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Howard Thurman

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.

Howard Thurman

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."


Benjamin Mays

The first post in this series as I read Gary Dorrien's Breaking White Supremacy, on the history of Black Social Gospel Theology, was about Mordecai Johnson.

Mays

In chapter 3 of the book, entitled "Moral Politics and the Soul of the World" Dorrien features Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman while discussing their interactions and Gandhi and influences upon King.  First Benjamin Mays.

The longtime President of Morehouse College grew up in South Carolina.  He said of this childhood, "The experiences I had in my most impressionable years, hearing and seeing the mob, observing the way my people were treated, noting the way in which they responded to this treatment, never having developed any white friends in the county, and living all my early years in a rented house--all this left me with a feeling of alienation from the country of my birth."  He described growing up in this segregated world that "the wings of ambition were crushed at birth."

Attending Old Mount Zion church where James F. Marshall was pastor, Mays later described Marshall's gospel--"primarily an opiate to enable them to endure and survive the oppressive conditions under which they lived at the hands of the white people in the community."  

Mays determined to pursue an education to have something more out of life.  In college he described feeling at home in the universe.  Inspired by the socialist Eugene Debs, Mays wanted a heroic Jesus, not meek and mild.  In seminary he learned and adopted the latest liberal thinking.  In his dissertation entitled "Pagan Survivals in Christianity," he argued that acknowledging these meant that "Christianity was inevitably bound up with the environmental forces of the Roman world; that it is an evolutionary movement; and must be modified, as all movements are, by its environment."

Dorrien records that Mays was fond of saying that "no person is free who backs away from the truth."

In a landmark early study, Mays criticized the black church for its conservative theology and failure to grapple with social issues.  But this wasn't really their fault as this resulted from oppression.  He did admire it as a "genuinely democratic fellowship."

Mays embraced the black social gospel--"It does not encourage one to wait for justice in the other world.  It does not dissipate itself in mere feeling."  Rather, "It tends to give one poise and balance to struggle for social righteousness here on the earth."

Mays was one of the first scholars to contend that there was a unique theological contribution in the black church where their ideas of God were "chiseled out of the very fabric of the social struggle."

Mays became a leader in the international ecumenical movement, which brought him to India and an important meeting with Gandhi in 1937.  He brought Gandhi's message of nonviolent resistance back to the US and began to write and speak about it.  

He was a part of international efforts of Christians to challenge the rise of Fascism in Europe, but her feared that the movement was too late.  He was discouraged when ecumenical statements of denominations were not embraced by congregations; he wrote "social custom makes cowards of most Christians and I fear the majority of ministers."  He proclaimed that "When the church truly repents, let us not deceive ourselves, it will be a suffering church."

Racism and a problem created by modern Christianity arising from the colonial project of European powers.  He wrote, "It is the modern church that again crucifies the body of Christ on a racial cross."  He authored the Federal Council of the Churches 1946 condemnation of segregation.  

He held out hope for a transformative movement--"If Germany through brutal means can build a kingdom evil in one decade and if Russia, through brutal processes, construct a new order in two decades, we can democratize and Christianize America in one generation."

Dorrien contends that Mays's most important legacy was his mentorship of his student Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dorrien writes that King chose Mays as a model when leadership in the movement was thrust upon him as a young age.

May declared, "I just want to be human and be allowed to walk the earth with dignity."


Mordecai Johnson

A few years ago when I read Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, I posted a series of blogs about the book, particularly the various figures he discussed.  At the time this was the third book I'd presented in this way, also having done so with Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy and David Brooks's The Road to Character.  Dorrien's book was his attempt to do something he thought lacking in the history of American religion--discussing the various movements in black religion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that led to the development of a distinct theological tradition of the black social gospel.

Now I've begun reading his second volume in this history, Breaking White Supremacy, which takes us from the 1920's up to Dr. King.  Part of Dorrien's aim is to show how King stood within a rich, well-developed tradition.

Mordecai

The first figure discussed in this new volume is longtime Howard University president Mordecai Johnson.  As with many of the figures Dorrien writes about I have previously known either nothing or very little about them.  Reading about Johnson fascinated me.  

Johnson's mother Carolyn named him after the character in the Book of Esther, believing that her son has a special mission in life.  He used education as a means of advancement.  At the University of Chicago he experienced modern science, liberal theology, and socialism, merging both with his Christian faith and throughout his life advocating that Christians should never fear knowledge.  Otherwise the faith would face a credibility problem.  Dorrien writes, "In Johnson's experience education was liberalizing and empowering, and he wanted as much as he could get." 

