Music of the Heart: Howard Thurman's Legacy

a sermon by John Bartoli, drex Andrex, and Nancy Boardman, worship associates
Paint Branch UU Church
February 8, 2004

NOTE: This sermon by the worship associates was the result of an auction item that was purchased by Carol Carter Walker at the 2003 PBUUC Auction.

Howard Thurman and the Politics of the Disinherited by John Bartoli

I want to start out first by thanking Carol Carter Walker for suggesting Howard Thurman as a topic for this service. I have been quite overwhelmed by the abundance of his writings and the combination of mysticism and pragmatism that they express. He has written over 20 books, numerous articles and essays, and many sermons and meditations. When I searched the internet I quickly came up with at least twenty different quotations of his covering thoughts on love, community,  commitment and spirituality. Our own Hymnal has two special selections from his writings.

Jesus and the Disinherited was published in 1949. It was an extension of a seven-page essay entitled “Good News for the Underprivileged” that was first published in 1935.

In this book Dr. Thurman does not just consider the effect of oppression on his own race and culture. He analyzes the general dynamic between oppressor and oppressed using the example of Christ and the environment he lived in. He describes Jesus as a Jew, a poor Jew, and a Jew living under Roman occupation. To such a person, there were few alternatives for survival. They could either resist the Romans and be destroyed or not resist the Romans and be assimilated.

Resistance, as they say, was futile. The Romans had taken over Jerusalem just about a hundred years before Christ started his ministry. In their time of domination, they had put down rebellion with ruthless authority, destroying both rebels and pacifists alike. The fear of physical violence was still present in Christ’s time. “Always back of the threat,” Dr. Thurman says, “ is the rumor or the fact that somewhere, under some similar circumstances violence was used. That is all that is necessary. The threat becomes the effective instrument.(Jesus and the Disinherited (JATD), p.39)”  As an example of this, he tells a story of young boys taunting dogs that passed through his neighborhood by pulling their arms back as if to throw a rock. Inevitably the dog would yelp and start to run even though the boys never threw any rocks. It was enough for the dog to see the threat of violence to make him run.

“Fear, then,” Dr. Thurman says, “is a kind of safety device that the oppressed use to protect themselves. They have learned how to exercise extreme care, how to behave so as to reduce the threat of immediate danger from their environment. (JATD, p. 41)”

Fear is the basis for two other survival tactics of non-resistance that Dr. Thurman describes as well.  The first tactic is non resistance through imitation. He says, “The aim is to reduce all outer or external signs of difference to zero, so that there shall be no ostensible cause for active violence or opposition. Under some circumstances it may involve a repudiation of one’s heritage, one’s customs, one’s faith.” The wealthy Sadducees took on this attitude of assimilation. They represented the upper classes from which the high priests came and their fear was a loss of their economic security which depended heavily on maintaining the status quo.

A second flavor of non resistance as Dr. Thurman describes it is reducing contact with the enemy to a minimum, thus isolating the oppressed culture within the stronghold of the dominating one. This demanded a more cunning mood, a mood , as Dr. Thurman calls it,  “of bitterness and hatred, but also one of deep, calculating fear.” The Pharisees were from upper middle-class families. They outwardly cooperated with the Romans but inwardly held nothing but contempt for them and felt that any deception was allowable in fighting the oppressor. To them too, their survival was guaranteed only as long as an atmosphere of fear was maintaned and the status quo kept intact.

In the midst of this seething cauldron of politics and fear, Jesus proposes another alternative for survival. His core message was what Dr. Thurman called “a brief formula—The Kingdom of Heaven is within us.”  A formula not based on fear but on love. Christ recognized that “ external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them. ‘To revile because one has been reviled—this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself.’ ”

This was quite a controversial position for both Christ and Dr. Thurman to take. It differed from the non resistance techniques of imitation and contempt described earlier in that it was not based on fear. The challenge was to determine the inherent worth of ourselves and thus  to recognize that same inherent worth in others and even in our enemies. It was a challenge to the heart and soul to survive intact by loving in the midst of hatred.  “Hatred,” he said, “is destructive to hated and hater alike...”

