Howard Thurman: Slow Church and Social Liberation


This comes from an interview with Dr. Walter Fluker, director and editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project at Morehouse College, that ran on the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly website.
[ Read the full interview... ]

This passage also echoes a point that Andy Crouch made about the Civil Rights movement in my interview with him about his forthcoming book: PLAYING GOD: Redeeming the Gift of Power.

(HT: Ric Hudgens for pointing me to this… )

Q: Why do you think [Howard Thurman] has been so overlooked or bypassed by many in our society?

WF: Our society is fast-paced. Thurman is very slow. And he thinks life is slow. In fact, he thinks change is slow. This is an incredibly hard lesson to learn, especially for people who have been historically oppressed. Thurman’s solution is not a solution that says we can change things overnight. In fact, he says that social liberation also has to consider social patience. Some stains, he believes, don’t come out without first soaking them. Therefore, he placed most of his emphasis on the individual and what the individual could do to make his or her life a kind of living sacrament of the presence of God in the world. That’s not the same as saying let’s go and change social and political structures; let’s have a violent revolution and change the world. Much of the rhetoric of the late ’60s and early ’70s was about cultural revolution. Violence had been adopted as at least a reasonable strategy, and I’m not suggesting that it was not a reasonable strategy. But Thurman really felt that this may not be the best way to begin to approach social problems and certainly the question of liberation, which he believed began with the individual. Thurman’s real concern was how might we move into society as transformers of culture without “getting any on us.” It’s one thing to go into the dragon’s cave and slay the dragon; it’s quite another to wake up the next morning and you’ve become the dragon. Thurman wanted to make sure that somehow we maintained purity of heart, will and conscience while we struggled to change a very, very dangerous and violent world. Often the meditations and the mystical dimension of Thurman are read at the expense of what I think are the critical statements that he’s making, not only as an intellectual, about ways in which the culture has really militated against the life chances of people. That’s a very important dimension of Thurman that’s often lost.

Ragan Sutterfield – This is my Body [Patheos Book Club]
An Interview with Tim Suttle
Justice that Leavens the World.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Slow Church…
  • Joe D.

    Thanks for posting Chris. I think this adds a much needed perspective to the discussion amongst all the white men ;)

    At the same time, I think its good to hold Thurman in tension with other African-American theologians like James Cone or King, who (I imagine) would disagree with Thurman and call for more immediate structural transformation.

    Thurman’s focus on the individual/slow change as opposed to structural/sweeping liberation also reminds me of Delores Williams and her womanist approach that emphasizes survival/quality of life in the midst of struggle and injustice; about how God “makes a way out of no way” when injustice just won’t die. She critiques Cone and other African-American male theologians who claim that God *always* brings liberation. This was not true for Hagar and has not been true in the experience of African-American women. Perhaps Delores Williams or other womanist theologians would be good resources for a “slow” approach?

    • erbks


      I don’t read Thurman as advocating individual/slow change as opposed to structural liberation, but more as a both/and. What Andy Crouch reminded me of that I alluded to here is that there was a major focus in the Civil rights movement on personal purification alongside nonviolent struggle for systemic change. There were prayer services where those who marched would pray that their hearts would be purged of anger, and pray for the common good of society…

      I think there is something to your point though about the womenist theologians. I’ll have to think some more on that one! ~Chris

      • erbks

        Or to put it another way, I read Thurman as saying our means must be in line with our ends (which incidentally, is a major theme of the SLOW CHURCH book). In an interconnected creation, if we’re acting out of rage or hatred, we’re setting ourselves up for propagating injustice (at some point down the road, if not in the present). ~ccs

        • Joe D.

          thanks for these thoughts Chris. I think I see what you mean here. I probably need to read more Thurman (and Cone) before making these quick either/or dichotomies between them so thanks for pushing back on that. What you say in this second reply is very helpful tho. I had a similar thought framed in terms of “worship” instead of “liberation” while preparing for a sermon on Gideon recently: *who* we worship implies/instructs/orients *how* we worship and *how* we worship reveals (or conceals) *who* we worship. I didn’t end up using this in the sermon but I think there’s something to it.