In 1949, the African-American theologian and poet Howard Thurman published a book of reflections on the teachings of Jesus. This particular book, called Jesus and the Disinherited, is strongly inspired by the Sermon on the Mount, that challenging set of teachings we have been hearing in the gospels for about three weeks now. Thurman’s understanding of what Jesus is up to in today’s gospel requires our attention.
Thurman says that he is writing the book, and indeed that he has directed much of his life’s work, in response to his grandmother’s relationship to the scriptures. Here’s what he means by that: his grandmother had been a slave on a plantation in Florida, and she was illiterate, but she loved the Bible. Young Thurman had the task of reading scripture to her two or three times a week. He knew that there were passages from the scriptures that she cherished, and others that she would never allow him to read. When he was in college he finally asked her why, and she told him then the shameful history of the white preachers who used the letters of Paul, in particular, to silence slaves and demand their obedience. She was willing to hear the parts from First Corinthians that talk about love, but most of the epistles were like scriptural dead zones to her, made toxic by misuse. Much of Christianity, in fact, can feel like a dead zone, made toxic through a long history of distortion and falsification and self-justification.
Because he was such a searching and fearless believer in Jesus, Howard Thurman posed a question for himself and he set about to answer it. His question? Does Christianity have something to say to the person whose back is against the wall, or doesn’t it? Was the Bible a resource for his grandmother or was it a source of oppression? What did Jesus have to say to people who actually were disinherited? Did he have something for them beyond promises of a happy afterlife if they submitted to abuse?
In 1949, then, Thurman set out to write a response to that question. He came to the understanding that, as a Jewish carpenter in Roman-occupied Palestine, Jesus knew all about what a conquering power could do to a people. He knew about defeat, division, and despair, and above all he knew how the threat of violence and cruelty could erode a person from within. He knew exactly what it meant to have your back to the wall, and he could see all around him what it cost his own neighbors to have to submit over and over again to powerful people who consider your life insignificant.
I read Howard Thurman’s words with deep gratitude today, and I have to say, it’s not because my back is against the wall. My back is not against the wall, and maybe yours isn’t either, if I can say that without presuming to speak for another. I’m not powerless, and admiring Howard Thurman is no excuse for forgetting the position of privilege from which I speak. But I know that I live in a world, and in a particular moment, in which the threat of brute force seems to be escalating, and its targets, real or imagined, seem to be multiplying. Forget those maps of “red” and “blue” America, I’m imagining a map in which our nation is divided up by what we fear. Terrorists? Liberals? Conservatives? Russians? Immigrants? Racists? Come to think of it, we could probably divide the country up by which branch of the government we are most certain is coming after us some day soon: executive, legislative or judicial. Or is it the intelligence community we should be fearing? Whose plot to “take over” do you see looming on the horizon?
What the Bible says to the person whose back is against the wall may have a new set of meanings in this moment, if we are giving ourselves over to the fear of some occupying force. There are those who are threatened with physical violence right now, and there are those who are living in anticipation of threats that may or may not be real, but fear is the order of the day. We are becoming connoisseurs of fear.
But Jesus, Thurman tells us, is a master of overcoming fear. And when Jesus says “turn the other cheek” or “love your enemy,” he is addressing your fear, not urging your complicity with oppression. “Pray for those who persecute you” is an injunction to stand tall, to live as the child of God that you were meant to be. Be lavish in your love and your human dignity and your ostentatious trust in God. Be strong, Thurman says, in telling the plain truth. Don’t succumb to the temptation to get by quietly.
Fear and hatred and mistrust, Thurman says, can do nothing for us but erode our creativity. The crazy, abundant responses that Jesus is calling for in this Sermon on Mount, on the other hand, remind us that God is in control and that we are agents of God’s will. If your back is really against the wall, Jesus tells us, it won’t be enough to do what you have to do to get by. There is no “getting by.” Freedom means claiming our part of that astonishing power that makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good. Freedom means that we see God’s peace falling like rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Freedom of this kind is the freedom to follow Jesus. And by giving us the instructions we receive in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching us that no threat or fear or lie can take that freedom away.
I don’t know about you, but these days I can hardly tell which I am, righteous or unrighteous. I know that I am free and that I have a voice. I know I can make choices about where my money goes and how to vote. I can write letters and march and make phone calls. But I’m alarmed to find that it takes comparatively little to make me imagine the worst. There is a difference between vigilance and morbid anticipation. There is a difference between fear and hatred on the one hand, and the courageous response of a generous heart on the other.
Hear this from Howard Thurman, interpreting with great creativity the words of Jesus: “Nothing less than a great daring in the face of overwhelming odds can achieve the inner security in which fear cannot possibly thrive” (56).
Follow Jesus, without fear. Allow no dead zones in our faith. Claim the freedom to love, undiminished and unafraid.