The year 2020 was marked in United States not only for the pandemic but also for a nationwide upsurge in the quest for racial justice for Black America in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a White policeman. Amongst the many discussions I learned of Howard Thurman, a Christian theologian. Thurman's story thrilled me for he had met Gandhi and it was he who brought the message of Gandhi's non-violence to Black America that later animated the Civil Rights Movement. Thurman's "Jesus and the Disinherited" explores whether Christianity has a meaning for the African-American.
It is my fervent belief that history echoes across societies and histories of repression and rebellion have, within, a universal message. In this blog I'll also touch upon how movements against caste oppression should pay heed to Thurman's message of love and listen to why it is dangerous to nurture hatred.
A Question from a Sri Lankan Hindu and Interpreting Jesus
In 1935 Howard Thurman was touring, with a delegation on a 'pilgrimage of friendship from the students of America, India, Burma and Ceylon. After a speech at the University of Columbo the principal invited Thurman for coffee and posed a question. "What are you doing over here?" The principal's question was more pointedly to Thurman, an African-Amreican, that his preaching of Christianity betrays what his people suffered at the hands of White men, particularly aided by the Church's teachings. Sir John Newton, author of the famous hymns 'how sweet the name of Jesus sounds' and the legendary 'Amazing Grace', was, the principal pointed, a slave trader.
Stunned by the question Thurman then investigates what Jesus meant to "the disinherited". Jesus was a Jew, a minority community oppressed by the Roman regime, and poor. Vladimir Simkovitch, professor of economics at Columbia University and a Marxist, in his "Toward the Understanding of Jesus", quoted by Thurman, asks if it is correct to assume that Jesus should've been unmoved by the plight of his community and whether he took into account "the great and all-absorbing problem of the very people he taught".
The question of how a Jew could relate to the Roman regime and Romans, the oppressors, obsessed Jesus, says Thurman. "Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual". "To revile because one has been reviled - this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself".
How should the oppressed, be they Jews in Roman empire or a Black in America, respond to the "rulers the controllers of political, social and economic life?" Resistance and non-resistance are the two key options for the disinherited but they, Thurman points out, carry other choices within the broad categories.
Non-Resistance, in turn, features two forms. One is imitation of the dominant group by the oppressed, reducing "external signs of difference to zero, so that there shall be no ostensible cause for active violence". Herod was an example of this kind of assimilation. In this context it is worthwhile to recall the theory of Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas's theory of "sanskritization". The other alternative that non-resistance chooses is isolationism.
Resistance, chiefly takes the form of violence. Thurman cautions that the oppressor, in Jesus's case the Empire, has all the means to crush any such resistance. It is in this backdrop that Jesus proposes a different resistance. It is the resistance from within, "the Kingdom of Heaven is in us". No Indian can read that passage without thinking of Gandhi.
Thurman, in blistering words notes, that the Christianity born in the mind of Jesus was different from that of what it became under the Church. "I belong", writes Thurman, "to a generation that finds very little that is meaningful in the teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ".
Thurman draws a sharp distinction between the Christianity that Paul creates from what Jesus created. Paul was a citizen of Rome while Jesus was not and this vital fact colors how they exhort the Jews to relate to the regime. Where Jesus calls the Jew to eschew hatred and look for Kingdom within Paul calls for obedience.
Having this interpreted Jesus Thurman proceeds to identify the forces that operate on the disinherited and why they should choose the path of love.
Fear and the Children of God
Fear dogs the disinherited unlike any other. Fear of the oppressor stunts the life and soul of the oppressed. The dominant group does not even have to articulate threats because past incidents would weigh on the collective memory of the persecuted group. The threat of violence "is rooted in a past experience, actual or reported, which tends to guarantee the present reaction of fear".
Jesus confronts the sense of fear amongst his Jewish brethren but it applies to even an African-American terrorized in America or to a Dalit too. Assuring that his Father protects even a sparrow Jesus says, "fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows". This message is further amplified in the Sermon on the Mount. Allaying the fears and its attendant effects, anxiety and despair, Jesus tells the Jews, "take no thought, saying what shall we eat?....for your Heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God".
"This idea", exults Thurman, that God is mindful of the individual- is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease". "You-you are not niggers. You-you are not slaves. You are God's children". Here is Gandhi telling a people who were deemed to be outside the pale of religion and therefore the graces of any God that they are, not outcastes, but indeed the children of God.
Deception and Gandhi's Call for Truth
Thurman had met Gandhi during the tour mentioned earlier and this book was published in 1949. Yet, Gandhi's memory and philosophy hangs overhead for Thurman.
The powerless, the oppressed and the disinherited resort to the well worn technique of deception. A Black pastor, unable to openly criticize policemen who had killed a blind Black man, resorted to deception in his sermon by talking to God what he'd talked to the congregation says Thurman citing an incident as an example of how deception is used by the disinherited to rebel.
"The pattern of deception", Thurman says, "by which the weak circumvent the strong and manage to secure some of their political, economic, and social rights is a matter of continuous degradation". "The penalty of deception is to become a deception".
Discussing alternatives to deception Thurman reaches Gandhi. "We come now to the third alternative-a complete and devastating sincerity". Gandhi exhorts in a letter, "Speak the truth, without fear and without exception". Thurman connects Gandhi's exhortation with Jesus's "challenge to the disinherited", telling them "let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil".
What does sincerity give the disinherited? "In the presence of overwhelming sincerity on the part of the disinherited, the dominant themselves are caught with no defense, with the edge taken away from the sense of prerogative and from the status upon which the impregnability of their position rests".
One day Thurman, seated in the segregated area in a train, overheard two black girls talk about two white girls on the street who were skating dangerously close to the train. The black girls wondered aloud about the prospect of seeing the white girls getting killed. A shocked Thurman wondered, "Through what torture chambers had they come- torture chambers that had so attached the grounds of humanness in them that there was nothing capable of calling forth any appreciation or understand of white persons?" I hail from that part of India where a supposed champion of the oppressed, E.V. Ramasamy, hailed as a messiah, inculcated precisely such hatred in equally blood curdling words targeted at the then oppressors, the Brahmins.
Thurman differentiates the hatred of the oppressed and the oppressor. "Hatred" makes a "profound contribution to the life of the disinherited, because it establishes a dimension of self-realization hammered out of the raw materials of injustice". "It is clear then, that for the weak, hatred seems to serve a creative purpose". Note, how Thurman acknowledged the creative purpose of hatred albeit one tied to the 'weak'.
Having acknowledged the impulse for hatred by the disinherited Thurman is unsparing in decrying the effect of hatred in the long term. "Hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater". "Hatred bears deadly and bitter fruit. It is blind and non-discriminating". "Once hatred is released, it cannot be confined to the offenders alone". This is very evident amongst castes that were once oppressed by Brahmins who nurtured, chiefly by E.V. Ramasamy and others like him, a hatred towards all Brahmins, eventually showed hatred towards other castes and especially towards those below them in the caste hierarchy. Gandhi's life, unlike E.V.Ramasamy's, was a message against hating anyone.
"Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father". It'd be worthwhile to recall that James Baldwin, who pretty much forsook Christianity, also cautions against hatred because he saw it as corrosive to the soul of his fellow black Americans.
What does it take, for a Jew, to love a Roman? "To love the Roman meant first to lift him out of the general classification of enemy. The Roman had to emerge as a person". "There had to be a moment when the Roman and the Jew emerged as neither Roman nor Jew, but as two human spirits that had found a mutual, though individual, validation. For the most part, such an experience would be impossible as long as either was functioning only within his own social context".
"Love of the enemy means that a fundamental attack must first be made on the enemy status". It does not mean, however, "ignoring the fact that he belongs to the enemy class". "The first step toward love is a common sharing of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a vacuum or in a series of artificial or hypothetical relationships. It has to be in a real situation, natural, free".
When the Lord says "vengeance is mine" He takes away the need for the disinherited to be vengeful or hateful. It is in Lord's hands.
Gandhi and Thurman
For sake of completeness I'll briefly cover Gandhi's meeting with Thurman that is the subject of another book. In February 1936 Thurman and his entourage met Gandhi at Bardoli. Newspapers run by Black community had for long paid close attention to Gandhi and his movement. Newspapers like the Chicago Defender and giants of African-American leadership like W.E.B. Du Bois had deep admiration for Gandhi.
Gandhi was inquisitive and asked questions about lynchings, interracial marriages, black history and more to the visitors. When it was their turn to quiz Gandhi the delegation asked him about excluding blacks in South Africa during his Satyagraha. Gandhi was forthright in saying that he feared they would not have understood his new technique. The delegation took Gandhi's reply as being cautious about worrying that Satyagraha campaigns could go out of control.
Surprisingly Gandhi and Thurman agreed that Islam was a "more congenial religion for many Africans than Christianity". Gandhi told Thurman about the spirit of brotherhood in Islam and underscored the absence of such brotherhood in all other religions including Hinduism and Christianity. Thurman, surprisingly, is more sympathetic to Islamic evangelism than Christian evangelism in India.
Eventually the conversation turned to the topic of ahimsa. Gandhi regretted that paucity of English language compelled him to give a negative definition of ahimsa as "non-violence". Though Gandhi cited Paul's idea of love to illustrate and add that his, Gandhi's, idea of love was beyond even love of God. Both Gandhi and Thurman agreed that Paul's Christianity was a detour from Jesus's idea. Thurman was stunned to hear Gandhi add that a physical reality, physicality, is an added dimension to non-violence as an idea.
Sue Bailey Thurman asked Gandhi, what was she to do if she had to witness the lynching of her own brother. Gandhi gave her a lengthy answer of what he meant by self-immolation, not a physical act but one that calls for refusal to wish ill will with Whites and refusal to cooperate.
On January 30th 1948 Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. Jawaharlal Nehru told a shocked nation, "the light has gone out of our lives.... the light that shone in our lives was no ordinary light. It was a beacon of hope". Martin Luther King Jr was drawn to Gandhi by his confidant Bayard Rustin who brought to MLK Jr's attention about Thurman and Gandhi. In this cycle of history we see a Indian Hindu learning about Tolstoy and Christ in South Africa and then an African-American Christian theologian learning from Gandhi and taking his lessons to a very different society. Is there no message here that the oppressed of India could learn from? I think there is.
James Baldwin, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr and many others of Civil Rights movement repeatedly circle around the topic of corrosive effects of hatred as a response. No one was naive in thinking that hatred was not justified or even natural but they were more worried about what it did, eventually, to the soul of the disinherited.
For all his genuineness about being sincere in speaking truth and in not hating the perpetrators of violence Gandhi's prescriptions, notably about Ethiopians and Jews to have offered their lives to their conquerors, had its limits in real life.
Arguing for interactions to reinforce mutual value and respect Thurman, for all his criticism of the Church, does not offer secular alternatives as venues or occasions for such interactions. For all of Thurman's criticism of Paul's version of Christianity Arvind Nirmal, originator of Dalit Liberation Theology in India, is drawn towards Paul.
Amidst all the societal strife we see around us the central message of Thurman and even of Gandhi, the criticisms notwithstanding, still remain the best hope if we are to rise about hatred and to move towards an egalitarian society.
1. Jesus and the Disinherited - Howard Thurman
2. Visions of a better world: Howard Thurman's Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence - Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt
3. Howard Thurman Meets Gandhi
6. Howard Thurman Documentary by PBS