Book Review: Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman

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.

 

If you would like to read the book, it is available for free right here.

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Book Review: Living Gently in a Violent World by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas

This book surprised me several times, but all were wonderful surprises.

 The first surprise came from a misunderstanding of the title. Living Gently in a Violent World indicated to me that it would be about some sort of pacifism. It was not. It included ideas of anti-war and anti-violence I suppose, but those were peripheral at best. Instead, this handful of essays talked about L’Arche, an international organization dedicated to help those with mental disabilities. Each author wrote two essays for a total of four chapters (not including a nice introduction and conclusion by John Swinton). Jean Vanier co-started L’Arche and the ideas in his essays are obviously greatly influenced by his personal experiences there. Stanley Hauerwas, though not lacking in experience with intellectually disabled people himself, provides more of an outsider’s view of the organization for us. The violent world referenced in the title is far more than just war and fighting. These two men have seen the incredible violent attitudes towards people with disabilities. The world seems obsessed with finding a place for everyone and everything. The problem with that, they claim, is that disabled people don’t seem to have a place. So instead of feeling like they belong in the world, the disabled are constantly told (sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly) that they are burdens and that we need to rid the world of them if we want to live in a perfect world. Both authors have very negative views of abortion on the grounds that it’s telling people with disabilities (among others) that they would have been better off not being born at all. This world is violent in an effort to create peace. It is violent towards the disabled because they disrupt our ‘normality’ and we simply don’t know how they fit in our perfect little world we’re trying to construct.

 The second surprise I got was how incredibly powerful this book was. I expected to enjoy it and grow from it, but I did not expect this 100 page book to bring me to tears and reevaluate how I view the poor around me.

 A last surprise was how practical this book was. In the second essay, Stanley Hauerwas speaks of the great importance of patience. Patience, he says, is what L’Arche has to teach the Church. We are so focused on progress and healing our physical maladies that we forget to love the people we’re trying to cure! He says this: “We see it in medicine today; the task is not to care for patients, but to cure them. When caring turns into curing, we don’t know what to do with patients when we can’t cure them.” He says this is why we war as well. We do not have the patience to deal with the problems of the world, so we impatiently start wars in an attempt to quickly eradicate difficult issues. In the end, this impatience produces more issues and more wars. We are able find the time for reading and writing books while people are dying of hunger “not because we choose to ignore the poor, but because we believe there is a faithful and and unfaithful way to feed the poor. And it is worth our time to try to name that.” L’Arche does not offer solutions, but hope. The hope they offer is shown by “be[ing] with those Jesus taught us to be loved by — that is, those we “help” by simply being present.”

 Jean Vanier talked a lot about how much he saw God in the poor he worked with. “We hide behind power… [However], when we listen to stories of terrible pain and know we can’t do anything about it, we touch our own vulnerability… In other words, people who are the weakest and least presentable are indispensable to the church.” These people who are told they do not belong don’t want to be cured, they want to be loved. And as we love them, we learn to find God’s strength in the weak. As we see their powerful vulnerability, we learn to push away our masks of strength and find God for ourselves.

 For Jean and Stanley, we do not need to be superheroes with flashy powers to bring about peace. We simply need to show our love by doing “ordinary things with tenderness”.