Howard Thurman is well known as one of the 20th century’s great mystics, thinkers, and spiritual leaders. “Jesus and the Disinherited” may be his best known book, and it’s certainly his most influential. Martin Luther King, Jr. carried a copy with him in his travels and it grounded him as much as any book. It’s certainly worth the accolades.
It’s a small book, and its organization is basic. Thurman begins by describing people under oppression as the people “With their backs to the wall.” Most of what Christians have written about the role of the teachings of Christ in conversations about oppressed people comes from the perspective of those with power who have an obligation to help those who do not have power. Thurman affirms this approach, and compares it to the perspective of Paul, who, though a Jew and regularly persecuted for the Gospel, always had the power to assert his Roman citizenship. His was a chosen powerlessness, and he occasionally chose to use his societal power.
Jesus, God Incarnate, chose to take his place among those “with their backs to the wall.” Thurman believes that Jesus’ life and teachings can only be understood from this vantage point. He argues that those who have never been powerless cannot fully understand what it means to have society’s structures and systems turned not to their benefit and protection but to their subjugation and humiliation.
Thurman describes how the life and teachings of Jesus relate to the great enemies of the soul–fear, deception, and hate. He is a master not only of the faith but also of psychology and society. The final chapter is about love, and how love between those in power and those with their backs against the wall can only be the result of relationships built on mutuality. He thinks the church is the best place for such relationships to form, and laments that congregations are so segregated and do not allow such relationships to form.
Love is a miracle, and all of society makes the enemies of the soul and the possibility of the love Jesus describes incredibly difficult. One of the great wonders of the Jesus story is that he is a person with his back against the wall who was able to demonstrate the possibility of living in an oppressive situation without giving in to fear, deception, or hate. Jesus was able to love, even his enemies. This fact alone gives tremendous hope that those with their backs against the wall may actually live in such a way. Thurman certainly did.
Howard Thurman wrote in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, and he talks about his conversations with a grandmother who had spent her childhood in slavery. People like me, who take our freedom and privilege for granted, should read the book, if for no other reason, to get a sense of the interior struggles others face.
Our world is full of fear, deception, and hate. The kind of love Jesus demonstrates and Thurman describes is rare, indeed. This book is a training manual for those who would live in this world with souls untouched by its cruelty.