The writings of Dr. Howard Thurman are so universal in interpretation that it is unjust to do so in written context. For this reason I commend it to you in original text. As he would say to us “ you put a handle on it.” As an introduction to Christianity as a world religion I included this text from ‘Jesus And The Disinherited’ as part of the work in my ‘Philosophy of Religion’ course at Bennett College. A fitting contribution to Black History month study.
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. 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. At the close of a talk before the Law College, University of Colombo, on civil disabilities under states’ rights in the United States, I was invited by the principal to have coffee.
We drank our coffee in silence. After the service had been removed, he said to me, “What are you doing over here? I know what the newspapers say about a pilgrimage of friendship and the rest, 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 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 in 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 Hundu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing 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.”
With this encounter as a catalyst, Dr. Thurman then writes, “It is a privilege, after so long a time, to set down what seems to me to be an essentially creative and prognostic interpretation of Jesus as religious subject rather than religious object.”
This book was required reading in preparation for and became the central text of our Seven Day Intensive Study with him on The Grounds and Meaning of Religious Experience.
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