Wrestling with America’s shortcomings should not include abandoning her principles
An ever-growing commitment to freedom, equality and self-governance is the story of America.
I have frequently written of how the wisdom of our nation’s Founding Fathers remains relevant in the 21st century. Those who founded our nation were far from perfect — and they weren’t always right — but they gave deep and careful thought to important issues of how society should be governed. We would be foolish to ignore their perspective.
But, of course, there have been many others through the ages who have also given deep and careful thought to important issues. One such man was Howard Thurman, a prominent Black theologian born in 1899. His book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” explored “what the teachings of Jesus have to say about those who stand in a moment in history with their backs against the wall … the poor, the disinherited, the disposed.” Thurman, both personally and through that book, deeply influenced the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Thurman had been a classmate and friend of the civil rights leader’s father).
For anyone seeking fresh insight on the 21st century racial struggles in the United States, “Jesus and the Disinherited” should be considered essential reading.
One story in that book described how one of Thurman’s childhood chores was to read scripture to his grandmother on a regular basis. She had been born into slavery and never learned to read or write. But she knew her Bible and was always particular about the passages she wanted to hear.
Over time, young Howard Thurman began to realize that the readings included many parts of the Bible but never anything from the Apostle Paul’s epistles. As a college student, he finally worked up the nerve to ask why. It turned out that in the days of slavery, plantation masters would periodically provide white ministers to lead services for the slaves. Those ministers frequently cited a verse from Paul calling on slaves to obey their earthly masters as they would Christ.
Not surprisingly, Thurman’s grandmother despised that verse and vowed never to read any of Paul’s contributions to the New Testament. On hearing about this, Thurman himself began to devote much thought to how — despite the teachings of Jesus — the church often chose to serve the oppressors rather than the oppressed.
Upon hearing that story today, many 21st century Christians will get defensive. They would want to convince the grandmother that she was wrong about Paul. The problem, they might say, is that the plantation preachers abused scripture in support of an evil institution. That’s true. Those preachers ignored many other passages in Paul’s writing that would have made plantation owners squirm. That’s also true. Why didn’t they preach those passages to challenge the behavior of the slave owners? Good question. And, on top of all that, a 21st century Christian could also accurately point out that slavery in ancient Rome had little in common with the slavery Thurman’s grandmother grew up in.
While those things are true, it would be utterly foolish to engage in such a discussion. What would it accomplish? No amount of theological discussion could ever overcome the personal experience of hearing those hateful sermons. As Thurman put it, “What are words, no matter how sacred and powerful, in the presence of the grim facts of the daily struggle to survive?”
Besides, despite the problematic preaching, Thurman’s grandmother maintained her Christianity. She got the main point and applied it to raise a grandson who ultimately became a leading theologian. The power of the message overcame the attempt to distort it.
That’s a lesson with a direct connection to 21st century America. As a nation, we are grappling with the fallout from a centuries long conflict between our noble founding ideals and the sordid history of legalized racism. Slavery mocked those founding ideals every bit as much as the plantation preaching mocked the teachings of Jesus.
If we want to live out our nation’s founding ideals more fully, we must first make clear that those ideals leave no room for racism or white supremacy. We must also remember that the legacy of institutionalized racism has not yet been consigned to the dustbin of history. Many Americans alive today experienced the civil rights movement firsthand. Thurman’s book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” provides a powerful framework for understanding how those experiences are still playing out in American society today.
As we grapple with the echoes of our history, however, we should do so with confidence that the power of the message will overcome the historic attempts to distort it. An ever-growing commitment to freedom, equality and self-governance is the story of America. Seventy-three percent of American voters believe those ideals form a good foundation to build upon and unify the nation. That total includes 64% of Black voters.
That is the common ground we can build upon to move forward.
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun Is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”