Howard Thurman and the Problem of Faithlessness
This post is part of our forum on Howard Thurman and the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1949, Christian mystic and theologian Howard Thurman published a book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited. A short but dense text, it would become arguably the most famous in his long bibliography. Offering a historical interpretation of the life and philosophy of Jesus Christ, Thurman’s work is anchored by a single, incisive question: what does the Christian religion have to offer to those members of American society who “live with their backs constantly against the wall?”
Explaining the purpose and intent of this question, Thurman observed that he could “count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that [he had] heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man who stands with his back against the wall.” By his own estimation, the masses of the world’s men live in a state of poverty, dispossession, and desperate struggle for survival. It is a condition not unlike the one experienced by Jesus Christ, a poor Jewish man who lived as a minority and second-class citizen under imperial Roman domination. Jesus, like masses of American Negroes, was a member of the world’s disinherited.
And yet, according to Thurman, the modern religion of Christ seems less concerned with shepherding the disinherited. Instead, it has become a tool of the powerful and, in the course, alienated the poor and dispossessed. On this matter, Thurman writes:
I belong to a generation that finds very little that is meaningful or intelligent in the teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ. It is a generation largely in revolt because of the general impression that Christianity is essentially an other-worldly religion, having as its motto: “Take all the world, but give me Jesus.” The desperate opposition to Christianity rests in the fact that it seems, in the last analysis, to be a betrayal of the Negro into the hands of his enemies by focusing his attention upon heaven, forgiveness, love, and the like.
In short, by Thurman’s account, the religion of Christ had become divorced from the material realities of the common man in general and the poorest, most marginalized sectors of Black America in particular.
On the surface, Jesus and the Disinherited is a work dedicated to reconnecting Christianity to the plight of the disinherited. However, what is more interesting is how and why Thurman is able to succeed in this effort. The answer is faith.
If any one theme or concern can be said to animate Thurman’s work, it is the issue of faith—the willingness and ability to profess a belief in something greater than one’s own basic survival.
More specifically, what is at stake in Jesus and the Disinherited is the faith and spiritual well-being of those living on the margins of society. This is more than a simple religious consideration. As sociologist Max Weber pointed out, modern-day religious faith is inextricably intertwined with the otherwise secular tentpoles of Western society, especially capitalism and law and order. It might be said that famed socialist theorist Karl Marx was only partly right when he proclaimed religion to be the opiate of the masses. It’s not religion necessarily that makes the masses amenable to oppression and exploitation, but rather faith. Faith is a precondition for order. For a society to be orderly, the mass of its citizens must profess a faith in its social norms. There must be some significant evidence to support their choosing to wake up every day and follow society’s rules.
Why does the average man or woman who can barely pay rent or buy groceries still choose to go to work every day? What keeps them from resorting to crime or choosing to escape their miserable condition by turning to drugs or alcohol? The answer is faith. These people have been convinced—either by carrot or stick—that it is best to follow the prescribed means of American society. Under these conditions, the flawed Christian doctrine to which Thurman initially refers shows up as either a 1.) blinder, compelling believers to accept a Candide-like optimism about this being the best of all possible worlds, or 2.) a salve, treating their bruised spirits with the promise of better in the next life.
This is where Thurman makes his most significant intervention. On this matter, he notes, “What are words, however sacred and powerful, in the presence of the grim facts of the daily struggle to survive?”
In attempting to draw a line of best fit between the disenfranchised masses of Black America and the religion of Jesus Christ, Thurman offers an analysis of how American society withers away at the faith of the disinherited.
In a society in which certain people or groups—by virtue of economic, social, or political power—have dead weight advantages over others who are essentially without that kind of power, those who are thus disadvantaged know that they cannot fight back effectively, that they cannot protect themselves, and that they cannot demand protection from their persecutors. Any slight conflict, any alleged insult, any vague whim, any unrelated frustration, may bring down upon the head of the defenseless the full weight of naked physical violence. Even in such a circumstance it is not the fear of death that is most often at work; it is the deep humiliation arising from dying without the benefit of cause or purpose. No high end is served.
On this point Thurman concludes “The whole experience attacks the fundamental sense of self-respect and personal dignity, without which a man is no man.”
What he highlights here is what might be called the problem of faithlessness. Thurman’s description of the spiritual impact of poverty, disparity, and anti-Black racism speaks to something philosopher Lewis Gordon would write about a few decades later in his discourse on Black existential thought. According to Gordon, in a world where white supremacy supposes that society would be better off without peoples of African descent, these peoples are burdened with a basic existential question: why go on?
For the Black man or Black woman who can say they are largely content with their lives, this would not appear a reasonable question. For those with money, status, resources, purpose, the justification for going on is clear, as these individuals have something to believe in—something to have faith in. But what about those with nothing? What about those who are without the most basic sense of self? Those who have been staggered by the psychic violences of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, etc.? What does this society have to offer them?
This is not simply a problem for thought. It is a problem for peace and a problem for progress. According to Thurman, without faith or purpose, life is reduced to something flat and cheapened. What it generates is an air of fear and suspicion for one’s fellow man, as well as an “exaggerated emphasis” on basic survival. These attributes make one unsuited for community and what results is antisocial and even violent behavior. However, it must always be remembered that these are aggrieved members of society. They are the men, women, and children who society has left to drown, and it is the responsibility of the righteous to rescue them by whatever means necessary.
In the grand scheme, only substantive social change will truly alleviate the problem of faithlessness. However, in the meantime, what the disinherited members of Black America need is something to believe in, something that can rouse them to generate faith from an otherwise faithless condition. This is a fundamental task of all Black radical struggle truly dedicated to the people. And this is the power and importance of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. It is a text that reminds oppressed peoples of the world that struggle must be sustained by faith. It must be sustained by a belief in something richer and more fulfilling than the simple fear or hatred of one’s enemies.permission.
Comments on “Howard Thurman and the Problem of Faithlessness”
I appreciate this article. In a society where the privileged are finding new ways to, and recasting old reasons for killing me, faith in the God within keeps me alive and engaged in the struggle.
Well done, Dr. Swails! Although many, one of my favorite money quotes from your article is, “However, in the meantime, what the disinherited members of Black America need is something to believe in, something that can rouse them to generate faith from an otherwise faithless condition.” Well, sir, I couldn’t agree more! I appreciate you.