Thurman begins the book with a question given to him by a Hindu. It’s worth quoting here.
“More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the western coast of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians. The name of one of the famous British slave ships was ‘Jesus’. The men who brought the slaves were Christians. Christian ministers, quoting the Christian apostle Paul, gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery. Some seventy years or more ago you were freed by a man who was not a professing Christian, but was rather the spearhead of certain political, social and economic forces, the significance of which he himself did not understand. During all the period since then you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. Even in the church, I understand, there is segregation… I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.”
Thurman’s answer is, in a word, Jesus. In a sentence, it is that Jesus, as someone who lived as and fully understood what it meant to be an oppressed person, speaks to other oppressed people in a way in which no one else can despite the way the Christian religion has lived out and preached his message.
The first chapter places Jesus against his background. Born poor and to a country under occupation, Jesus lived right between rebellion and subjection of his people and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. “To think Jesus was untouched by the surging currents of the common life that made up the climate in Palestine is utterly fantastic” (p.18). To Thurman, Jesus understood what it was like to be on the underbelly of society, even more so than the apostle Paul who still at least had the option of pulling his ‘Roman citizen card’ if ever wanted, even if he rarely did so. Because of this, impoverished and oppressed people all over the world have a voice in Jesus.
The rest of the chapters, Fear, Deception, Hate and Love, all have similar structures to each other. First, they discuss different ways in which disinherited people relate to each emotion or action. For fear, he emphasized how it was used by the stronger to control the weaker. For deception, he discussed how the weaker often use deception as a coping mechanism to deal with fear. Next he explains different ways these emotions or actions are often addressed. For example, for fear he explains how those being controlled by fear either keep their heads down (by repressing their emotions or trying to assimilate to the controlling group) or fighting back. Last, he goes on to explain Jesus’ alternative. Jesus didn’t keep his head down nor start a riot, he placed his whole trust in God and thus, seeing himself as a blessed child of God, rid himself of the fear of man altogether.
I read this short book in one day! It was a simple read, but has my brain buzzing. One of the biggest impacts I think it will have on me is my recognition that I am simply out of touch with the poor and mistreated. In his chapter on Hate he explains that “it is a grievous blunder to assume that understanding is always sympathetic.” Understanding and sympathy are not the same because understanding simply requires reading up on a certain matter. Sympathy only comes as a natural growth from experiencing what they have experienced. To summarize what he says on page 77, when someone on the ‘outside’ says that they understand a certain downcast person or group, what he means is that he has knowledge of that person or group within his own constructs. The person he claims to understand, in fact, only has existence in his own mind.
For me, I live and have always lived a privileged life. I need to actually experience what the unprivileged do every day of their lives to the best of my ability. Only then will I be able to begin to actually sympathize and understand them.