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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

673 We need a Catholicism that responds to the prophetic challenge

Day 673 Tuesday, January 18, 2022

We need a Catholicism that responds to the prophetic challenge of Howard Thurman and many others.

Outstanding theologians like Fr. Bryan Massingale and M. Shawn Copeland have offered visions for a Catholic Christianity that could help us respond to the challenge of racism. We must continue to read and learn from their examples.

There are also examples that Catholics to turn to outside of our denomination, including the 20th-century classic Jesus and the Disinherited by the acclaimed African American Protestant theologian Howard Thurman.

(Howard Thurman)

Thurman was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., and his book was a favorite of King's as well. Thurman's brief, powerful classic allows us to experience anew the concern among African American thinkers before the rise of the civil rights movement, in which many searched for credible renewal of Christianity in the aftermath of slavery and amid a century of segregation. Thurman's arguments echo in our time and we can learn a great deal from them.

“It cannot be denied that too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed—this, despite the gospel.”

― Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

He powerfully announces the theme of the book: "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. It is urgent that my meaning be crystal clear.

The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?"

The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker 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. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” Wherever his 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.”

― Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

It's helpful to consider Thurman's case for a renewed Christianity in three steps.

First, he returns to the historical Jesus — not a Jesus floating above history — and likens the unstable and threatened status of Jesus as a Jew living under Roman imperial power to the unstable and threatened status of African Americans living under the destructive whims of midcentury American power.

Second, Thurman argues that Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God was an ingenious way by which to deliver the oppressed from the ravages of fear, duplicity and hate (for Thurman, the three great spiritual enemies) engendered by systems of oppression. It is essential to understand that he saw the deliverance from such internal spiritual enemies as an indispensable step on the road toward the transformation of society.

But it's the third aspect of Thurman's argument that is the most relevant now to reimagining Catholicism:

his subtle evocation of the struggle with fear, duplicity and hate on the part of the oppressed. Today, we rightly speak about systemic racism and structures of oppression. But we don't as commonly evoke the inner spiritual and human cost of such social evil.

Thurman frames his discussion of these destructive aspects of the human spirit by insisting that

for Christianity to be credible it must understand that all those with their backs to the wall are before anything else trying to survive. And this isn't survival understood as enduring in an otherwise occasionally oppressive world.

Rather, it's survival in the face of a pervasive fear "spawned by the perpetual threat of violence everywhere."

Moreover, this is a "violence that is devoid of the element of contest. It is what is feared by the rabbit that cannot ultimately escape the hounds. One can almost see the desperation creep into the quivering, pulsing body of the frightened animal."

Finally, Christianity must also credibly address the fact that this struggle for survival "is not solely a question of keeping the body alive," Thurman said, "It is rather how not to be killed. Not to be killed becomes the great end, and morality takes its meaning from that center."

To be sure, the situation of racism in midcentury America is not the situation of racism in America today. But Thurman's demand for a credible Christianity refers to elemental struggles for survival evident in the murder of George Floyd and in the death-dealing burdens borne by persons of color in the pandemic.

We need a Catholicism that responds to the prophetic challenge of Thurman and many others.

David E. DeCosse

David E. DeCosse is director of religious and Catholic ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Follow him on Twitter: @daviddecosse.

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