In what is arguably the most influential book of my religious development, Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman offers that the “religion of Jesus” was for those with their “backs against the wall.” He implores us to read the Gospels as a “manual of resistance.”
It is a glorious piece of work that has inspired me and challenged me from the moment I read it more than a decade ago. It is a work that re-centers theology away from the experience of people like me: a young, straight, white male with an education. Indeed, part of Thurman’s genius is that he chooses to not privilege an experience like mine. He writes:
The crucial question, then, is this: Is there any help to be found in the religion of Jesus that can be of value here? It is utterly beside the point to examine here what the religion of Jesus suggests to those who would be helpful to the disinherited. That is ever in the nature of special pleading. No man wants to be the object of his fellow’s pity. Obviously, if the strong put forth a great redemptive effort to change the social, political, and economic arrangement in which they seem to find their basic security, the whole picture would be altered. But this is apart from my thesis. (pgs 46-47)
This paragraph has consumed me since I read it. I understand and wholeheartedly agree with him that examining what the religion of Jesus would suggest to me is utterly beside his point. I shudder to think that I would make another the object of my pity. But he is kind enough to offer me a glimpse by naming some “great redemptive effort.”
Those three words. “Great Redemptive Effort.” For me, they hold the same power as “Come, follow me.”
My hand has been to the plow for long enough. I want to know what it means to change the social, political, and economic arrangement. I want to know what the picture would look like if it were altered. This line of exploration may not be Thurman’s thesis, but I am ready for it to be mine.
In 2015, what does it mean to be White and Christian in America? If the religion of Jesus is for those with their backs against the wall, how am I supposed to be a disciple when I’ve never had my back against the wall?