Howard Thurman’s Vision

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howardthurmanTheologian Howard Thurman might not have wished his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, would be as important today as it was when he wrote it in 1949.

Sadly, the African-American mystic would have hoped that his vision of Jesus’s love overpowering fear and hatred of the marginalized and most vulnerable people in our society would have been taken to heart by all who call themselves Christians.

Thurman grew up in Florida in the early 1900s, in a segregated Daytona. His grandmother had been enslaved and told him stories of slave preachers. Much of his young life was centered around the church and people who came to speak there. He remembered Mary Mcleod Bethune singing and talking about her dreams for education for Negro youth.

He was an exceptionally smart youth; since there were only three high schools for black youth in all of Florida, he boarded with relatives in order to go to the Florida Baptist Academy. Because he graduated as valedictorian, he earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. He eventually went to Rochester Theological Seminary in New York (many other seminaries did not accept Negroes).

Thurman was considered a mystic because of his ability to put himself into a place where he felt himself to be in the presence of God. In Disciplines of the Spirit, he calls that place the Inner Sea. Over a long career with many distinguishing chapters, including being dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, founding the interdenominational Fellowship Church in San Francisco, being honored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and being an influence on Martin Luther King Jr., there was yet one painful issue that he came back to again and again.

In 1935, Thurman chaired a delegation sent on a pilgrimage of American students to India, Burma, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). After a talk at the Law College of the University of Colombo, he had tea with the principle. The principle said this to him:

“. . . During all the period since then [Emancipation] you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. . . 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.”

While referring to this painful episode in his memoir, With Head and Heart, as “the paradox of being a black Christian minister who was representing and, by implication, defending a religion associated in the minds of many of these nonwhite peoples with racism and colonialism,” Jesus and the Disinherited was his book-length answer.

In this time when Christianity has been hijacked by political agendas that again marginalize people of color, the poor and the powerless – and all the intersections of those categories – Jesus and the Disinherited should be a wake-up call to members of the Jesus Movement and those who would be part of the Beloved Community.

Jesus, a radical outcast, preached a radical love, and especially radical love for those, in Thurman’s words, with their backs against the wall. Why, then, “is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” he asks.

And in just 102 pages, he gives a prescription for doing so.

 

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By Their Fruits You’ll Know Them

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When I was in my 20s, I went out with a man who made himself objectionable to my friends.

One friend, an older man, tried to talk to me about the relationship. He pointed out that if a person is kind to everyone, that is a good character trait. But, he said, if someone like my boyfriend was only nice to me but unkind to others, it could mean he was just trying to get something from me.

I was hurt, and the relationship went on to a predictably unhappy ending. It took many years for me to gain the wisdom to see that my friend had given me some serious life advice.

I thought of this unhappy episode Saturday morning while listening to Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition. He interviewed David French of The National Review. This was before the Northern California shooting, and not a week after the Sutherland, Texas, rampage.

Mr. French was there to accuse “Twitter activists” of being unfair to politicians who offer “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings.

“. . .the prayer life of a Christian is something that’s very, very rich,” he said. “And prayer saturates their lives. . .So when you’re targeting prayers, a Christian, for example, would look at that and be, frankly, kind of puzzled by it.”

As a Christian, as someone who believes in the power of prayer, and as a “Twitter activist,” I bristled at Mr. French’s words. Perhaps you had to hear his patronizing tone. He spoke as if only Christians have a rich prayer life and as if “Twitter activists” are heathens.

Mr. French went on to say that “it’s not that these politicians are offering thoughts and prayers and no action . . . “ Yet he equivocated about what kind of action these politicians are supposedly taking. In fact, Mr. French said that he can’t even imagine what kind of action might have been appropriate after the Las Vegas massacre.

When Mr. Simon suggested that it is the difference in reactions to domestic terrorism and imported terrorism, Mr. French said, “But different mass killings demand different kinds of responses. They’re not all the same.”

He concludes by saying, “What use is an activist tweet anyway?”

Well, I’ll you, Mr. French. The more people who are talking about the problem of gun violence in this country by home-grown terrorists, the better. The politicians you say we twitter activists are criticizing unfairly are white male members of the GOP such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who only like government when it is used to hurt people, such as punishing tax “reform” (read tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy) and taking away any kind of a safety net for the most vulnerable among us.

