The third in my series of the second volume of Gary Dorrien's history of Black Social Gospel Theology. The last post was this one about Benjamin Mays.
Dorrien introduces Thurman with this paragraph:
Howard Thurman was a product of the southern black church and a classmate of Martin Luther King Sr. In his early career he became a pastor, professor, social gospel leader, and Quaker-influenced mystic and pacifist. Later he became an ecumenical leader of racial integration, a chapel dean, an advisor to movement leaders, a prolific author, and a spiritual influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. He may also have become a saint. He played his most direct role as a civil rights leader in the 1930s and early 1940s, as a star on the lecture circuit. Then he became a sage and author, exerting a different kind of influence. Then his influence grew after he was gone.
Last year I posted this review of Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited.
A traumatizing early childhood experience at a funeral led Thurman to reject "authority religion, fear-based religion, and evangelism." Also in childhood, his family were friends with educational reformer and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.
Of growing up in segregation, he wrote, "There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you."
Thurman wrote his master's thesis on sexual morality, sadly never returning the subject later in his writing career. He argued that "sexual desire was an expression of the loving and unifying Spirit of God," according to Dorrien. The thesis concluded that "the history of sex with its great power and its beauty of holiness is still in its infancy."
His motto for his mission work was "I go because he has something for me that I must have if I am to be what I ought to be."
According to Dorrien, through his education from Rufus Jones, Thurman became a mystic and pacifist and understood the value of these for African Americans as "Black pacifism was about relaxing sufficiently to enable creativity."
While on an international mission trip, he was challenged to explain why African Americans would still believe in Jesus since Christianity had done so much to harm people of color. He later turned this conversation and his answer into Jesus and the Disinherited. He had a brief but important meeting with Gandhi where the latter emphasized that nonviolence never passive but is the only form of direct action. Gandhi emphasized that one's life "must be a living sermon." Gandhi asked the delegation to sing "Were You There" feeling that the song "gets to the root of the experience of the entire human race under the spread of the healing wings of suffering."
Thurman's was a socially engaged mysticism, but he himself did not want to be the movement leader, believing he had other contributions to make. We would respond "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
Thurman pastored one of the first intentionally interracial congregations. It was very progressive, rejecting traditional doctrines about Jesus as irrelevant for the oppressed in the modern age and emphasizing a universal love ethic. "When I have lost harmony with another, my whole life is thrown out of tune. For the sake of my unity with God, I keep working on my relations with my fellows. This is ever the insistence of all ethical religion." The point of religion is to be transformed by divine love.
Dorrien summarizes Thurman on this point about spiritual transformation: "The hope of the disinherited is to be included in the flourishing of democracy and the saving work of God's Spirit. If moral truth is not universal, it is neither moral nor true. The disinherited, while coping with their oppression, needed to claim their rights without reproducing the world's mendacity and hatred."