Jesus and the Disinherited

by Howard Thurman

Paperback, 1996



Call number




Beacon Press (1996), Edition: Reprint, 128 pages


Christian Nonfiction. Religion & Spirituality. Self-Improvement. Nonfiction. HTML:Famously known as the text that Martin Luther King Jr. sought inspiration from in the days leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott, Howard Thurman??s Jesus and the Disinherited helped shape the civil rights movement and changed our nation??s history forever. In this classic theological treatise, the acclaimed theologian and religious leader Howard Thurman (1900-1981) demonstrates how the gospel may be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised. Jesus is a partner in the pain of the oppressed and the example of His life offers a solution to ending the descent into moral nihilism. Hatred does not empower??it decays. Only through self-love and love of one another can God's justice… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member labbit440
I'm not a Christian, and though this book didn't convert me, it did change my life.
LibraryThing member bness2
This is a profound book by one of the prominent the civil rights leaders of the 20th century. It provides a much needed prescription for the ways that the Bible and Jesus have been used by the powerful to oppress the weak and disinherited. Thurman shows very clearly how Jesus identifies with the
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disinherited in multiple ways and he outlines moral ways that the disinherited can respond to oppression. The central point is that Jesus is on the side of, was in fact, one of the disinherited and it is through Jesus' moral teachings that the path for the disinherited lies.
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LibraryThing member kaitanya64
This was my first exposure to Thurman. He clearly identifies Jesus' position within an oppressed community and His message that hate decays and destroys while love and self-respect are the ultimate weapon against oppression.
LibraryThing member keylawk
This is a transformative book. I found myself looking at the words "Jesus", "and", "the", and "Disinherited" in fresh interiorized ways. Yes, the conjunctions - the way we are joined. And the articles, the way a Subject is dignified and addressed, pushed away. The way I make an Object of a person.
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Thurman relies upon "story-telling", inviting you to experience...yourself.

Of course, Thurman did not talk about linguistics. I will try to touch upon the central claims Howard Thurman presents about the “religion of Jesus” which he modestly describes as an interpretation.

Thurman’s claims are centered around a quest: Thurman holds up the dispossessed, and asks, what does “our religion” mean for them? He says that the search for the answer to this question as perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life. [3]

In teaching this quest, one of the repeated metaphors is “the wall”. What is Christianity doing to meet the needs of the person whose back is against the wall? What does Christianity say to the poor? He asks this question in different ways. [3, 36, 42; perhaps even “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” 87].

The thesis of the book is that Jesus offered the Kingdom of God, as a spiritual reality, immediately accessible and “within us”. This religion of Jesus was available to everyone—“room for all”--but Jesus preached it specifically to the poor and oppressed.

Thurman is clear about his techniques, sources and “facts” without being boring or didactic. He repeatedly points out that he looks to “the basic fact” – in text, context, and history. He is not trying to sell something or get your money.

Thurman shows that Christianity as a teaching of Jesus “appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed”. It is this “inner” understanding of religious faith which frees the poor and oppressed, now, and in the real world. The inner life is more real than the appearances of the material world. Thurman joins the revolt against the Church teaching that offered an “other-worldly religion” which institutes a double betrayal -- of the poor, and of Jesus.

From experience, he knows that a lot of what is passed off as religion is naked fraud. And it is part of oppression. His lack of rage and bitterness is...monumental.

I loved how he preached what Jesus taught by starting with context: (1) “Jesus was a Jew”, (2) “Jesus was poor”, (3) “His mother was poor”, and (4) he was a member of a minority group in a poor place in the midst of a dominant and controlling group. (5) At the expense of the vitals of the people, an apostate Herod was building temples in honor of “Emperor Augustus”.

He shows how spiritual life is connected to our highest power--"awareness"--and that Jesus taught the neo-platonic message about a spiritual life, a vital kingdom within, which eventually overthrew the materialist power of Rome.

Because this alternative power was “within”; it could not be destroyed by the oppressors. And the question, which all disinherited and “overmastered” people face, is survival. Into this the salvific message of Jesus was preached. Again and again, Jesus "came back to the inner life of the individual”.

Describing Jesus’ teachings, Thurman says, at Page 2:
“With increasing insight and startling accuracy he placed his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.”