I had much difficulty writing this piece. Dr. Thurman’s prose is so dense with meaning that it spawns thoughts and feelings that I have yet to arrange properly in my mind. The description of the politics and the dynamics of fear in the time of Christ is only one aspect of the many thoughts Dr. Thurman touched upon in this little book. His words to me are like sparks setting afire the dry tinder of my dormant mind. And I don’t know that I like that. His words challenge me to think again about who I am, what I believe, and what my purpose is.  I fear such a self examination might cause me to put my heart and soul in jeopardy of being hurt and humiliated, like the dog who runs and yelps at the mere threat of violence. Then again, if I don’t take the time to look inside, I  fear I will disinherit myself from the possibilities of life that are in my soul. Right now, I stand in wonder at these questions that his thoughts have stirred up in me. I echo his words of aspiration in this simple prayer, to whoever’s listening:

“Teach us to overcome our fear of life; and in that freedom may we learn to understand life and, in our understanding of life, to love.”

Howard Thurman by drex Andrex

Howard Thurman had observed:

"Commitment means that it is possible for a man to yield the nerve center of his consent to a purpose or cause, a movement or an ideal, which may be more important to him than whether he lives or dies."

I will speak of Howard Thurman’s views regarding integrity. I am interested to know if the philosophies of this spiritual thinker relate to my views and to our Unitarian Universalists views. I am interested to consider this because I am pretty sure Carol Carter Walker had some intent when she named Howard Thurman as the topic.

I would very quickly like to at least name 5 of our principles (which you can find printed in your order of service) and ask that you hold these in mind:

UU Principles

For Howard Thurman, integrity was fundamental to life, the individual life of the disinherited person, but to us all.

Howard Thurman’s philosophy was drawn from his experience growing up in the segregated south in Daytona Florida at the opening of the twentieth century. As a Negro, he was a member of the disinherited class, and therefore was a disinherited individual. Then in the mid 1930’s as a grown man, his thinking was further refined and honed in India in conversation with Mohandas Gandhi. Basically the challenge that Gandhi laid down was that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred had to be overcome with non-violent means – violence leads only to more fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. Thurman discovered that only by personal integrity can these adversities be overcome.

Howard Thurman must have been convinced that he had value as an individual, and that people had value in general, even though he was of the disinherited class. The oppressed, the disinherited, people with their back against the wall. Those, Thurman thinks, are who really need the help (of a religion, a community).

But Thurman says that "…life under oppression provided no excuse for avoiding a path of courageous, creative integrity..."

And, in fact, if you are not oppressed, you have even less excuse.

Thurman speaks in a language of a personal relationship with god, and he speaks thru the eyes of Jesus as the prophet. These words might be difficult for some of us to access. We have explored here in the past the notion of wounded words, how some words and concepts have been co-opted and their meanings usurped. I think Thurman was actually aware of this dynamic and he is very careful to identify the difference between the institutionalized Christianity and his view of the philosophy of Jesus. I do not experience a personal relationship with god, but I do accept there may be some universal force I sense to be good, and that it can be accessed. Maybe I can feel the sense of Thurman’s thoughts thru his language. I need to resist my urge to discount the god talk and I need to listen for the genuine heart which would be the integrity.

So Thurman looks to the philosophy of Jesus who says – to the House of Israel – there is an "..urgency for a radical change in the inner attitude of the people.." (Jesus’ people being the disinherited people in his society). What is this INNER ATTITUDE? Thurman says that Jesus saw - The "life of the individual…", "inward center" as the crucial arena…" to draw the future of the people. It is down to each individual.

INNER ATTITUDE – that’s pretty hard to identify or define, but it is the "…CRUCIAL ARENA…"

INNER ATTITUDE is an odd commodity indeed. Not physical, invisible, of the mind, but real. Maybe it can be expressed as self esteem – or its lack [considerable discussion here about how the disinherited can find self esteem – and there are those among us, even though not necessarily brutally oppressed who identify with the search for self esteem and appreciate how hard this can be].

Thurman observes "…anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to his destiny...". So don’t do that. Be responsible for yourself.

