Moving Toward Wholeness — Inviting communal Wisdom for 2022 reflecting upon Howard Thurman’s famous 1949 book: Jesus and the Disinherited: A Journey Conferences blog sponsored by The Seeds For Jubilee Foundation.
Introduction by: Michael Besançon, The Seeds for Jubilee Foundation Advisory Board
Unfamiliarity with Howard Thurman was a big gap in my education and a little internet work helped me better appreciate the biographical background to the narrative. I am mindful that this discussion is starting between two privileged white, male septuagenarians on issues such as systemic racism that tear at the social fabric of our twenty-first century American communities. I trust this upfront disclosure does not, a priori, invalidate our efforts; and I hope we will be able to find more diverse voices to join us.
Originally written in 1949, Howard Thurman, an African-American preacher, prophet-sage, who grew up in the Jim Crow era spanning the World Wars explores “what the teachings of Jesus have to say to those who stand at a moment in human history with their backs against the wall…the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.”
Born in 1899, in the segregated Waycross neighborhood of Daytona Beach, Florida, the grandson of African Americans who had personally been enslaved less than 25 years earlier, Howard Thurman was of the same age and era as my own grandparents. This first fact of birth time and circumstance strikes me as an important place to pause and reflect on issues of inter-related personal American history in order to better understand “disinheritance” (who, what, when, where, how and why); and, better understand how Jesus of Nazareth speaks to living with and healing the associated traumas; and what role resources from The Seeds for Jubilee Foundation might play in that effort.
According to various bios (Boston University briefly on Howard Thurman, Britannica.com/biography/Howard-Thurman and wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman), Thurman was raised in segregated coastal Florida primarily by his previously enslaved grandmother and mother after his father died of pneumonia when he was seven. After completing eighth grade in Daytona Beach, Thurman left home to finish his secondary schooling at Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville–one of only three high schools in the State of Florida open to educating black children. He went on to get a Bachelor’s degree in economics at Morehouse College in Atlanta (where he was a friend and classmate to Martin Luther King, Sr.), and a divinity degree from Rochester Theological Seminary in 1926. He was valedictorian for both his Morehouse and Rochester graduating classes.
After pastoring Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio for three years, he accepted a joint teaching appointment at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges back in Atlanta on the road to a remarkable life journey that touched the lives of so many from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thurman’s insights have bearing today (2022) where the dispossessed on the right and the left rage with frustration and fear of further loss in their fragile lives. My sense from reading the book is that he was a true believer and seeker of the essence of Jesus’s message for those “whose backs are against the wall.” His message, as Vincent Harding eloquently states in the forward to the republished 1976 edition, as “…a profound quest for a liberating spirituality, a way of exploring those crucial life points where personal and societal transformation are creatively joined.”
The book is only five chapters. The first explores the nature of Jesus’s faith incarnate in the body of a disinherited Jew under first century common era Roman rule. The next three chapters discuss what he refers to as the “three hounds of hell–Fear, Deception and Hate,” and their influence on both the dispossessed and the dispossessors. His final chapter, “Love,” wrestles with how the radical message of Jesus’s belief in the inherent dignity of every individual addresses the hounds of hell that stand against such worth.
Perhaps it is useful to start our discussion of the book with addressing the question of “Who are the disinherited of 2022—those “with their backs against the wall?”
Initial response from Tom Lane, Director, The Seeds for Jubilee lee Foundation:
Thank you Mike for kicking off the discussion.. Like you, I find this book especially timely, which is a bit disconcerting in that it was written the year of my birth. History is indeed “rhyming!” It is true that for many of us who grew up in white middle-class neighborhoods (though mine was racial-ethnic), we had an experience of something like the sweet spot of human history. In our boyhood, we enjoyed safe shelter; there was always enough to eat and we exalted in the freedom to ride our bikes and join with neighbor kids in pick-up games of all sorts — in relative freedom from fear. You’re right of course, that, for many, it wasn’t that way then and hasn’t been since .