I do not believe them when they speak of thoughts and prayers. Mr. French, you quoted Scripture on the air; I’ll quote back at you: “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) This is Jesus speaking, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, where he has spoken about the poor, the humble, and hypocrites. It doesn’t get any more “Christian” than that. And the fruits of the politicians who talk about “thoughts and prayers” when they have the power to take action (“Faith without works is dead” James; not a scriptural principle, Mr. French, but actual Scripture) to prevent these tragic, senseless, avoidable murders is nil. If a bill is brought to the Senate or the Congress that might actually help citizens of the United States, and I include Puerto Ricans here, these politicians will do their damnedest to derail it.

I learned my friend’s lesson well, because what he was really telling me was “You will know them by their fruits.” That’s what I look for in a politician. They can say whatever they like, but what do they do?

If they do good in the rest of their dealings, fine, I believe them when they send thoughts and prayers. If they don’t, like our current GOP-controlled Congress, I don’t believe them. And I’m not puzzled by twitter activists who criticize them.

Prayer As Action

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For people in power to respond to a disaster by saying “My thoughts and prayers are with them” is a meaningless gesture unless that person follows it up with action to avert another disaster.

Yet there are times when prayer is the best action one can take.

I was privileged to see Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry last week and hear his powerful preaching. It was in a city I’m not really familiar with, and as I wandered around trying to find the place where the post-service luncheon was to be held, I was approached by a man.

He asked whether I would donate something toward bringing his brother from Puerto Rico to the mainland in exchange for a chocolate bar. I hadn’t brought sufficient cash with me to do so, and I explained this to him and also that I had now made two donations to the Hispanic Federation to help Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Marie.

Then I told him that I would pray for his brother, and the man’s face lit up as if he’d just been told he’d won a lottery. “Will you?” he exclaimed with joy. “Absolutely!” I said. “May I hug you?” he asked. “Absolutely!” I said. And we hugged.

I’m not sure who felt more blessed.

We talked a while about Puerto Rico’s travails, and he told me that he himself had only moved to the mainland shortly before the hurricane. He seemed glad to be here, and I hoped the mainland was treating him well. When we parted, something special was going on for each of us.

I believe that prayer is action; sometimes it is the only action one can take. I don’t pray for specifics much these days, and I don’t pray for a situation to go “according to God’s will.” Many people, and I have been one of them, hear in those words that God’s will might be that one has to endure a crisis without complaint; that suffering lies ahead and one just has to suck it up.

What comes after “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer is the most important part: “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

In other words, may God’s will for perfect reconciliation, perfect love, perfect peace, and perfect understanding come to human beings as it has come to those who have met God “not through a glass darkly,” but face to face.

I do pray that an afflicted person will know themselves to be surrounded with love and support and encouragement. I do pray that that person’s heart will be open to accepting help that might be unrecognizable at first. I do pray that they be strengthened and inspired by the Holy Spirit to see a solution where there wasn’t one before. And I do pray that Jesus may break down any barriers to healing inner wounds that prevent someone from accepting all the help that is available, divine and earthly.

At the luncheon I went up to the head table to get a picture of Bishop Curry, who had that morning preached prophetically about going to the mountaintop where heaven and earth come together to get strength to return to the trials and tribulations of our world and seek solutions to them.

An elderly woman next to me was telling the bishop that she prayed for him every day. The same light shone out in his face as I had witnessed a short time before on the Puerto Rican man. The bishop fairly lunged across the table to grasp her hands and thank her and then insisted she come up onto the dais and have her picture taken with him.

I’m not sure who felt more blessed.

You can hear the Bishop’s prophetic preaching below. The video was started long, long before sermon time, so you might want to advance it.

Haroon Moghul: How to be a Muslim

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I heard Haroon Moghul speak about his new book, How to be a Muslim, on “Fresh Air” and was moved to read it.

Little did I know how much his story would teach me about myself.

Mr. Moghul is a Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a contributor at the Center for Global Policy, and an academic and speaker on Islam. He grew up in a traditional Muslim-American family in Western Massachusetts. That traditional upbringing caused a great deal of inner turmoil in his youth as he navigated adolescence and all the usual hormonal conflicts that arise.

Being eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder did not help. His guilt about questioning his faith, questioning Allah, questioning relationships with non-Muslim girls, and having a neuro-biological disease brought him to the brink of suicide.