At Rochester Seminary he soaked up the social gospel theology of Walter Rauschenbusch.  Johnson wrote in a letter, "Religion is going to be a great factor in the new adjustment.  There never was such a reformation as we are now on the verge of.  This religion reemphasized with new aspects to suit the modern needs will bring forth great moral and spiritual engineers.  God grant that I may be one of these among my own people!"

In his early preaching career in West Virginia, he advocated three themes: "'the brotherhood of man,' the necessity of Christian unity, and the Christian mission to build the kingdom of God."  He preached, "If the church is to live there must be a Christian movement to give reverence to human personality, a movement to use all the forces of modern knowledge and technology to build a social order which will raise and enlarge the life of every human being."

Also, "A selfish human being is a monstrosity, is a monstrosity.  Any human being who lives for himself and himself only is a monstrous creature.  The very foundation of his life is the basest of all human qualities--ingratitude.  For a man to be selfish in such a world as this, he must shut his eyes and his mind and his heart to all the great things that he has received from the human race."  Selfishness was the root of sin, even racism and lynching ("the most diabolical crime in the universe").

In 1922 he spoke at Harvard's commencement and gave a powerful speech on  American racism.  Dorrien summarizes "Johnson still believed that Christianity and American liberal democracy--'our American faith'--offered the best and most light.  But the actually existing United States betrayed both."

When Johnson went to Howard, as the first black president, he wanted to build a major and influential institution that would promote blackness.  His time was filled with controversies, and some viewed him as an overbearing leader.  But he succeeded in building a black intellectual powerhouse that trained leaders of the civil rights movement.  

He was an early supporter of Gandhi, believing that the movement against Jim Crow had much to learn from him.  He viewed Gandhi as "the epitome of true religion."  He spent forty days in India in 1949.

Democracy is "the highest friendship that we have known."  It must be built upon respect for the human dignity of all people.   Moreover, anyone who opposed the sacred worth of the individual was not a Christian. 

Johnson praised King: "You have led your people on a victorious pathway seldom tried in human life.  You have shown them how to mobilize the fullest powers of their souls for effective resistance to evil and who to overcome humiliation and abuse without violence and without hatred in deed or in words."


24th & Glory

24th & Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha's Greatest Generation of Athletes24th & Glory: The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha's Greatest Generation of Athletes by Dirk Chatelain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A engaging, moving read. The story of significant American social movements told through the lens of one neighborhood in a Midwestern city and the prominent characters who lived there. A essential read for Omahans that will be enjoyed by many others.

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What's going on with the Right?

An excellent, and I think helpful, column in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf on what's going on with the Right.  Even deeper than the racism currently being exhibited is a psychological temperament that seeks order and fears difference and change.  He criticizes the Left for how they respond to the Right and provides insights on the best way to build coalitions to advance the nation.


The Origin of Others

The Origin of OthersThe Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good, the week after her death, to read Morrison's words speaking to the crisis of our times. My favorite part was this on the stranger:

"Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another? Why should we want to close the distance when we can close the gate? . . .

"It took some time for me to understand my unreasonable claims on that fisherwoman. To understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known--although unacknowledged--selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions its provokes--especially when these emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance (of alarm or false reverence), we deny her personhood, the specific inviduality we insist upon for ourselves."

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Jesus and the Disinherited

Jesus and the DisinheritedJesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was one of those books I knew I needed to get around to at some point, but I'm now upset that I didn't read it twenty years ago. I feel let down; that no one explained to me that this was one of the essential books. And not just essential theologically. Essential for anyone to read.

Essential for its sophisticated understanding of how marginalized people respond to their situations. Essential for the way it clearly influenced King and others. Essential for helping to understand America.

There are so many other books I've read which are clearly derivative of this one. I had been missing the essential, core text.

But no more. Now it will become an essential part of my personal canon, to be used often.

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Sisters in the Wilderness

Sisters in the Wilderness: The challenge of Womanist God-TalkSisters in the Wilderness: The challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally read this classic theological text after years of reading other books that discussed it (there are still many classic theology books I haven't read, as I spent graduate school reading the philosophical canon).

I was interested in the places where she argues for something (such as her criticisms of traditional atonement theory) that have since become standard. In this way you see the influence of her work on the wider discipline.

I'm drawn to the concluding remarks on the survival strategies of black women: an art of cunning, an art of encounter, an art of care, and an art of connecting. I would like further constructive theology on these, which I think would be helpful for pastoral care and preaching. A key point is that simply enduring is itself "an act of defiance, a revolutionary act."

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Tears We Cannot Stop

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White AmericaTears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

More hopeful than Ta-Nahesi Coates. But I was left wondering if the only people who will read this book are those already mostly sympathetic to it? The people that need to read it are probably less likely to actually read it.

The best chapter is the one on police violence.

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