It goes without saying that we need a myriad of participants of varied races and backgrounds to take part in our discussion so we can each gain an enlarged perspective. That said, individually at least, each of us has only our own unique viewpoint and experience from which to draw. I believe that , so long as we each speak from the heart with an open mind, what we have to offer the conversation is valid despite its limitations. Like you, I hope others will join us in this spirit of sharing and humble reflection upon Howard Thurman’s wisdom and it’s stunning relevance for today. I believe each of us has something of value to contribute to our common understanding.
I love the phrasing Vince Harding uses in his 1996 Foreword to describe this book as “a profound quest for a liberating spirituality, a way of exploring and experiencing those crucial life points where personal and societal transformation are creatively joined.” Aren’t we living through such a time?! I think so and, consequently’ I believe this book most helpful in deepening the engagement of everyone participating, Christian or not, with what Thurman saw as “the religion of Jesus.”
”The question you pose seems simple enough: “Who are the disinherited of 2022—those ‘with their backs against the wall?’” Matthew Root, a Christian author from Canada amplifies well Howard Thurman’s phrasing: “The world’s disinherited are trapped between the violence of the privileged and the ‘wall’ of systems and structures that don’t allow them an escape. Their options are limited. So what are they to do?’”
Looking at it this way, Mike, your question can be restated: “Who (what groups of people) have their sense of equality as human beings and their ‘’unalienable Rights, among which are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ denied or threatened in the social systems to which they rightfully belong and by structures set up to advantage others in the society at their expense?
All of us can think of a plethora of responses. We think of those beyond the United States of America and a host of peoples and countries come to mind, but, at least for now, let’s narrow our focus to the U.S.A..
What adds challenge, as your question implies, is the fact that the walls shift and change. Vincent Harding spoke to this in his Forward: “Although Thurman’s message of the 1940’s was focused on the needs of the Black representatives of the disinherited in the United States, by the last half of the final decade of the twentieth century it is clear that his message is now replete with significance for many other people as well. Latinos, Native Americans Southeast Asians, and many women and gay and lesbian people are only the most obvious additions to Thurman’s community of the wall.” The image of “the wall,” makes folk such as immigrants and children and young black men so already front of mind, we hardly need to call them even more to our attention.
I think it best to let those who will join us in this dialogue offer their own answers.
Broad brush, these Internet excerpts can stimulate our thinking, though they are written from a policy-making perspective:
“… those who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias within American society because of their identities as members of groups and without regard to their individual qualities.” USDA
“… all those who suffer from structural discrimination (such as women, children, older persons, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, indigenous peoples and people living with HIV/AIDS), and …”
“Due to various factors— geographic location, sex, age, ability and citizenship; for instance— some groups find themselves facing distinct disadvantages. These conditions may be lifelong, such as one’s ethnicity, or they may change throughout the life cycle, such as age…”
“The 10 most disadvantaged communities—which are home to more than 120,000 people—are all rural. The four counties in South Dakota are home to Sovereign Tribal Nations, and the five counties in Mississippi are along the Mississippi River.”
“In small towns hit by repeated hurricane-related flooding in South Carolina, researchers found that many people could not access available disaster relief funds because they live in ‘family homes’ that have been informally passed down over generations, without clear documentation of homeownership.”
These examples considered, Mike, I think even more important for our dialogue is to focus our attention not just upon the large groups, but rather anonymously upon individuals with whom we individually may be acquainted who are “disinherited.”
Throughout the gospels, Jesus seems to give special attention to individuals and the stories of his encounters with them he naturally brings into view this question: “What are the social constructs that have led to their disinherited circumstances?” Mike, maybe those who participate with us in this blog can use that lens to begin to respond to your question: : “Who are the disinherited of 2022—those ‘with their backs against the wall?’
Put to us as Jesus, in essence, asks at the end of his parable of The Good Samaritan,” if you were that one laying wounded in the ditch by the roadside, whom would you know to have acted as neighbor to you?” Then, perhaps, we may be able to follow the wisdom of that African proverb of which the late congressman John Lewis reminded us all: “When you pray, move your feet.”