Jesus and the Disinherited: Howard Thurman’s Wisdom for Our Crisis

by | Jul 7, 2020 | 7 Peacemakers

cover of Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).

The raw passion of recent demonstrations for racial justice in response to police brutality brings to mind the book, Jesus and the Disinherited, by the 20th century contemplative, African-American pastor, Howard Thurman. He saw in “legal” brutality of Roman against Palestinian in Jesus’ context and of white violence against black in our context a common dynamic. And a common solution. 

The excerpt below from pages 129-130 of my book, Blessed at the Broken Places: Reclaiming Faith and Purpose with the Beatitudes, offers a brief account of Thurman’s point. After discussing the need for strength for the outreach, apology, and forgiveness that peacemaking requires, the discussion continues as follows:

Where, then, do we find the strength we need? We find it in remembering the truth of the very blessing Jesus offered, calling peacemakers, “children of God.” We are already children of God. Recognizing that inspires us to reach out to make peace, and peacemaking heightens our awareness of the blessing.

No one found more of that strength than Martin Luther King, Jr., and no one passed it on better than he. He often carried in his brief case a slim book by one of his mentors, Howard Thurman, called, Jesus and the Disinherited. This book served up a rich harvest from Thurman’s contemplative spirituality and penetrating insights into the gospels. As a black man in America, he wrote with hard-won understanding for Jesus and his disinherited followers. Thurman knew well how understanding oneself as a child of God gives strength to those who choose Jesus’ way of forgiving and loving their enemies while standing up for their rights with dignity and self-respect. His grandmother, a former slave who raised him, taught him how she first realized this as a young woman upon listening to a slave minister’s sermon. Thurman wrote:

How everything in me quivered with the pulsing tremor of raw energy when, in her secret recital, she would come to the triumphant climax of the minister: “You – you are not n—-rs. You – you are not slaves. You are God’s children.” This established for them the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth could absorb the fear reaction.[i]

Thurman brilliantly analyzed how oppressors undermine the self-esteem necessary to take a stand, and he saw Jesus’ christening of them as children of God as the antidote. Oppressors, whether Romans over Palestinians in Jesus’ context or Southern whites over blacks in King’s context, promote fear through intermittent violence and a sense of inferiority through segregation:

Doomed on earth to a fixed and unremitting status of inferiority, of which segregation is symbolic, and at the same time cut off from the hope that the Creator intended it otherwise, those who are thus victimized are stripped of all social protection…Under such circumstances, there is but a step from being despised to despising oneself.[ii]

How powerfully healing, then, to call such people children of God, God’s very own, in a world that disowns them.

Thurman saw great power in accepting the status of a child of God. One then realizes that one need fear no oppressor because God gives and restores life that ultimately prevails over destruction and even death at the oppressor’s hands. He quoted,

’Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do,’ says Jesus.[iii]

God assigns one’s significance that the oppressor, no matter how demeaning the treatment meted out, cannot diminish. Being a child of God answers the question of with whom one belongs in an alienating environment. It gives a sense of worth and dignity despite the economic and vocational limitations imposed. One sees oneself more and more as a child seen through eyes of the Parent, not through the eyes of the oppressor.[iv]

The psychological effect on the individual of the conviction that he is a child of God gives a note of integrity to whatever he does.[v]

[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1976), p. 50.

[ii] Ibid. pp. 43-44.

[iii] Ibid. pp. 51-52.

[iv] Ibid. 51-54.

[v] Ibid. p. 54.

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  1. Teresa

    Marshall, I enjoyed this message. It is so very relevant in the current affairs of the world, and goes hand in hand with my devotion today which reads “we are free from the burden of striving for God’s love and acceptance”. There are no exclusions. We are all God’s children. Thank you for the wonderful post. Teresa

    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      Thank you for that wonderful quotation! It seems the Holy Spirit spoke a gracious theme to both of us today.


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