“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Monday, June 16, 2014

People with their backs against the wall

I recently came across a wonderful book called Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. Rev. Thurman wrote the book in the 1940s out of his experience as a black man growing up in the 1920s and 1930s and his conversations with his grandmother who had been a slave. His writing was no doubt influential to leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King. Although he largely discusses the experience of racial discrimination in America, his ideas about what "the readings of Jesus have to say to those who stand at a moment in history with their backs against the wall...the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed" has broader applicability. His grace in describing his experience at that time and his strong desire to live the religion of Jesus is in contrast to the discrimination he experienced in his life. But I think he is writing about discrimination in a much larger sense.  Some of the most memorable passages, to me, related to issues of integration and segregation.
Here are a few.
''Segregation can apply only to a relationship involving  the weak and the strong. For it means that limitations are arbitrarily set up, which. in the course of time, tend to become fixed and seem normal in governing the etiquette between the two groups. A peculiar characteristic of segregation is the ability of the stronger to shuttle back and forth between the prescribed areas with complete immunity and a kind of mutually tacit sanction; while the position of the weaker, on the other hand, is quite definitely fixed and frozen." (p. 42)
"It is necessary, therefore, for the privileged and the underprivileged to work on the common environment for the purpose of providing normal experiences of fellowship. This is one very important reason for the insistence that segregation is a complete ethical and moral evil. Whether it may do for those who dwell on either side of the wall, one thing is certain: it poisons all normal contacts of those persons involved...The result is that in the one place in which normal free contacts might be most naturally established-in which the relations of the individual to his God should take priority over conditions of class, race, power, status, wealth, or the like- this place is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers." (p. 98)
When people can "shuttle back and forth between the prescribed areas with complete immunity" when others cannot, there is something implied in the relationship between the two.

He boldly states that"segregation is a complete ethical and moral evil." Relationships are indeed poisoned by segregation.

But the part that really condemns is his comment on the church when he says that the church is one of the chief instruments for guaranteeing barriers. In the 1940s and today, there continue to be issues of racial segregation in the manner that Thurman describes. But for our purposes, here in this weblog, his sentiments highlight the kinds of changes that continue to need to occur in the church.

Early on in the  book he states, "It has long been a matter of serious moment that for decades we have studied the various peoples of the world and those who live as our neighbors as objects of missionary endeavor and enterprise without being at all willing to treat them either as brothers or as human beings" (p. 13). He goes on to say, "But it is one of the subtle points of a religion which calls attention to the point of overemphasis..." In this case in a negative manner. Any differences are overly elevated and then unfortunately naively applied resulting in segregation.

Ministry with personswith disabilities suffers from this malaise. Seeing people as the object of ministry rather than the subject of relationship is arguably the greatest problem of disability ministry at this current time.