Howard Washington Thurman (1899–1981) played a leading role in many social justice movements and organizations of the twentieth century. He was one of the principal architects of the modern, nonviolent civil rights movement and a key mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From The Howard Thurman Papers Project.

What does Jesus offer to a people who live with their backs against the wall? This is the question with which Howard Thurman began his landmark work, Jesus and the Disinherited, in 1949. The work became an intellectual pillar for the burgeoning civil rights movement in the 1950s. Howard Thurman, an unorthodox mystic and prophet, served as a spiritual mentor to civil rights leaders in the mid-century black freedom struggle. Until recently, Thurman’s work was not as widely known or studied among white Christian communities as it deserved to be. But our current historical moment offers new impetus to return to this spiritual giant and particularly to his seminal work on Jesus.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman recounts a conversation he had while on a six-month speaking tour of South Asia in the 1930s sponsored by the Student Christian Movement, a group co-sponsored by the YMCA and YWCA. At the time, India struggled for independence from British colonialism. After one of his talks, Thurman describes a conversation with a young Indian lawyer who made this observation:

What are you doing over here? I know what the newspapers are saying about a pilgrimage of friendship and the rest, but that is not my question. What are you doing over here? ... More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the western coast of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians. ... The men who bought the slaves were Christians. Christian ministers, quoting the Christian apostle Paul, gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery. ... During all the period since then [emancipation] you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. Even in the church, I understand, there is segregation. ... I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you. But sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.

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What does the religion of Jesus offer to those with their backs against the wall?

Jesus and the Disinherited was the fruit of Thurman’s answer to this challenge. What does the religion of Jesus offer to those with their backs against the wall? Thurman began by focusing on Jesus’ situation as a poor Jew living in occupied territory with no civil protections, an outsider in his own land. For the Jewish people in Jesus’s day, their most urgent concern was their “… attitude toward Rome…. And Rome was everywhere. No Jewish person of the period could deal with the question of his practical life, his vocation, his place in society, until he first settled deep within himself this critical question.” As a non-citizen, living under a violent and oppressive regime, Jesus’ life, ministry, and death happened as one with his back against the wall.

Thurman went on to argue how people who live in such predicaments are pursued by “the three hounds of hell”: fear, deception, and hatred. Ironically, each hound can be heeled and used as a tool for surviving personal and systemic oppression. Fear can focus the mind and train the body to avoid situations and encounters which could lead to violence or death. Deception can keep the oppressor in the dark regarding an individual or community’s real feelings, motivations, actions, and even aspirations. And hatred can steel the resolve of those who find themselves facing overwhelming odds. But, Thurman argues, allowing fear, deception, or hatred to become the ruling ethos of the dispossessed comes with a significant price. Habitually adopting any one hound of hell ultimately takes its toll on the humanity of the oppressed, further stealing from them their dignity and their ability to reimagine the world and work for genuine social transformation.

Thurman’s gambit was that Jesus, subject to the same temptations as every dispossessed person, pursued a path distinct from the perils of adopting fear, deception or hatred as a means of survival. According to Thurman, Jesus began with the simple idea that, “Every man is potentially every other man’s neighbor,” that “Neighborliness is nonspatial; it is qualitative. A man must love his neighbor directly, clearly, permitting no barriers between.” From Thurman’s perspective, wherever the spirit of Jesus “appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”

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Living in a day when police routinely abuse authority, when racial disparity distorts human identity, when it is accepted to discriminate against migrant children and deny individuals the right to legally seek asylum; in which current taxing and spending policies favor the rich and powerful, balloon the debt, and have produced the widest gap between the rich and the poor in over 100 years; in which the highest office of the land consistently expresses a profound ambivalence regarding the common humanity of all peoples; a time in which an ecological catastrophe is upon us and a pandemic surrounds us— Thurman’s words resonate.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman insists that to fight and struggle against oppressive powers and principalities requires a spiritual reservoir that can only be filled through the practice of spiritual disciplines like silence, contemplation, meditation, and prayer. Jesus “recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny.” Thurman warned his peers during the mid-century civil rights struggle against severing the labor of working for social justice from the spiritual roots, which give such work its vigor and sustaining power. Thurman reminds that the way of Jesus was trod by one with his back against the wall and that only by connecting to the Spirit of life and justice can we sustain movements for social change.

Christian Collins Winn is associate professor of theology at the Global Center for Advanced Studies, Dublin, Ireland and Teaching Minister at Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota.

Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.