Thurman: Re-imagining Pain at the Cross
Howard Thurman. 1996. Jesus and the Disinherited (Orig Pub 1949). Boston: Beacon Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor who carried at least two books with him wherever he went. One comes as no surprise: a Bible. The other was Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited (xii). When I heard this, I was curious to read Thurman.
Who is Howard Thurman?
Howard Thurman (1899–1981) was one of the three most influential African American preachers of the 20th Century. He was also an author, philosopher, theologian, educator, civil rights leader, and Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades.
Thurman is a powerful, yet humble writer. In his preface, he wonders out loud: Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion, and national origin? (8) He goes on to write: the striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts (ix).
Using social position to interpret the person and teaching of Jesus marks Thurman as an antecedent of liberation theology. The basic idea is that starting from a position of affluence and privilege when Jesus was poor and marginalized makes it hard to interpret Jesus’ words and teaching correctly. It is easier to interpret Jesus when your own social position (poor and marginalized) is roughly the same. If you substitute the neutral word “context” for “social position” in this sentence, then virtually every hermaneutics instructor today would agree.
Thurman argues that taking Jesus out of context, particularly social context, allows interpreters to insert their own social context and read Jesus’ words in ways not intended. In effect, he is arguing that Christianity’s impotence in dealing with discrimination and injustices has at its core a misunderstanding of the Biblical accounts themselves.
Still, “social position” does not substitute easily for “context” as an upper-middle class hermaneutic. In my work at Providence Hospital in northeast Washington DC, I was shocked to learn that how common the scars of violence were among African American patients. While it is rare among white Americans to know someone who has been shot or murdered, it is common among African Americans—such trauma is part of their daily lives. How can someone correctly read an account in the Bible subtly referring to indignities committed when those same indignities are outside one’s personal experience? “Social position” does not substitute easily for “context” as an upper-middle class hermaneutic.
Thurman describes Jesus’ social position as a poor Jew from a minority group—a Galilean (16-18). Worse, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was within a couple miles of Sepphoris—a Roman garrison burned to the ground just before Jesus’ birth in response to a Galilean rebellion. Thurman speculates that, as a young carpenter, Jesus probably helped rebuild Sepphoris and was no doubt painfully aware of his own social position (18). For example, do you think someone from Centreville, Virginia might be totally ignorant of the Battle of Manassas, Virginia (5 miles away) twenty years after the Civil War? Thurman has clearly tarried over the facts here.
Evidence that Jesus was personally affected by his context shows up in his use of the word, hypocrite (e.g. ὑποκριτά; Luke 6:42 BNT). In the Greek before Jesus, hypocrite meant primarily ‘play-actor, role-player’ (BDAG 7615). In the Old Testament, by contrast, hypocrite appears only twice in the Book of Job in the Septuagint (Greek translation) and the Hebrew word used denotes profane (וְֽחַנְפֵי Job 36:13 WTT; also Job 34:30), not two-faced as in a role-player. Why would Jesus be aware of this Greek word? Sepphoris had a Greek amphitheatre. Jesus no doubt knew first-hand what an actor was and he re-defined the word in his own usage. Thurman (72-73) makes the point that Christians on the margin of society need to be especially vigilant in avoiding hypocrisy.
Clearly, even in Nazareth Jesus was not isolated from the tensions of his day—and he was not a Roman or even a privileged Jew. Writing as an African-American man in the 1940s, Thurman observes: If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in a ditch (33). Do you think that Thurman wrote from personal experience? The answer is clearly yes (78-79).
Outline of Thurman’s Disinherited
Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is a short book with only 5 chapters and an epilogue. The chapter titles speak to his concerns:
- Jesus–An Interpretation.
He writes a brief preface. The forward is written by Vincent Harding. Thurman’s audience is not primarily white Americans, although he recognizes that they are probably listening. No, he writes a cautionary note to African American Christians about how to remain faithful in a context of persecution.
Reading Thurman changed the way that I read scripture. In quiet moments, I use a mind experiment to highlight the importance of context. Imagine Jesus sitting on a stool in the middle of a room with four walls. Each wall has a different landscape picture—say, a beach scene, a workroom, a kitchen, a barnyard. Now, imagine walking around Jesus with a video camera so that you picture him against each of these landscapes. How does the change in context color your perception of Jesus? Having finished this exercise, repeat this experiment with different social groups; different social situations. If context is fluid and carelessly employed, we get whatever view of Jesus that is most congenial to our own social position.
Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is an important, but hard, book to read—especially if you do not agree with everything that is said. His critique is particularly convicting for me knowing that he taught at Howard University—only a few miles from where I grew up and within walking distance of the hospital where I interned as chaplain. Thurman observed and experienced racism, but he also rejected hatred, fear, and bitterness. Out of great pain, Thurman speaks with an authentic, Christian voice. We should too.