2014 Religious Trends
Go to Hell: Remembering, Reflecting, and Re-imagining Howard Thurman
Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.
If a man is convinced that he is safe only as long as he uses his power to give others a sense of insecurity, then the measure of their security is in his hands. If security or insecurity is at the mercy of a single individual or group, then control of behavior becomes routine. All imperialism functions in this way. (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 75)
The indomitable, late Howard Thurman was an influential African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades and wrote twenty-one books. In 1944 he provided principal leadership and was the first pastor of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, California.
The Church, of which the pacifist organization Fellowship of Reconciliation was the principal sponsor, was the first intentionally multi-racial church in American history. For Thurman, preaching was more than just a by-product to building a successful congregation, but an opportunity to reconcile humanity unto itself. Thurman was able to challenge the traditional North American orthodoxy of Scripture by embodying it in his pastoral praxis. Indeed, he was being the change he wished to see in the world.
Do me a favor. Quickly go back and read the quote from Thurman atop the page. Did you do it? Now read it again. Reflect on it. Now take time to consider the state of our planet in 1944. Militarism and fascism were the rule of the day as a consequence of World War II. Racial, economic, and political upheaval were embedded in every meaningful conversation in every country. Sociologists and historians were openly questioning the world's ability to wade through this seemingly impenetrable malaise or "funk." Yet, a black preacher from Daytona Beach, Florida who had the courage to pastor the world from a local context had the unmitigated gall to say:
Why 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? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself? (Jesus and the Disinherited, Preface)
These (as well as the quote to start this essay) are the words from Thurman's seminal work entitled Jesus and The Disinherited, a classic that grew out of a series of lectures Thurman gave to the leadership of the YMCA and a conversation he had on his initial trip to India in the early 1940s. Thurman was provoked by indigenous Indian leadership who thought him a traitor to his race for being Christian. It is widely known that Martin Luther King, Jr. always had the book with him in prison (alongside his Bible and William Styron's The Confessions Of Nat Turner). The premise of this classic was simple: the religion of Jesus must always speak consistently to those persons who live with "their backs against wall."
Peter Matthews is an author and speaker who has preached, lectured, or keynoted extensively throughout the U.S., Jamaica, England, Switzerland, and South Africa over the past two decades. He is currently serving as the first male African-American pastor in the 132-year history of Eden Chapel United Methodist Church (Saylor Park, Ohio), as well as the first African-American Executive Director/Campus Pastor in the 95-year history of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Cincinnati. He is the co-founder of Soul Emergence Media and host of the weekly online radio show Soul Emergence. Under Matthew's leadership, his organization, Holistic, Inc., facilitated a direct response to the pressing needs of a greater Cincinnati, Ohio and beyond by initiating a market-based approach to community development.