How he pushed through it all, and despite (or because) of it all being a successful organizer of Islamic centers for students and speaker on Islam, is important reading for understanding not only Islam, but also for understanding any faith journey.

Perhaps Mr. Moghul didn’t plan his book so, but that is what it brought to this reader.

Even as I listened to his interview with Terry Gross, I couldn’t help but think about being raised Catholic in the 1950s and ‘60s and the tremendous burden of guilt weekly sermons told me I must shoulder. The guilt was enhanced, I have since learned, by the disease of depression from which I have suffered since a small child.

It was when an elderly priest yanked me from a praying position and slapped me for not wearing a hat in church, not long before Vatican II decreed that women didn’t need to wear hats in church, that I vowed to brush Catholicism off my feet and move on.

The trouble was, I confused Christianity with Catholicism. And even as I trumpeted my unbelief, I realized that I wouldn’t be yelling at God if I didn’t fundamentally believe in God. And through it all, I still knew in my heart and soul that Jesus the Christ was my shepherd.

At one point in Mr. Moghul’s seeking for health and wholeness, a therapist told him to try spending just five minutes a day with Allah. As I was reading the book, and believing myself happily faithful now in my Episcopal/Lutheran church, I realized that my anger about American politics and racism and white supremacy was undermining my faith. I had lulled myself into thinking that the prayers I say each morning were holding me in a good place. But many days the prayers were said automatically and without intention.

So I took a cue from Mr. Moghul and started reading Morning Prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer again. I started talking to Jesus about my anger and my anguish at the state of the nation. Oh, what a blessed difference it made! I’m still angry and my Twitter account shows it, but beginning the day with an organized routine of prayer has allowed light in that helps me channel the anger and keep depression from overwhelming me. I can push back against the darkness; as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Of course, Mr. Moghul’s book is not about me, and the world’s problems are not about me. Yet it is impossible to resist the darkness when everything around seems dark, whether that darkness comes from neuro-biological illnesses or the state of the world. I do think that is what Mr. Moghul writes about, and it is what he helped me see.

So I thank Mr. Moghul and I thank Him/Her, the Eternal Spirit, the Father and Mother of us all who draws us from darkness into light.

Pauli Murray: Activist, Lawyer, Priest, Prophet

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Like many people who commented on the Pauli Murray Project page, I wonder how I got to this age without knowing about her.

And I only know about her because I came upon Patricia Bell-Scott’s book The Firebrand and the First Lady, at Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home.

Pauli Murray had a hard row to hoe, but the scrappy, chronically underweight woman beat the odds and achieved her dreams of becoming a lawyer and then one of the very first women priests in the Episcopal Church of America, all the while fighting tenaciously for civil rights.

She was organizing sit-ins at Washington, DC, lunch counters years before SNCC existed. She wrote letters to just about everyone of authority in the white-dominated world about indignities visited upon African-Americans beginning in the 1930s.

Her first sight of Eleanor Roosevelt, called “ER” throughout the book, was at a Depression-era work camp for homeless women where Murray was resident. At the time, she refused to acknowledge ER, but wrote to her a few years later and thus a deep friendship began.

Murray fought her way into the “club” that included Thurgood Marshall, Howard Thurman, and Bayard Rustin. Thurman in particular she considered a mentor. She and Marshall often disagreed on ways and means of fighting for civil rights, but they respected and admired each other.

So why is Pauli Murray so little known? Well, she was black, she was a woman, and she was a lesbian. Hmmm, three strikes against her and still she persevered, all the while dealing with ill health and being the mainstay of her extended family.

So I invite you, if you do not know her, to get to know Pauli Murray better now. She herself published several books. The wonderful thing about Bell-Scott’s book is that diehard Eleanor Roosevelt admirers like me get to see another side of her all the while learning something new.

You can see Pauli Murray’s bibliography, extended biography and more at www.paulimurrayproject.org.

 

 

The Moral Universe – Slavery and Faith

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Eternal Spirit,

Earthmaker,

Pain-bearer,

Life-Giver,

Source of all that is and is to be,

Father and Mother of us all,

Heavenly God, in whom is Heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the Universe!

Your way of justice be followed by all the peoples of the world!

Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!

With the bread we need for today, feed us.

In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

From trials too great to endure, spare us.

From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love.

