The story of Howard Thurman is instructive for us in our time, for us as followers of Jesus, for us as people trying to figure out how to confound oppressors while still seeing our enemies as people made in God’s image and therefore worthy of our love.
Howard Thurman knew something about dealing with enemies.
He was the grandson of a slave, a black child growing up in a highly segregated Florida city at the very beginning of the 20th century. He was sent 100 miles away to attend one of only three high schools for African Americans in the whole state of Florida.
As he would write much later in his life, “I know the story. I know the story of racism and segregation in my bones. No one has to tell me about it.”
He knew what it was like to live, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
But Howard Thurman also was immersed in Christianity from his youngest days. He knew the stories of Jesus. He knew the Sermon on the Mount. He had heard Jesus talking about how to confound those who would oppress you, how loving enemies was the goal, not seeking an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.
Howard Thurman knew those words from the Book of Leviticus we heard today about not oppressing neighbors or lying to each other, about caring for the poor and the immigrant and not hating those who do wrong even as you call them out, about, – above all – loving your neighbor as yourself.
I think the story of Howard Thurman is instructive for us in our time, for us as followers of Jesus, for us as people trying to figure out how to confound oppressors while still seeing our enemies as people made in God’s image and therefore worthy of our love.
I’d invite you to think for a minute about who you consider an enemy (and I’m not going to ask you say who it is out loud, just in case they are somewhere in this room). But think – who are the people whose very names start hatred bubbling up within you?
It could be someone as close as a family member or a co-worker or a neighbor. It could be a political foe or a terrorist. It could be people from another race or another nation.
There could be legitimate reasons why you consider them to be an enemy. But for a moment, just create your own mental enemies list.
Now consider the emotions that come with thinking of those enemies. Fear, perhaps. Hatred, perhaps. Maybe guilt, given that we are sitting here in a sanctuary.
Howard Thurman struggled with those emotions as he began his career as a pastor. He had graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1923 as the valedictorian. He had graduated from Rochester Theological Seminary in New York in 1926, again as the valedictorian. Yet he continually faced discrimination. In this month when we honor and explore black history, Thurman offers us one window into the past and shines a light on the present.
The first congregation Thurman served as a pastor was in Oberlin, Ohio. It was in Oberlin that Thurman discovered the work of a Quaker theologian named Rufus Jones, who traveled the globe trying to find paths to peace in the midst of conflict.
Jones helped shape Thurman’s thinking and Thurman pondered this question – how could black Americans manage the worrisome fear of the white man’s power over their lives and, in his words, “not be defeated by our own rage and hatred?”
By the 1930s, Thurman was the first dean of chapel at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington, D.C., And in the mid-1930s, he and his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, traveled to India as he continued his quest for an answer to that question of how not to be defeated by rage and hatred.
One of the great wise people of the last century was Vincent Harding, a spiritual guide for the Civil Rights movement, later a professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He described Thurman’s visit to India this way:
“Thurman had to understand who were these people who were not Christians but who, from the deepest part of his being, he knew were God’s children. He began asking in profound ways, What is the relationship of God’s various children to each other, though they go by different names?
“And he went to sit with one of the greatest of God’s children, that Hindu saint, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi asked him questions about what it meant to be black in America. Thurman asked Gandhi questions about the possible relevance of the nonviolent struggle that was going on in India for what might go on in the United States.”
Remember, this is in 1936.
Thurman continued to expand his quest. In 1944 – actually growing out of his conversation with Gandhi – he co-founded the nation’s first major interracial and interdenominational church in San Francisco.
A decade later, he would be the dean of chapel at Boston University – the first black dean of chapel at a predominantly white university in the nation.
But in between, he wrote a book – one of some 20 books – called Jesus and the Disinherited. This was in 1949. It was a book that became a guidepost for a young black preacher.
This young preacher also had attended Morehouse College, he was at Boston University while Thurman was dean of chapel, his father had been a classmate of Thurman at Morehouse. It was a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here’s what Vincent Harding wrote:
“The legend is that Martin carried around a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited wherever he went. He was certainly a practitioner of what Thurman was trying to deal with in that book.
“Thurman was saying, If you are living the spirit of Jesus, then you cannot live in the spirit of fear, you cannot live in the spirit of deception, even for good causes; you cannot live in the spirit of hatred. None of those is the way of Jesus.”
Does that sound a bit like what we heard in our two readings today?
King had already begun to explore the teachings of Gandhi, but his connection with Thurmond only deepened his commitment to find a way to confront enemies while still holding them in love.
As King would say in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963:
“In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.
“We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Does that sound a bit like we heard in our two readings today?
So what did Thurman say in that powerful book about Jesus and the disinherited?
Here’s one quote:
“If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.”
He wrote about a love rooted in the “deep river of faith,” that would help oppressed peoples overcome persecution. In his words: “It may twist and turn, fall back on itself and start again, stumble over an infinite series of hindering rocks, but at last the river must answer the call to the sea.”
He addressed the corrosive affects of hatred head on:
“Above and beyond all else it must be borne in mind that hatred tends to dry up the springs of creative thought in the life of the hater, so that his resourcefulness becomes completely focused on the negative aspects of his environment. The urgent needs of the personality for creative expression are starved to death.”
And then he channeled the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Jesus 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.”
All of this sounds fine, of course, until we get to the people who today are the vulnerable ones, the fearful ones, the ones facing oppression – our Christian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem, our Latino neighbors fearing every knock at the door, a woman or a man returning to our community from time in prison.
How can they love the enemy without being trampled on?
It is easy to interpret the first part of the section of the Gospel we heard today – turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile – as passive acquiescence to injustice. That’s a terrible message to a woman being beaten by her intimate partner, a black man being chased by a mob.
What we know about the culture of Jesus’ times is that he was offering ideas for creative, non-violent resistance, to confound the assailant rather than returning a blow a risking even greater violence. That’s exactly what happened in the Civil Rights Movement.
Jesus was not saying just put up with violence and oppression. He was saying respond creatively…and while still holding the other person in love as one made in God’s image, even if that image seems distorted right now.
And all of this sounds fine until we get back to our personal enemies list – you know, the one you created mentally a few minutes ago. What are you saying Jesus – you really want me to love them?
Short answer – Yup.
Let me go back to Vincent Harding, who I had the privilege of spending a day with in Madison many years ago. In his essay, “Dangerous Spirituality,” he wrote about his two friends.
“Understand this about Thurman, and about King:
“Here are men who at no point in their life would ever deny the terrors of what it was in those days to be black in America.
“At no point in their life would they deny the terrorism of so much of being white in America; at the same time they would never deny the oneness of all. That’s a tough spirituality. That’s not any kind of sweet-by-and-by spirituality.
“That’s a spirituality that takes on the world as it is and says, ‘I’m gonna figure this out one way or another.’
So no, it’s not easy to figure out how to love our enemies, how to confound those who would hurt us, how to care for the poor and the immigrant, to not lie to one another, to not oppress our neighbors or to insult those who are vulnerable.
We may want to treat others as we would want to be treated, but then the limits of our humanity get in the way.
This is not a new problem. Folks have dealt with it across the centuries. There’s a wonderful ancient hymn that goes back to the 9th century that reminds that in the midst of it all, we seek to have love prevail.
It’s hymn #396, “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” Let’s join together in the hope that together, we can make it so.