Preaching to the Disinherited — Center for Action and Contemplation

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See the schedule and event session details for the final CONSPIRE conference (Sep. 24 – 26)

Preaching to the Disinherited

The Sermon on the Mount

Preaching to the Disinherited
Friday, July 23, 2021

Jesus’ primary audience for the Sermon on the Mount would have been the “disinherited,” to use the term from the African American author and mystic Howard Thurman (1899–1981). So much of Jesus’ teaching was meant to allay the fear and despair of his own marginalized and oppressed Jewish audience; it is no wonder it has also served as a powerful statement of solidarity with all those who suffer. Thurman writes:

The disinherited experience the disintegrating effect of contempt. . . . There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you. In modern power politics this is called a war of nerves. The underprivileged in any society are the victims of a perpetual war of nerves. The logic of the state of affairs is physical violence, but it need not fulfill itself in order to work its perfect havoc in the souls of the poor. . . .

In the great expression of affirmation and faith found in the Sermon on the Mount there appears in clearest outline the basis of [Jesus’] positive answer to the awful fact of fear and its twin sons of thunder—anxiety and despair. . . .

[Thurman then quotes Matthew 6:25–34, and continues:]

The core of the analysis of Jesus is that the human is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature and guarantees all the intricacies of the life-process itself. Jesus suggests that it is quite unreasonable to assume that God, whose creative activity is expressed even in such details as the hairs of a person’s head, would exclude from God’s concern the life, the vital spirit, of the person’s own self. This idea—that God is mindful of the individual—is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease. In this world the socially disadvantaged individual is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: “Who am I? What am I?”

The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If people feel that they do not belong in the way in which it is perfectly normal for other people to belong, then they develop a deep sense of insecurity. When this happens to a person, it provides the basic material for what the psychologist calls an inferiority complex. . . . The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.

Richard here: Knowing our true identity as sons and daughters of God can save us thousands of dollars in psychotherapy. Knowing that everyone else is a child of God—and treating them as such—can save the world!

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Friends United Press: 1981), 39–40, 48, 49–50. Note: Minor edits made to incorporate gender-inclusive language.

Story from Our Community:
Thank you for these meditations. I came across the agricultural term “re-wilding”—to give back areas of low-grade land to nature to rest, restore, and regain. I love that term! I wonder if we, as a community, are being asked by God to “re-wild”—to go back to our origins of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus. —Helen R.

Image credit: Oliver, Street Piano (detail), 2010, photograph, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
Image inspiration: A public piano is for everyone. The sound of the notes is a gift, made by ordinary people, rippling outward toward passersby. The beauty of shared music is present, whether or not the people who hear it respond.
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