Christianity as a technique of survival for the oppressed

I recently realized I wanted to stop reading modern books about race and justice and theology and spirituality, and instead start with the basics that everyone I know has read and references casually, but which I never actually read on my own.

I asked my friend Jazzy for a good place to start, and she recommended “Jesus and the Disinherited” by Howard Thurman.

I’ve just finished the first chapter, and I’ve underlined a lot, but don’t have any really strong things that I’ve understood well enough to share yet. But there is one thing that really stood out to me.

Thurman makes the case in this chapter that, in understanding Jesus, we can’t ignore the context in which he was born and raised. He describes the context of the Jewish people as an oppressed/marginalized/underprivileged group, and goes into detail about how such groups can respond to their oppression/oppressors.

In the midst of this, he’ll frequently make nods to how this may have informed Jesus’ teaching and thinking. And in one such paragraph he writes:

The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker [(Jesus)] appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus.”

– Jesus and the Disinherited, p18

Every time folks interact with the idea of deconstruction when it comes to religious systems, someone will bring up the idea of reconstruction: don’t spend all your time criticizing the existing systems, also focus on finding what is true. That’s what I want to do more than anything else. And his next few sentences start taking me there:

Wherever [Jesus’] spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them”

– Jesus and the Disinherited, p19

In this same chapter he even speaks to the despair I and many of my friends have felt, in the face of the church’s call (which they represent of that of Jesus) to be quiet and humble, groveling and cowardly, in the face of oppression. But, to Thurman, there’s a big difference between that and the call of Jesus:

All of this would have been quite true if Jesus had stopped [at calling us to humility]. He did not. He recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of [their] inner life gives into the hands of the other the keys to [their] destiny.”

– Jesus and the Disinherited, p17-18

I’m not done with the book, so I don’t know how he will flesh this out. But I’m very, very excited to understand how there is truth to the call to inner peace and humility that doesn’t betray the oppressed, but instead frees, supports, and equips them.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *