Once I retired, I knew that I’d finally have the time to read books that were on my “need-to-read” list. Recently, I accidentally or providentially ran across the name of Dr. Howard Thurman, an author whom I always intended to read but, for some reason, hadn’t managed to.
But once I discovered that Martin Luther King, Jr. always had a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited in his suitcase, I knew that was the book by Thurman that I needed to start with. I found a used copy online and within days was reading a book that held one surprise after another.
I suppose I was like most people who, in reading the title, assumed the book was a devotional Christian book, one of the hundreds that can be found on bookstore shelves.
I was mistaken. Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is not a devotional book at all, if by “devotional” we mean a book that tends to warm the heart. Thurman’s book is more akin to a military manual if non-violent resistance can be compared to a military campaign, which I believe non-violent resistance is.
Published in 1949, a decade before the Civil Rights struggle became a movement, Jesus and the Disinherited could just as rightly be titled Jesus for the Disinherited. That is, Thurman wrote the book for the oppressed “who stand with their backs against the wall.” Thurman’s goal was to offer a new understanding of Jesus that presents Jesus as one who was also oppressed and disinherited and yet overcame bitterness and hatred.
Jesus and the Disinherited acknowledge the oppression that Black Americans were facing at the time, but Thurman spends no time castigating White supremacists. Instead, Thurman focuses on how people who are oppressed can spiritually survive. By “spiritually,” Thurman does not mean praying, reading scripture, or attending church, but living a life of dignity in the teeth of prejudice.
With nearly every page of Jesus and the Disinherited, I found myself thinking, “So that’s why Martin Luther King Jr. was able to remain so calm with all that fear, hatred, and violence swirling around him.”
Yes, Thurman had been one of King’s grad school professors, but Thurman was more than a past influence on King. The fact that King never traveled without a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited proves that King “checked in” with Thurman on a regular basis. Thurman’s writings affected King to his core, and building on Thurman’s wisdom, King taught millions of followers how to face racism as a spiritual battle that could be won.
Thurman’s insights are as timely in this time of Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory as they were in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. In our present era of polarization, we need voices like Thurman’s that offer a path forward from our brokenness and division to healing.
After reading Jesus and the Disinherited, I realized that the book wouldn’t end up on my “finally read-it” list. I need to listen to Thurman again and again. I guess the book will end up in my suitcase.