But it’s my thesis

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?

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One thought on “But it’s my thesis

  1. Thanks, Landon, for this meditation. You are, as always, challenging and won’t leave me alone. I’m (mostly) grateful for that.

    But here’s the question. Is there not in the rhetoric of liberation a basic flaw: that those on the bottom simply practice the same old abuses when at last they become the ones on top? I’m old enough to remember when liberation rhetoric of the sort Thurman espouses was on the lips of Sandinistas in Nicaragua, whose cause in the overthrow of Anastasio Somosa I supported. But when they came to power, they were no less murderous and corrupt than were their predecessors whom Ronald Reagan kept in power. And while the liberation theology was not exactly the language of Zionism in the 1940s and 1950s, is it not the case in Israel today that some of the descendants of those who were oppressed in Europe have now turned those same oppressive tactics on Palestinians in their midst? In the end, is Lord Acton not finally correct: power corrupts?

    There’s a lot that is compelling in Thurman’s (and your) argument: that the same old tyrannies of power and control perpetuate the deep injustices of racism, sexism, and classism that infect our society, and that such tyrannies need to be overthrown. But I would be more persuaded if I could see that in the overthrow there was anything new other than the names of those in power. Sin persists, even in the life of the redeemed.

    If I might hazard an answer to your question about the meaning of discipleship for those of us who have “never had our backs against the wall”, I would offer two thoughts. First, perhaps our discipleship inevitably involves us in trenchant critique of ourselves and those we prop up in power both at home and abroad. It seems to me there is a lot of room for growth in that discipline, especially among those (like, for instance, the Tea Party) who live in fear that self criticism will result in their loss of privilege. Such confession appropriately leads us to a theology of relinquishment, personally, ecclesiastically, socially, and nationally, as you and Thurman point out. Second, perhaps following from the discipline of critique and relinquishment there is also a discipline of warning to those who would replace us: that unless they attend to the abuses inherent in their own assumptions about power, they will create nothing better than that which they have replaced. I suspect it is a warning no one on the streets of Ferguson or Baltimore–no one driven by rage born of suffering–will hear. But warning it will be, nonetheless, to those who chart a course for the future exercise of power: Here there be dragons.

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