Lent with Howard Thurman

thurman.jpgBy Will O’Brien, Alternative Seminary, Philadelphia, PA

This Lent, I have using as a meditation guide Howard Thurman’s classic Jesus and the Disinherited. This book and other writings of Thurman, an African American scholar, theologian, and activist whom Vincent Harding called our “Black prophet-mystic,” were a spiritual taproot of the civil rights movement and continue to animate many people of faith who hunger and thirst for justice. Just in the first pages, his writing has revealed itself to be an unsettlingly relevant text for this season of repentance and metanoia.

Early in the book, Thurman recounts a visit to India in 1935 – a delegation of American students on a “pilgrimage of friendship.” One day, the principle of a Law College in Ceylon personally asked Thurman to have coffee. He posed a pointed question, addressing Thurman as an African American Christian: “What are you doing here?”

“More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the western cost of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians. One of your famous Christian hymn writers, Sir John Newton, made his money from the sale of slaves to the New World. The name of one of the famous British slave vessels was ‘Jesus.’

“The men who bought slaves were Christians. Christian ministers, quoting the Christian apostle Paul, gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery. You were freed by a man who was not a professing Christian, but was rather the spearhead of certain political, social, and economic forces, the significance of which he himself did not understand. During all the period since you have lived in a Christian nation in which you segregated, lynched, and burned. Even in the church, I understand, there is segregation. One of my students who went to your country sent me a clipping telling about a Christian church in which the regular Sunday worship was interrupted so that many could join a mob against one of your fellows. When he had been caught and done to death, they came back to resume their worship of their Christian God.

“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.”

As a white American, I may not be the direct recipient of this challenge. But as a Christian, the words sear me nonetheless.   It is an old and ubiquitous critique (echoing Gandhi’s trenchant indictment of Christianity that seemed to have no connection to Christ). My European forebears were the ones who created and oversaw the systematic racial brutality this Hindu professor recounts. And it is only one piece of the many crimes professing Christians and the institutional church have inflicted – and continue to inflict – on “the darker peoples of the earth.”

Many of us claim to follow a more authentic Jesus, the one who proclaims the Jubilee good news to the poor, who embodies nonviolent servanthood, who calls his followers to the Beloved Community. We seek to situate ourselves in the liberating and justice-seeking stream of our faith tradition – though, tragically, it is often little more than a stream. So it is easy to have a reflexive defensiveness: “We’re the good Christians! All that oppression wasn’t our fault, and we are doing all we can to undo the thongs of the yolk of oppression!”

While there may be some truth to that (at least I pray there is!), I am struck anew that it is too easy an out. The harsh fact is that if we identify at all with the Christian tradition, we must bear the wounds and scars – and guilt – of that tainted and corrupt history. We can’t hide behind the labels of “progressive,” “liberal,” “radical.” We cannot be innocent.

Ched Myers’ blog of last week was his reading of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness as a “vision quest,” in which he engages with the points of failure of his people, points at which they betrayed their calling to be a holy community. In our world of the 1 percent, climate change, and blacklivesmatter, those of us who claim to be progressive and yet cannot escape the truth of our privilege may need our own vision quest. We must go headlong into the pain and trauma that our people have caused and that we have benefited from. While we cannot let ourselves be paralyzed by guilt, we must understand that our vocations of liberation must be a path of repentance – not the kind where a simple acknowledgement of the transgression yields a one-time and comprehensive forgiveness.   Turning away from the benefits of our privilege is a lifelong effort, and includes both the internal work of deconstructing our deep sensibilities formed by privilege and the external work of grappling with the very real social structures of privilege. Similarly, claiming the mantle of Jesus’ followers requires that we are in constantly in touch with the deep pain that we have contributed to – and doing the work of letting that pain fuel our hunger and thirst for justice.

For the next few weeks, I will sit at the feet of pastor and professor Thurman, in a spirit of humility and repentance, recognizing that my forebears brutalized his people. I will humbly beseech his wisdom that might lead me deeper into repentance but also deeper into the work of liberation. And I will await whatever Easter reveals itself to me.

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