A few years ago, Congressman Bobby Rush hosted a panel, “The Black Church in the 21st Century: Victorious, Vigilant, Viable?” at a Congressional Black Caucus function during which he asked faith leaders what had changed in the relationship between the Black Church (as an institution) and America’s political and social arenas. The panel assembled noted that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and most grass-roots and college organizations leading the charge for human rights maintained firm anchoring in the church. They also steadfastly pointed to theologian and professor Howard Thurman as pivotal in the philosophy of nonviolence that shaped modern civil rights movements.
Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, and through instruction and sermons he held at both Howard and Boston University, influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation of human rights organizers. King was among them. King is reported to have carried his own well-worn copy of Thurman’s celebrated work, Jesus and the Disinherited, in his pocket during the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott.
In many ways, the question of spiritual viability amid racial crisis, went to the heart of King’s ripeness to do right, and Thurman’s sermon series Jesus and the Disinherited. Each spoke of fear and a spiritual element to overcome it.
Thurman wrote, “You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives…”
Parallels could easily be drawn between Thurman’s words and Rush’s discussion on the church as a sustainer – a sort of power source from which fear was drained and faith invigorated.
“I’ve been both a [Black] Panther and a preacher and this is the only institution in the land that we still have that is authentically ours and that is still powerful,” Rush said. “It was the Church as an institution, and our faith in the Church, as its body, that helped us face down the inhumanity that characterized our citizenship.”
But with God and the Church removed from public spaces, including schools, many churchgoers have disconnected from the church in ways that make facing fears of violence, corruption, and the traps of being among the disinherited, feel impossible to surmount. The fear of being harmed, too, becomes all-encompassing, threatening the liberty of the disinherited.
Thurman wrote, “Even within the disinherited group itself artificial and exaggerated emphasis upon not being killed tends to cheapen life. That is to say, the fact that the lives of the disinherited are lightly held by the dominant group tends to create the same attitude among them toward each other.”
Thurman, ironically, spoke of random acts of violence against Blacks as well as police brutality in his work, Jesus and the Disinherited, written more than 60 years ago. He placed fear and hatred as the core emotions behind such violence. But according to Thurman, Christian leaders had been most silent on issues of violence, which then, like now, helped inculcate terroristic acts against Blacks within a culture that despised their presence in the first place.
“Christianity has been almost sentimental in its effort to deal with hatred in human life. It has sought to get rid of hatred by preachments, my moralizing, by platitudinous judgments. It has hesitated to analyze the basis of hatred and to evaluate it in terms of its possible significance in the lives of the people possessed by it. This reluctance to examine hatred has taken on the character of superstition…There is a conspiracy of silence about hatred, its function and its meaning,” he wrote.
Even international religious leaders like Pope Francis have suggested that Dr. King’s push for civility and Christ-like kindness must inform both the fight for equality and the leaders tasked with securing it.
“To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it. We know by faith that “the Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home,” Pope Francis said during a visit to the U.S.
For American University student Graca Mbuti, 23, reconciling King’s nonviolence philosophy with her faith and the challenges of racial intolerance running through the nation, seems overwhelming.
“God’s way is not our way and when you are suffering at the hands of unscrupulous leaders — people who close public housing and schools, displace the poor and working class, and cut our access to well-being, you want God to step in right away and do something,” said Mbuti, who immigrated from Harare, Zimbabwe, 15 years ago. A theology student, she is familiar with Thurman’s visionary theology as well. “I have seen plenty of suffering at the hands of evil men in high places, but there is no higher authority than God. That is one thing that I wholeheartedly embrace in Thurman’s work, the idea that because I am in God’s work, I need not fear man’s scorn.”
Far from being the lament of the weak or powerless, Thurman’s and King’s philosophies of power in nonviolence among the dispossessed lead Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi to confide in Thurman years ago that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”