What does that mean? We’re trying to figure out what that INNER LIFE is (I think it is okay to bridge across the quotes and equate inner life with inner attitude), and we are not let anyone else determine its quality? So, don’t give up your Self, in so doing you surely give up your self esteem.

The self may be under attack, and systematically under attack for the disinherited. "Fear, hypocrisy, and hatred are the three hounds of Hell" Thurman says, that "track the trail of the disinherited."

So that which causes us fear, that which forces us to act with hypocrisy, that which drives us to hate, influences, even controls the quality of our inner lives. And so forces us to compromise our Selves.

Thurman proposes that two fundamental questions need to be satisfied for any individual (for their emotional health) – "Who am I?", and "What am I?".

Thurman says:

"The core of the analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all nature … Jesus suggests that it is quite unreasonable to assume that God … would exclude from his concern the life, the vital spirit, of the man himself. This idea – that God is mindful of the individual – is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease." And I would echo - Every individual has an inherent worth.

And he says:

"...that Jesus comes to the conclusion that 'The kingdom of God is within … You must abandon your fear [as we spoke of two weeks ago]…You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives.' And I would echo that we believe in the right to conscience."

Okay – this is hard stuff. The kingdom of god is within each of us, God cares about the individual. Well, kingdom of god is hardly the phrase I would use to capture the idea, but I can look thru the words to the idea. I think. I observe that many of us here, and other members of our congregation profess to be atheists or agnostics, yet they are vibrant members of our community. I observe that we have and have had a strong humanist tradition – which doesn’t rely on the overtly stated presence of god, but does rely on an inherent obligation to good, to strive to make our world and societies a better place. And to the other end of the spectrum, some of us profess to have a personal relationship with god. What is it that binds such disparate, one might even want to think irreconcilable, set of beliefs and believers together?

UU Principles

… are expressions of philosophy that bind us (I mean Unitarian Universalists). I submit that there is an underlying sense of spirit, of community, available for us to access if we try, if we want, and we sense this with our INNER LIVES, with our Selves. Further, we recognize the value of goodness and are obliged to act on its behalf. This very hard to define Feeling and our access to it thru our inner lives, this Feeling ... might it not be the "kingdom of god" that Thurman speaks of? I can make that translation, and for now, leave it as a point for thinking.

But that’s not all …

It gets harder because we must abandon our fear – and Barbara Wells (our co-minister) spent the entire service on this subject two weeks ago and just got started –"I release you."

Not only must we abandon our fear, but you must not indulge in ANY dishonesty or deception. At least this part is easy to understand, just difficult to practice. But this takes great courage because to be completely honest all the time surely leads to conflict and places your SELF in danger.

But that, difficult enough, is not the full story. "You must not indulge in any deception or dishonesty, even to save your lives." "…even to save your lives." !!

YIKES!! Now this is hard! Not only might you place your Self in danger, in some cases, especially with those disinherited, mortal danger.

If you are to live with integrity, and if you believe that there are ideals and causes bigger than your own life, then to live with integrity requires that you be willing to give your life. You must have faith in the ideals and causes, in life itself.

What this is this faith? Howard Thurman found his in the philosophy of Jesus and was convinced that integrity was the requirement. Especially for the disinherited. Each individual of the disinherited group (read "community") has the individual responsibility to "not indulge in any deception and dishonesty", each and every one. For if one gives in, the whole community is compromised. And for any individual who caves in and indulges, well he just gives away his integrity, and the control over his own fate, and his Self. That’s pretty harsh.

Most of us are not in the disinherited class. But we are in community, likely several communities. And we have responsibilities and obligations to these communities. And these communities rely on our integrity. Our UU community expects this integrity, this integrity that underlies our Unitarian Universalist principles.

And so these thoughts of Howard Thurman have endured for more than half a century, and are still applicable, and coherent with our UU principles, and perhaps applicable universally.

Now this integrity is a very rigorous requirement: " not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives." I can’t do it, certainly not every day, certainly not all the time. It is an heroic ideal. But we are charged with the responsibility to try. And so we can reflect on how we try to live with integrity as we sing hymn number 156, Oh Freedom, and consider what it might really mean to be faced with the choice –

Before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my god and be free.

Please rise as you are able and join singing hymn number 156.

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