From The New Zealand (Anglican) Prayer Book

The New Zealand Prayer Book was rewritten in the early 1990s in order to be inclusive and use language that would be relevant to the native Maori population. In the service material in the prayer book, English is on one page and the Maori language on the other. This version of The Lord’s Prayer speaks to me in a way that few other formal prayers do. I say it every day and, as I was mulling over my next posting, the sentence “Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!” shouted in my ear.

I knew I wanted to address the deep Christian faith of so many parts of the African-American community and how wondrous it is to me that people whose forebears suffered so much in this country, and who themselves must certainly know the pain of discrimination or worse, could be such faithful people. How could an enslaved people have set down the beginnings of some of the most beautiful church music ever written, as well as several types of popular music that have proven to be enduring? Since Emancipation, the black church has been known for its vibrancy and its very real authenticity in its relation to God.

And I thought, perhaps it is the idea of a commonwealth (ie a place where the common good is practiced) that has sustained their hope. We know it sustained Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was his dream, peace and freedom, and he gave his life trying to bring it to earth.

And I wondered, how did slaves become Christians? Who, on a plantation where life was as grim as it could be, would dare to tell people of the unconditional, eternal love of Jesus Christ? And how could slaves have believed it?

I pulled out The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois to see whether he wrote on this subject. And he did, in the chapter “Of Faith and the Fathers.”

AfricaWriting in the first years of the 20th century, DuBois reminds us that “the social history of the Negro did not start in America.” Africans who were brought here in chains had been part of complex societies that were ruled by the chief and the priest.

“His religion was nature-worship, with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, good and bad, and his worship was through incantation and sacrifice.” Though the new rule of life in plantations saw ties of kinship disappear, a depth of learning from the old stories stayed within slaves and, DuBois says, someone would rise up as a priest or medicine-man within the slave community. Perhaps because families were torn apart, with a mother sent in one direction, father in another, and perhaps children in a third, it became even more important to depend upon the faith of the fathers to get one through the day.

“Thus, within the narrow limits allowed by the slave system, rose the Negro preacher, and under him the first Afro-American institution, the Negro church,” wrote DuBois.

It wasn’t a Christian church at first, but the rites and rituals were familiar and certainly paved the way for those who yearned for the transcendent to be absorbed into Christianity. If plantation owners gave any kind of Christian education to their slaves, it was as a way of keeping them passive and easier to control. As DuBois says, “The long system of repression and degradation of the Negro tended to emphasize the elements in his character which made him a valuable chattel: courtesy became humility, moral strength degenerated into submission, and the exquisite native appreciation of the beautiful became an infinite capacity for dumb suffering.”

With the rising abolition movement and then Emancipation, DuBois says, it must have seemed to the freedman as if the day of the Lord had come. However, when Jim Crow came instead, many, many freedmen continued to look to the Lord for deliverance and created a liberation theology. The faith of the fathers did not die, but brought an oppressed people into the 20th and now 21st centuries.

Falling Upward

Franciscan Richard Rohr, who has written many books about the deepest forms of spiritual practice, says in Falling Upward that, in effect, the truest, most mature faith comes out of having known suffering. Moving through pain brings us to a level of development where we are more readily able to commune with the divine inside and outside of us. A lot of traditional Negro Spirituals reflect this philosophy, and those spirituals influenced the poetry of the great black poets such as Langston Hughes.

There is a scene in the movie Amistad that, aside from the horrific scenes of the kidnapping of the Africans, has stuck with me over many years. Yumba has been given a Bible and sits in the courtroom day after day looking at the pictures. Cinque, the leader of the revolt, scoffs at him. But Yumba explains what he has learned from the pictures. When Cinque sees the picture of Jesus with His crown of thorns, he says, “Well, he must have committed some crime!” Yumba answers him, “Why? What did we do?” Then he looks back at a picture of the Ascension and talks about dying. All the fear has drained from his face and he smiles. By looking at the pictures over and over again, he has learned the very essence of Jesus’ message: Death has no victory over you. Live a righteous life and be not afraid.

This is not to romanticize suffering for suffering’s sake. Much personal suffering comes from not being able to move past a coping mechanism that was useful at one time but is no longer needed. Suffering that comes from outside one, though, that is inflicted by other human beings in an institutional way, is grotesque and obscene. Which makes it all the more miraculous that Emancipation was not followed by a bloodbath of revenge on the part of the freed slaves, but by yearning for education and land in order to sustain themselves. Faith must have played a very large part in encouraging freed men and women to persist in the fight for civil rights that still to this day have not been fully granted.