know. We have to believe this gospel for ourselves before we can believe it for others. Now is the time to sink into prayer and consider ourselves among lilies and sparrows, the objects of creative love. Then we get back in the movement.
[ii] Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, Harvest (1979), 254-5.
[iii] With Head and Heart, 255.
[iv] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Beacon (1976), 11.
[v] Vincent Harding says this in his foreword. Jesus, xii.
[vi] Introduction to Howard Thurman, Sermons on the Parables, eds. David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen, Orbis (2018), xxxvi.
[vii] Head and Heart, 269.
[xiii] The Paper of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. 3. Ed. Walter Earl Fluker, et al. “Grace.”
[xiv] Head and Heart, 103-4.
[xx] Head and Heart, 150.
[xxii] The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol 4. Ed. Walter Earl Fluker, et al. “Biographical Essay.” USC (2017), xxviii.
[xxiii] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, intro. Leslie A. Fiedler. Harper Perennial (2009), xiv-xxvi.
[xxiv] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, “Spiritual Autobiography,” 26.
[xxv] “Spiritual,” 27; 29.
[xxvi] Simone, Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us, Plough (2018), 91.
12.Waiting, “Letter II,” [xxx]