Mystics as Social Activists: Howard Thurman’s Holistic Spirituality

Mystics as Social Activists: Howard Thurman’s Holistic Spirituality July 28, 2019

Can you be both a mystic and a social activist? Can you hold a progressive, activist, theology, and be a contemplative? Can you be both heavenly minded and earthly good?
The way of Jesus and his mystic followers transcends the polarities of activism and contemplation, inner journey and outer activity. Jesus’ path is both personal and social. Jesus’ embodied a prophetic spirituality reflected in his welcome of the marginalized, affirmation of women, expansion of the scope of salvation and ethical concern to include foreigners and the disinherited, and challenge to narrow purity codes which promoted exclusion. In his first sermon, grounded in the contemplative forty-day retreat in the wilderness, Jesus proclaimed that the “spirit of the Lord” was upon him and this movement of the Spirit required the healing of the social order as well as people’s religious lives.

The mysticism of Jesus and the prophets integrates social protest with life-changing experiences of the Holy. Alternative visions among the prophets emerged from lively visions of God that awakened them to God’s ubiquitous presence as well as the cries of the poor. Sadly, our lack of spiritual depth has been a factor in the incivility, divisiveness, and scorched earth approach to political change today. We need models of spiritual depth that give us the strength to persist, the courage to protest, and the compassion to reconcile.
African American theologian and spiritual guide Howard Thurman (1899-1981) provides one pathway toward both deepening our spirituality and healing our cultural divide as we protest the injustices of our time. A descendent of slaves, who experienced racism throughout his life, Thurman sought to nurture a liberating spirituality that included foe and friend alike. Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949, was one of the first texts on black liberation theology and was an inspiration to the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King, who often carried Thurman’s book in his satchel during the height of the civil rights protests.
Thurman was an activist mystic, a universalist who experienced God profoundly throughout his life in the non-human world of flora, fauna, sky and sea. He believed that the world was animated by a Spirit within which all of us lived and moved and had our being, and this Spirit touched everyone. (Acts 17:28) This animating Spirit joined all creation and was the deepest reality of every person, despite our profound differences in class, race, politics, and social location.
Thurman knew the dangers of polarization and racism, having grown up in a culture where he was “an outsider in the community of power, where most of the life and death decisions are made which control the common life,” who must struggle daily to affirm his identity and find his place in a society whose structures often disregard his voice and value. He knew the power of poverty and racism to destroy the imaginations and dreams of children and their parents. Thurman also knew that God is present in everyone and that transformation can occur among the greatest as well as the least of these, among the foe as well as the friend. He believed that deep down everyone could become a mystic.
In Thurman’s Berkeley lectures on “Mysticism and Social Action,” he defined mysticism as “the response of the individual to a personal encounter with God within his own soul. This is my working definition. Such a response is total, effecting the inner quality of the life and its outward expression as its manifestation.” In the spirit of his teacher Quaker professor and spiritual guide Rufus Jones, Thurman proclaimed an “affirmative mysticism,” in which the mystic experiences God moving through our social structures as well as personal experiences seeking the spiritual and interpersonal unity of all things.
According to Thurman, the mystic was motivated by the desire that everyone receive the opportunity to experience their own holiness and value, and their own relationship with God. Going beyond narrow self-interest to expansive world loyalty, the mystic sees our common humanity, empathizes with the suffering of the oppressed, and embraces contrasting viewpoints, including viewpoints they continue to oppose, as ways of moving from polarization to reconciliation.
Having experienced God as the source of all creation, the mystic desires that all people experience this same sense of wholeness, according to their unique personalities, cultures, and life-experiences. Accordingly, when the mystic observes conditions that threaten or diminishes persons’ encounter with God, he or she is compelled to confront them in the public arena. Social action, therefore, is an expression of resistance against whatever tends to, or separates one, from the experience of God, who is the ground of his being.”
Thurman recognizes that the mystic understands that healthy societies are fundamental to experiences of spiritual wholeness. In an interdependent universe and an intricately woven social order, there is no place to hide, every action has an impact, and connection not separation is our deepest reality. Improving the social, political, and economic order opens the door for the time and dignity necessary for intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual growth. When persons do not have adequate food, housing, security, social equality, and legal protection, they seldom pursue intellectual and spiritual growth. As we see daily, whether on our border lands or in the anxieties of persons fearing ICE raids despite their citizenship, not to mention racial invectives from political leaders, trauma haunts their daily lives and mistrust feeds their spirits. The mystic’s social agenda ultimately “has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to himself in the life of the individual. Whatever there is that blocks this, calls for action.” The mystic must challenge anything that stands in the way of a child or her parent experiencing God in their daily lives.
Thurman believed that “for the mystic, social action is sacramental, because it is not an end in itself. Always, it is the individual who must be addressed, located and released, underneath his misery and his hunger and his destitution. That whatever may be blocking his way to his own center where his altar may be found, this must be removed.” The soul-destroying nature of poverty and injustice must be addressed immediately with wise personal and political action.
The powerful and wealthy perpetrators of injustice are also in spiritual jeopardy. With all their advantages and privilege, they have turned their gaze from the beauty of the heavens to the banality of oppression and manipulation. In the spirit of Amos 8, the mystic knows that the affluent risk a famine of hearing God’s word and that though they build large barns, as Jesus says, to protect their possessions, their souls are at risk as a result of their injustice and apathy toward the needs of the poor. One can gain the world, as Jesus says, and lose one’s soul, caught up in consumerism, power, entitlement, and self-gratification. The oppressor’s injustice ultimately stunts her or his own soul as well as the souls of those whom they oppress.
Inspired by their sense of the unity and divinity of all life, the mystic seeks the healing of both oppressor and oppressed. The mystic pushes hard for social transformation, but also recognizes the humanity of the oppressor. You must protest and pray. Justice is painful – and oppressors need to learn the error of their ways – but the confrontation with those who perpetuate injustice is intended to support their relationship to God, humankind in its diversity, and personal spiritual growth. In so doing, the mystic rises above polarization to promote what Martin Luther King described as the Beloved Community.
Howard Thurman shows progressive Christians that mysticism can be this-worldly and earth-affirming. The mystic need not escape the maelstrom of life, but has the mandate to be God’s companion in promoting God’s vision “on earth as it is in heaven.”
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A Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author, Bruce Epperly is the author of fifty books, including “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World” (Upper Room Books), “The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman.” and “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” (Anamchara Books), and “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective” (Energion Publications).

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