This week we are praying through Howard Thurman’s 1976 book Jesus and the Disinherited. From the introduction of the 1996 edition, written by Vincent Harding: “Not too long before [Martin Luther] King’s assassination in 1968 Stokley [Carmichael] asked with mock innocence, ‘Dr. King, why do we have to be more moral than white folks?”(Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, Beacon Press, 1976, p. xii) Vincent will go on to suggest that Howard Thurman’s work answers this question, “the ultimate issue is not being more moral than white folks, but becoming more free than we have ever been, free to engage our fullest powers in the transformative tasks that await us at the wall” (ibid., xvi-xvii).

In his preface, Thurman asks a question many of us have asked, “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion, and national origin?” (ibid.” xix). He goes on, “I am deeply convinced that in the general area of my inquiry is to be found the answer without which there can be little hope that men [sic] find in Christianity the fulfillment which it claims for its gospel” (ibid., xix)

Today’s Bible Reading

But if he is poor and cannot afford so much, he shall take one male lamb for a guilt offering to be elevated, to make atonement on his behalf, and one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour mixed with oil for a grain offering and a log of oil; also two turtledoves or two pigeons, such as he can afford, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.—Leviticus 12:21-22

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”—Luke 2:22-24

More thoughts for meditation

“It is urgent that my meaning be crystal clear. The masses of men [sic] live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life” (ibid., 3).

Thurman finds the beginnings of this answer in the person of Jesus. First in the fact that he was a Jew:

“We begin with the simple historical fact that Jesus was a Jew. The miracle of the Jewish people is almost as breath-taking as the miracle of Jesus. Is there something unique, some special increment of vitality in the womb of the people out of whose loins he came, that made of him a logical flowering of a long development of racial experience, either ethical in quality and Godlike in tone? It is impossible for Jesus to be understood outside of the  sense of community which Israel held with God” (ibid., 5-6).

Second, the fact that he was a poor Jew:

“The second most important fact for our consideration is that Jesus was a poor Jew…

The economic predicament with which he was identified in birth placed him initially with the great mass of men on the earth. The masses of the people are poor. If we dare take the position that in Jesus there was at work some radical destiny, it would be safe to say that in his poverty he was more truly Son of man than he would have been if the indecent of family or birth had made him a rich son of Israel. It is not a point to be labored, for again and again men have transcended circumstance of birth and training; but it is an observation not without merit” (ibid., 7).

Finally, he was a minority .

“The third fact is that Jesus was a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group. In 63 B.C. Palestine fell into the hands of the Romans. After this date the gruesome details of loss of status were etched, line by line, in the sensitive soul of Israel, dramatized ever by an increasing desecration of the Holy Land. To be sure, there was Herod, an Israelite, who ruled from 37 to4 BC; but in some ways he was completely apostate. Taxes of all kinds increased, and out of these funds, extracted from the vitals of the people, temples in honor of Emperor Augustus were built within the boundaries of the holy soil. It was a sad and desolate time for the people. Herod became the symbol of shame and humiliation for all of Israel” (ibid., 8).

“The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts” (ibid., 23)

Suggestions for action

Contemplate the person of Jesus. Close your eyes and imagine who he was, what he looked like, where he lived, how he survived. This may connect you with Jesus, or remind you that those who are oppressed are connected to him by virtue of his humanity.