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    WWTS: What Would Thurman Say?

    June 7, 2020

    This post is part of our Social Impact Summer Series. Initiated by The Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis and the Faculty Blog editorial team, the Series is meant to facilitate timely reflections and commentaries on unfolding events and to provide space for our faculty colleagues to strategize and coordinate efforts as we work toward freedom for ourselves, our students, and our communities.


    At a time when so many people are asking what Martin Luther King has to say about our present yet prolonged crises of racism and poverty as well as militarism in America, I’ve been struck by how many students at Morehouse have written to me over the past week asking: What would Thurman say?

    “While he did not march from Selma to Montgomery, or many of the other marches,” writes Otis Moss, “Thurman participated at the level that shapes the philosophy that creates the march – and without that, people don’t know what to do before the march, while they march, or after they march.” Thurman’s signature responses to moments of crisis, which were uncannily similar to our present crisis, were sometimes puzzling to those who participated in the civil rights movement.

    At times that seemed to cry out for retaliation, Thurman would calmly advise his students or congregants, first and foremost, to center down and seek the sound of the genuine within themselves. His advice was occasionally received with ambivalence if not disappointment. But according to Thurman:

    Jesus focused on the urgency of a radical change in the inner attitude of the people. . . . Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual. With increasing insight and startling accuracy, Jesus placed his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.

    Thurman believed, writes Albert Raboteau, that “true social change must be grounded in spiritual experience and personal transformation.” But centering down, going inward, centripetally, is merely the initial stage in a spiritual process that culminates, centrifugally, in social activism.

    Although Thurman was steadfastly committed to nonviolence, he consistently stressed that nonviolence was activerather than passive resistance.[1] Gandhi was not opposed to force: on the contrary, his method of satyagraha was translated as “soul force.” The goal of direct nonviolent resistance is to force a change in the hearts of the oppressor, but also in the minds of those who bear witness to the violence inflicted upon the oppressed; ultimately, the task is to transform the socioeconomic and political structures of oppression. Thurman was convinced that the teachings of Jesus had a special significance for “those with their backs against the wall.” But Jesus also had a simple message for those who were responsible, whether proximate or remote, for pressing the backs of the oppressed against the wall: stop killing us.

    Thurman would be appalled that we are still, forty years after his death, fighting the same battles. Eighty years ago, in a lecture titled “Notes from a Native Son,” Thurman reflected on the “riots” that erupted a hundred years ago, in the wake of WW I. Although African Americans were occasionally “made to feel they count” and that “the future of democracy was dependent upon them,” whether during political campaigns or times of war, these gestures constituted an exception that proves the rule. After the economic value of African Americans evaporated to white power, e.g., in the wake of war, wrote Thurman, “American society sought to place the Negro back into his place of anonymity—there was wild resentment, expressing itself in rioting, et cetera, in northern cities. This rioting was a sign of life and an awakening citizenship.”

    In times like these, I suspect that Thurman would have talked about his “theory of the contagion of attitudes”: not only about how hatred is contagious, but also how love is the only antidote or vaccine. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman asks: “Is it reasonable to assume that Jesus did not understand the anatomy of hatred?” Thurman recognized that hatred “is a subject that is taboo unless there is some extraordinary social crisis,” e.g., in times of war, or times analogous to war, “when hatred masquerades as patriotism.” Thurman warns us that “all the preaching in the world, Christian or otherwise, cannot deal with hatred in the human spirit without understanding its ground and organizational dynamic.”

    The early stages of hatred involve actively ignoring the other person, in word and deed, conspicuously, as if to underscore a pernicious prejudice, as if to add insult to injury, which – claimed Thurman, in a sermon titled “Love or Perish” – “is something that the human spirit simply cannot abide. It takes all the oxygen out of the air and you just can’t breathe.” Long before the brutality of a chokehold, it’s difficult to breathe if you’re Black in America. Although Thurman was committed to nonviolence, he most certainly understood the exasperation and outrage of Blacks against police brutality and white supremacy.

    At times like these, and if he were still alive, I imagine Thurman encouraging his students to read—out loud, slowly, and together—Baby Suggs’s tender “sermon in the clearing.” And from the pulpit, Thurman would have asked his congregants: Where was the good Samaritan when George Floyd was murdered? How are we to understand the fear and deception as well as hatred at work in the minds and hearts of those police officers who ultimately stood by and watched it happen? Thurman would have agreed with Martin Luther King that beyond the compassionate actions of good Samaritans, we must finally find a way to completely restructure our Jericho Roads.[2]

    In his Eulogy for Martin Luther King, on the night after King’s assassination, Thurman acknowledged “a vast temptation to strike out in pain, horror, and anger” and that “riding just under the surface are all the pent up furies, the accumulation of a generation of cruelty and brutality.” Thurman encouraged us to “harness the energy of our bitterness and make it available to the unfinished work that Martin left behind.” How, we must ask ourselves, is that really possible?

    At the Centennial Banquet of Morehouse College in February 1967, where he shared the rostrum with Benjamin Mays and Hugh Gloster, Thurman offered a sobering tribute on behalf of “those men [and women] during the past hundred years who are no longer living in the flesh,” quoting Hagedorn’s Lines from an Unknown Soldier: “We died but you who live must do a harder thing than dying is, for you must think and ghosts shall drive you on. Amen.” George Floyd as well as Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and too many others now belong to that beloved coterie of ghosts who drive us on to think, and to act, in ways that honor their memory by transforming the conditions that led to their deaths.


    [1] And while he was an advocate of nonviolence, Thurman would certainly admit – in the words of Walter Rodney – that “violence in the American situation is inescapable. White society is violent, white American society is particularly violent, and white American society is especially violent toward blacks.” Thurman would have appreciated also Rodney’s subsequent question: “By what standard of morality can the violence used by a slave to break his chains be considered the same as the violence of the slave master?”

    [2] In his 1967 Riverside sermon, “Beyond Vietnam,” which echoes Thurman’s sermons on the Good Samaritan, King wrote: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars, needs restructuring.”


    Kipton E. Jensen is an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the Leadership Studies Program in the Andrew Young Center for Global Leadership at Morehouse College.

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