Mystic: Howard Thurman
Why Are You Here?
Thursday, July 25, 2019
Today, as you read this second excerpt from Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, hold an open heart and mind. In other words, read with a contemplative stance. The meditation ends with a question that I’ll hope you’ll sit with—as Thurman and his companion did for five hours—and not rush to a pat, tidy answer.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man who stands with his back against the wall . . . the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is . . . what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life.
In the fall of 1935 I was serving as chairman of a delegation sent on a pilgrimage of friendship from the students of America to the students of India, Burma, and Ceylon. [On this trip Thurman also met and visited with Gandhi.] It was at a meeting in Ceylon that the whole crucial issue was pointed up to me in a way that I can never forget. . . . I was invited by the principal to have coffee. . . .
He said to me, “What are you doing over here? I know what the newspapers say . . . but that is not my question. What are you doing over here? This is what I mean.
“More than three hundred years ago your forefathers were taken from the western coast of Africa as slaves. The people who dealt in the slave traffic were Christians. One of your famous Christian hymn writers, Sir John Newton, made his money from the sale of slaves to the New World. He is the man who wrote ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds’ and ‘Amazing Grace’—there may be others, but these are the only ones I know. The name of one of the famous British slave vessels was ‘Jesus.’
“The men who bought the slaves were Christians. Christian ministers, quoting the Christian apostle Paul, gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery. Some seventy years or more ago you were freed by a man [Abraham Lincoln] who was not a professing Christian, but was rather the spearhead of certain political, social, and economic forces, the significance of which he himself did not understand. During all the period since then you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. Even in the church, I understand, there is segregation. One of my students who went to your country sent me a clipping telling about a Christian church in which the regular Sunday worship was interrupted so that many could join a mob against one of your fellows. When he had been caught and done to death, they came back to resume their worship of their Christian God.
“I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, staying deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position?”
A note on language from Thurman’s editors: “We realize that inclusive language is noticeably absent in Howard Thurman’s writings. As gifted and prophetic as he was, Howard Thurman was also a product of his times, and inclusive language was not a part of the social consciousness. Regardless of language, the substance of Howard Thurman’s work is inclusive. His life and theology were inclusive, and if he were writing today his language would more accurately reflect this worldview.”  While his masculine words might suggest that Thurman didn’t consider other perspectives, he did see many women in his life (for example, his mentor Mary McLeod Bethune and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman) as peers and leaders. We must grant this same sympathy to all those who write with sincerity in previous times and various cultures.
 Editors, Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 6. See Sunday’s meditation for my introduction to Howard Thurman.
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Beacon Press: 1976), 3-5.