Over the past several years Howard Thurman’s writings have deeply impacted my spiritual life and have helped me see a more complete picture of the human experience, particularly in how our inner landscape interfaces with how we interact with the world around us. I recently read his book Jesus and the Disinherited. I found myself pouring over many sentences multiple times to be sure I grasped the meaning before moving on. It is only around 100 pages long, but it took me weeks to finish it. It is said that Martin Luther King, Jr. always carried a copy of this book with him, and one can certainly see the through-line in thought from Thurman to King.
It is an interesting and challenging read. Thurman does well to remind the reader that the religion of Jesus (he does not call it “Christianity”) was born in a particular social and political context – in Jesus, a Jew being oppressed by Roman rule. One cannot separate political, social, and religious realities of his time from the teachings of Jesus. What Jesus was putting forth was a way of being in heart, mind, and body that is resistant of (but also lives in and engages with) a world where inequality of all kinds exists. It was a divinely formed coping mechanism uniquely suited to help him and others survive with dignity and compassion in a world that offered him anything but these things.
So, how did we end up here and now, with many differing interpretations of the religion of Jesus that often obscure the beautiful life-saving truth about what Jesus offered to every person?
I have heard that perhaps the worst thing to ever happen to Christianity was Constantine becoming a Christian. Suddenly the teachings of Jesus were forced upon an empire and on the side of the politically powerful—irony at its finest. And even for all the apostle Paul’s work to spread Christianity and plant churches throughout the region, from the moment the religion of Jesus passed to another man, it has been the victim of an ongoing game of telephone. With each step removed from the source, it has been co-opted by opinions, corrupted by power, bent to political agendas, and stretched so thin that in many instances it is hardly recognizable.
The principles Jesus practiced and taught are quite simple, and yet so difficult to practice consistently:
“Love God with all your heart, mind, body, and strength.”
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Love your neighbor (i.e. your ‘other,’ the person you don’t have much in common with, the one you have the most trouble loving and seeing a human, he person you disagree with on the so-called ‘important stuff’).”
Jesus also taught these things: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are the meek.” “I have come to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
Through the writings of Howard Thurman, I have learned what I have always known. The religion of Jesus has always been about desiring a more equitable and just society, which begins first in the soul of the individual. I cannot follow Jesus without claiming this way of being in my own life. Only then can I move outside myself to seek out ways to co-create a better world for all of humanity.