A Short Review of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the Disinherited is the highly influential work of Howard Thurman, a renowned black theologian. JesusAndTheDisinheritedDr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is said to have carried a copy of Thurman’s work with him during his travels and clearly embraced Thurman’s emphasis on the need for the oppressed to love their enemies and turn away from hatred.

– Although the forward by Vincent Harding says that “superficial readings” of Thurman might suggest “elements of liberation theology,” I agree that such a reading would be incorrect. Thurman’s work speaks very little about resistance to oppression or even the sin of oppression. Instead, the book speaks *to* the oppressed about Jesus’ call to reject the three “persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the … disinherited:” fear, deception, and hate (p. 36).

– Oppression breeds fear, arising out of the “violence to which the underprivileged are exposed” (p. 37). It also leads the oppressed person to a “negative answer” to questions of self-worth like: “Who am I? What am I?” (p. 49). In answer to fear, Jesus affirms our status as children of God, which “tends to stabilize the ego and results in new courage, fearlessness, and power” (p. 50)

– Oppression also breeds deception, as the disinherited person lies and deceives in their “daily struggle to survive”: “Not to be killed becomes the great end, and morality takes its meaning from that center” (p. 69). But Jesus insists that we must be honest, no matter the cost and that this integrity, though dangerous, humanizes and elevates the disinherited: “a man is a man, no more, no less” (p. 73).

– Finally, though the oppressed are tempted to hatred, Jesus commands love for enemies, whether they are the “personal enemy” who is “part of one’s primary life-group”; that is, a fellow oppressed person (p. 91-92), or the traitor who is part of our oppressed group but collaborates with the oppressor (p. 93-94), or the oppressor himself (p. 95-96). In all cases, we are to love our enemy by “the mutual discovery .. that the privileged is a man and the underprivileged is a man” (p. 101). By humanizing him, we can love him.

– Thurman calls attention to how proximity can breed love. “During the great Vanport, Oregon disaster…, many [white] people opened their homes to Negroes, Mexicans and Japanese…. Under the pressure they were the human family… in immediate candidacy for the profoundest fellowship, understanding, and love” (p. 104). Thurman suggests that while interracial churches are one place where “normal, free contacts might be naturally established” (p. 98), segregation has thwarted this possibility.

– Thurman’s application of Jesus’ teaching to the situation of the oppressed person is excellent and insightful. He recognizes that Jesus himself was oppressed and therefore was forced to live out his teaching every day in the face of Roman subjugation.

– The book’s writing style was somewhat pedantic. Though it was short -only 110 pages- I suspect that it could have been edited down to 30 or 40.

– The biggest problem with the book was the absence of any distinctively Christian theology; it could easily have been written by a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a secular humanist. Throughout the book, Jesus is presented as a wise, loving sage, but never as a divine figure who made any kind of Messianic claims, as the historical Jesus did.

– At only one point does Thurman insist that he does “not ignore the theological and metaphysical interpretation of the Christian doctrine of salvation” (p. 29) although he never says exactly what this interpretation is. Instead, he sets it aside because “the underprivileged everywhere have long since abandoned any hope that this type of salvation deals with the crucial issues by which their days are turned into despair without consolation” (p. 29).

– This explanation involves a serious mistake. The most “crucial issue” any human faces is sin. And the “type of salvation” we most need is deliverance from sin. While Christians may be rightly charged with failing to address grievous injustices, this failing should not lead us to deny the crucial truth that our eternal destiny is more important than our short life on earth. Indeed, it is this realization that has given hope to millions of oppressed people throughout the world, who know that weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning (Ps. 30:5).

Thurman’s seminal work is a good and compelling application of Jesus’ teachings to the plight of the oppressed. In this regard, it may be helpful for evoking interest in Jesus in those who have become jaded with the Church. That said, Jesus’ teaching is invoked as a guide to dignity, fulfillment, empowerment, and psychological peace, not as a sign of his divine identity. Jesus is presented as a liberator from oppression, not as a liberator from sin. But the real Jesus is both. To miss that is to miss the gospel.

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