Armed resistance against the Roman Empire was demonstrably futile. Thurman notes, that violence “has an appeal because it provides a form of expression, of activity, that releases tension and frees the oppressed from a disintegrating sense of complete impotency and hopelessness.” In his own poem, Thurman boldly overthrows the White Man’s old chestnut back at him: “Better to die free than as a slave.” And suggests that this was the attitude of the Zealots of Jesus’ day.

Credit is given to the scholarship of Vladimir G. Simkhovitch for the beginning of his brief. In the face of the alternatives in ancient Palestine, which were few and bloody, Thurman notes that Simkhovitch "makes a profound contribution to the understanding of the psychology of Jesus." He reminds us that Jesus expressed an alternative: "The Kingdom of Heaven is in us”. That is the formula -- and Thurman shows the power of this as theology.

This theology is not slave-obedience as taught by the Church. He was greatly-influenced by his grandmother’s testimony of the White ministers who preached to the slaves from the Scripture written by Paul– “Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters…”.

Thurman's “law” is less the deontology of Aquinas and more the transcendent laws of interior autonomy of Kant, although strongly associated with Wells’ notions of habitus and interiority. Thurman clearly takes a Liberationist stance with a massive helping of Integrity as a Christian.
He walks this inner kingdom past the dogs of Fear, Deception, and Hate—those Hounds of Hell. Thurman points to the vertical vector of the cross, to the infinity of the dark matter in our souls. The book provides a description of exactly what the technique is and why it works, often in the most difficult social, emotional, and economic circumstances.
It is Synergistic in that it reasons around public consensus from the times of Jesus through Slavery to the present. It also draws upon Aquinas’ natural law and congruence between religion and civic life, Thurman relies on that interplay. The Christic “technique for survival” is both intersectional and universal.

Thurman clearly shares with Hauerwas, a suspicion of entanglements in dogma, government, and even “Christians” who cannot be trusted with scripture. Thurman also asserts a Realism stance. He offers a practical path for salvation for the oppressed. He is not exactly a Niebuhr, the theologian associated with Realism, because Thurman is not skeptical of transformation, and is confident about the power of interiority. He does share a view of the serious reality of Sin and of power which never gives way voluntarily. As for the related stance of consequentialism, Thurman is not saying that outcome is the only thing that matters. He values unrelenting patience, and seeks a good outcome, but in view of the infinities of interiority and pursued by the hounds of heaven (fear, deception, hate) he clearly rejects sinful means to the Good.

Finally, Thurman is clearly Liberationist. He may be the preacher on the horizon of time in 1947 who fathered the themes of Liberation. Candid about his subjective location, he uses personal anecdotes to empower the uses of story. Critical of the false universals in the mainstream church, seeking to transform society.

Using social analysis and dynamics—compassion, guilt, even solemnities and kindness—to transform, he started a unitarian universalist church in San Francisco which is still growing. His lifetime of emulation of Christ is a theological justification.
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LibraryThing member MaowangVater
What do “the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.” This is the starting point for Professor Thurman’s short and powerful book that guided Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout his life. The point
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in history was the aftermath of the Second World War, and the people with their backs against the wall were black Americans, referred to properly by Therman in the language of the 1940s as Negros.

He draws a parallel between ancient Palestine under Roman occupation and the United States in 1949. The Jews were disinherited of their land and power and under the heel of a powerful empire. This also was the plight of twentieth century African Americans. Both they and the Jews were outnumbered, oppressed, and without rights or human dignity. In the case of the descendants of enslaved Africans their ancestors had been torn from their homes, family, friends, culture, and religion. Every attempt to retain any of those ties was repressed by the slave owners. The disinheritance of the enslaved was extreme.

It is the fate of minorities, argues Thurman, that the psychological impact on those unfavored members of society, the disinherited are fear, deception, and hate. Then he presents his central thesis:

“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion if the powerful and dominant, used as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind of Jesus. ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men.’ Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”
… “For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time deeply victimized by the Christian Church’s betrayal of his faith.” (pages 18-19)

… “The basic principles of his way of life cut straight through to despair of his fellows and found it groundless. By inference he says, ‘You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea—Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in Heaven.’” (pages 24-25)
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Physical description

128 p.; 8 inches




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