The Liberating Spirituality of Vincent Harding

By Ric Hudgens

PC: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

In homage to Black History Month, I’m reposting this essay about one of my heroes Dr. Vincent Harding (1932-2014). This is slightly edited from the original which was written for “The Movement Makes Us Human”, Rock! Paper! Scissors!, Vol 1, No 1, edited by Joanna Shenk, 2018. A bit out of the beaten path of these essays, but revealing the roots of my own journey through this time.

Introduction

We knew how blessed we were by the gifts of Vincent Harding as a historian, educator, and “veteran of hope.” Less known is the contribution Harding made to the development of the first generation of black theology. 

Theologian Dwight Hopkins writes that Harding “has had a profound effect on the development of contemporary black theology in the United States, particularly the young black theology of the 1960s and early 1970s.” Harding’s essays in the mid-1960s preceded James Cone’s writings and described a religious spirit rooted in the beauty, horror, and creativity of the black experience. But Harding disavowed any formal interest in black liberation theology. “I’m much more interested,” Harding told Hopkins, “in the liberation of spirituality.” It’s the contribution of Vincent Harding to liberation spirituality that interests me here. [See Dwight Hopkins, Black Theology USA and South Africa: Politics, Culture, and Liberation, “Vincent Harding,” Wipf & Stock, 2005, pages 81-84].

Rather than track Harding’s spirituality across his many writings (a project well worth doing), I draw your attention to a 1998 address he gave at Howard University’s Rankin Memorial Chapel in Washington, DC titled “Dangerous Spirituality.” Harding was always most explicit about his spirituality while talking about the spirituality of others. In this address, he spoke of his transforming friendships with Howard Thurman (1899-1981) and Martin Luther King, Jr (1939-1968). Please read this brief essay as a companion and commentary upon that address.

It is important to note that this essay’s narrow focus on Thurman and King inadequately represents the equally significant influence of the many women. Harding worked alongside and learned from his wife Rosemarie Freeney Harding, Coretta Scott King, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Grace Lee Boggs, and many others.

A Liberating Spirituality

Harding read Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. After King’s assassination in 1968, Howard Thurman became for Vincent Harding “my surrogate father, nurturing me, shepherding me, at many times carrying me through very difficult days in my own life.” [Introduction, The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our Time, Boulder Co: Sounds True, 2010, pp 3-7].

Thurman was the father, and King was the brother. Harding and King lived as neighbors, traveled as friends, labored together as agents of change. It is believed that King carried a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited with him on his travels. What Thurman called “the religion of Jesus” united all three as intimately as their own black experience and involvement in the movement.

When Harding wrote the Foreword to the 1996 edition of Jesus and the Disinherited, he cautioned the reader against seeing Thurman’s book as some proto-liberation theology. Instead, Harding wrote it contributed towards a “liberating spirituality,” the portrait of “an emancipatory way of being, moving toward a fundamentally unchained life.” This statement speaks of the spirituality of Vincent Harding exemplified through Thurman and King: a liberating spirituality of reaching out, rootedness, and wrestling.

A Liberating Spirituality of Reaching Out

In our current era of polarization, paranoia, and pomposity, it becomes countercultural to greet, welcome, and embrace one another. Thurman’s spirituality was that of “the open door”; not a faith that must be “kept, protected, and guarded” but must open out “into the spirit, faith, dreams, and seekings of others.” 

Both Thurman and King exercised a radical and sacred hospitality, which was also central to Harding’s spirituality, whether embodied on the micro-level in Mennonite House in Atlanta (where the Hardings lived in the 1960s) or the macro-level (for example) in Dr. King’s 1967’s Beyond Vietnam speech — Dr. Harding wrote the first draft. Harding persistently sought to recognize our shared humanity over and against the multiple forces of division and dehumanization. 

He responded to this impulse throughout his life: reaching out beyond his Harlem origins, his Adventist (and later Mennonite) formation, and his academic attainments. For example, when Black Power arose in the sixties to challenge both SCLC and SNCC, Harding welcomed the gift that Black Power brought to the broader movement. He affirmed their exposure of the evils of white supremacy and illumination of the “American Christ” suppressing both white and black churches. Later in life, Harding dialogued with Buddhists about the meaning of hope and democracy, and he visited Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Harding had learned from Thurman and King that we are called to the perpetual work of expanding “the circle of the we” (historian David Hollinger). We work not for the narrow, pseudo-democracy of a mythic White America, but an expansive democracy, the anticipated “America will be!” in the poetic futurism of Langston Hughes, which Harding quoted time and again.

