(This article originally appeared in Texas Baptist Magazine, including an online version.)
It can be hard for those of us who have so much prosperity and privilege to grasp the biblical concept of God’s priority for the poor and disadvantage, but it is there from front to back in the Bible. Those who suffer grasp this truth much more quickly; it thus inspires them and gives them hope.
Howard Thurman wrote a book in 1949 that helped many people reorient their thinking about God and hurting people, and Thurman thus supplied an important theological backbone for the American civil rights movement. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman said “the religion of Jesus” is crucial to “people who stand with their backs to the wall.”
The author identifies Jesus clearly as one of those with his back to the wall.
— First, Jesus was a Jew, which means his identity came from the “sense of community which Israel held with God.”
— Second, Jesus was a poor Jew, as indicated by his parents’ offering of two turtledoves, which shows they were not able to offer a lamb as sacrifice.
— Third, Jesus was a member of a minority group in the sense that Roman politics dominated the region.
In these aspects, Jesus was like many Jews. But Thurman notes that the “thing which makes him most significant is not the way in which he resembled his fellows but the way in which he differed from all the rest of them.” Still, that uniqueness “should not blind us to the significance of the environmental factors and the social and religious heritage of Jesus in determining the revolutionary character of his insights.”
Thurman paints a picture of Jesus as one whom a politically and racially oppressed people could hear and follow, even after centuries. Thus Thurman helped make Jesus a relevant savior to be worshiped and emulated today. This was critical to African American Christianity in the second half of the twentieth century.
Thurman did not ignore the “theological and metaphysical interpretation of the Christian doctrine of salvation,” but he said, “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.”
It is here that those of us who are prosperous and privileged are brought up short. Our lives can be tough at times, but they are not filled with the “despair without consolation” associated with poverty and oppression. There is a deep pain and understanding of reality that is experienced by the hurting people of this world that is hard to comprehend from a place of privilege.
Jesus offers all people salvation that lasts an eternity, but Thurman notes that the religion of Jesus offers a “technique of survival for the oppressed” in life now. This technique is exhibited in the pages of Scripture. “Wherever his spirit 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.”
In other words, suffering tends to produce fear, deception, and hatred among those who suffer. These three “hounds of hell” can only be tamed by love.
Thurman, while giving an accurate description of the issues faced by those with their backs to the wall, did not let the disinherited off of the ethical hook, so to speak. Despite there being reasons for fear, deception, and hate in a context in which physical safety is threatened, they are not to be given free reign; they are to be confronted and challenged in the life of the disinherited.
This great African American pastor and author brings out the importance of respect or reverence for personality. “The religion of Jesus says to the disinherited: ‘Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous, but you must do it.'”
Thurman deeply identifies with the lives of the oppressed. He challenges those of us who are not pushed down socially and economically, but he also challenges those who are suffering. It is a two-sided challenge rooted in the life and teachings of our Savior.
Every society in every time faces some significant tension between people of prosperity and privilege and those of suffering and oppression. Jesus clearly identifies with the second group, and that identity should call all of us who experience prosperity and privilege to step out of our comfort and, with Jesus, share in the suffering of others. And, for those who suffer, Jesus offers a way forward – not just toward heaven someday but toward justice today.
Love enables us all to follow Jesus in that way – His Way.