A Liberating Spirituality of Rootedness

There is no contradiction between reaching out and being rooted down in one particular place with one specific people. But roots can sometimes be bitter. Harding noted how the blessed American way of life celebrated and enshrined in myth (“Make America Great Again”) was a life of racial segregation and domestic terrorism. Harding said, “civil religion is a repressive WASP construct, used to locate the black outside the approved realm.” (Quoted in Marcela Cristi, From Civil to Political Religion, p 126).

The spirituality of Thurman, King, and Harding was unapologetically rooted in the Black experience in America. A Black liberation spirituality draws upon the nurturing and sustaining roots of the spirituals, religious experience under slavery, and the contemporary Black-led freedom movement. Harding believed that connecting with those roots was about connecting with strength and power. The strength to reach out. The power to share.

Besides the Black religious experience, a liberating spirituality is rooted in the religion of Jesus. James Lawson asserted, “If you want to understand King, you must look at Jesus.” We could say the same about Thurman or Harding. 

The eternal elephant in the room of white Christian faith is Jesus himself. Yes, the “white elephant” Jesus is “a possession that is useless or troublesome, especially one that is expensive to maintain or difficult to dispose of” (dictionary definition). To fit Jesus into the dogma of American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and empire, Jesus has to be diminished, contorted, and indeed re-crucified.

A liberating spirituality rooted in Black experience and the disinherited Jesus can endure the rigors of an ongoing struggle across many generations. This is why we must all become, in Dr. Harding’s words, “veterans of hope.”

A Liberating Spirituality of Wrestling

Harding noted the spirituality of Martin Luther King, Jr was a spirituality of “wrestling with angels . . . No spirituality without wrestling — that’s where King was coming from.” Perhaps any spirituality shaped by reaching out and rootedness will also be characterized by wrestling. There is no spirituality without wrestling because we must, as Dr. King wrote in his final book, seek the “position of radical engagement” where we are determined to be “fully and creatively engaged with the history of [our] time.” [Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community]. 

Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Memphis, Watts, Chicago, Vietnam all become places of radical engagement. Spirit came upon us, not for material blessing & prosperity, nor private revelation & personal joy, but so that good news might be proclaimed to the poor and freedom proclaimed to the captives.

Thurman described a Jesus who speaks to those “with their backs against the wall.” Through Thurman’s eyes, the Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for radical engagement with those in trouble. “Shall we gather at the wall?” Vincent Harding asks at the conclusion of his introduction to Thurman’s book. A poignant and provocative question in these days of literal walls being built, reinforced and extended.

Shall we gather at the wall to reach out to one another in advocacy, support, solidarity, and comfort? Shall we gather at the wall to wail, lament, and pray for one another? Shall we gather at the wall to honor our dead, our pain, and our calling? Shall we gather at the wall until all walls fall?

Conclusion

The briefest and most comprehensive statement of Vincent Harding’s spirituality is in the conclusion of his address “Dangerous Spirituality.” Spirituality is to be “alive with God’s life in God’s world.” We are reminded of that ancient Mosaic choice between life and death; or the words of Irenaeus that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive!”. To be alive with God’s life in God’s world is no simple thing.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminded us that “God has a dream.” Historian Robin D G Kelley spoke of “freedom dreams” [Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Penguin Random House, 2003]. I am convinced that God’s dreams are freedom dreams – dreams not just for one people but for all peoples – not just for a world of peoples but also for the earth.

If we are to create spaces for God’s freedom dreams in this world, then we must learn from the wisdom of Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr, and our uncle Vincent Harding. There is a liberating way of being in this world. There is the possibility of living a fundamentally unchained life, of being alive with God’s life in God’s world. It is a dangerous but liberating spirituality, and we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We have the liberating Jesus as the pioneer of this faith.

We’ve been shown a way. 

Ric Hudgens
Original April 3, 2018
Edited February 7, 2021

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