Ideas Matter, and So Do the Books We Read

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The world might be in a better place if more people read Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited.

In May 1791, Edmund Burke wrote about a cause of the French Revolution: The French people were reading the wrong books. In “A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” Burke wrote, “Nothing ought to be more weighed than the nature of books recommended by public authority. So recommended, they soon form the character of the age.”

Burke believed the character of the age of the French Revolution was formed by Rousseau:

The Assembly recommends to its youth a study of the bold experimenters in morality. Every body knows that there is a great dispute amongst their leaders, which of them is the best resemblance to Rousseau. In truth, they all resemble him. His blood they transfuse into their minds and into their manners. . . . I am certain that the writings of Rousseau lead directly to this kind of shameful evil.

Of course, Burke is being a bit dramatic here, as he was wont to do from time to time. Rousseau alone did not cause the French Revolution. No single book could, and drawing a straight line from one author to a major social change will never provide a complete picture.

But Burke was making a point that conservatives continue to emphasize: Ideas matter. Among intellectuals, Richard Weaver’s book, Ideas Have Consequences, was very influential on the founders of the conservative movement. Among the general public today, we’re seeing parents speaking in school-board meetings about which ideas are promoted in the curriculum.

Last summer, as protests and riots surrounding racial issues broke out around the country, booksellers were sold out of books from the “anti-racist” movement. Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, went from selling about 18,000 copies from March to April to selling over 400,000 copies from May to June. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, Stamped from the Beginning, sold 3,000 copies from March to April and then almost 140,000 from May to June.

At the time of this writing, DiAngelo’s White Fragility is still ranked 181st on all of Amazon book sales. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist is No. 238. You have to go all the way down to No. 3,863 on the Amazon rankings to find a book that would have done a lot more to help our nation heal after last summer: Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman.

Thurman was an African-American pastor who lived from 1899 to 1981. He lived through the worst times of segregation, and his grandparents were slaves. Jesus and the Disinherited was published in 1949. We think of the post-war era as a boom time, and it was for Americans on average. But African Americans were still subject to many of the same discriminatory laws that they were before the war. They were the disinherited, or, in Thurman’s words, “people who stand with their backs against the wall.”

Even a man such as Thurman, by all accounts a genius, endured awful prejudice. Thurman was valedictorian of both his college and his seminary; he was an ordained minister by the age of 26; he served on the faculties of Howard University and Boston University. Yet when he got on a train, he was just another black person in a world that viewed black people as subhuman. In the book, he recounts an elderly white woman asking the train conductor, “What is that doing in this car?” The woman then spoke with other passengers about Thurman’s presence, and he writes, “I was able to see the atmosphere in the entire car shift from common indifference to active recognition of and, to some extent, positive resentment of my presence; an ill will spreading its virus by contagion.” All because of nothing but the color of his skin.

Thurman looked at that world, and he wondered how a society where the overwhelming majority of people self-identified as Christian could be so un-Christlike. Christ said, “Blessed are the meek,” and, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” yet Christians had seemed unwilling to stand up for oppressed African Americans as long as Thurman had lived. He gives a painful illustration of the perversion of the Gospel through an anecdote of his grandmother. A freed slave, his grandmother never learned how to read, and Thurman would read the Bible to her. She would request passages from every section of the Bible except Paul’s letters. Thurman asked her why, and she said:

During the days of slavery . . . the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: “Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters . . . as unto Christ.” Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.

May Christians never teach in such a way that people swear off segments of the Bible. The harm done by perverting the Gospel to justify racial inequality is incalculable, both in societal outcomes and in souls lost. Yet it persisted in various forms for many years in this country.

In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman asks, “Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion, or is it due to a basic weakness in the religion itself?” The book is his attempt to answer that question, and he joined a long line of saints throughout the ages by saying that the errors Christians were making in his time were the consequence of forgetting what Christ actually taught.

The orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus is that He was totally God and totally man. Thurman emphasizes the “and totally man” part, and asks the reader to think about who He was in human terms. Jesus was a poor Jew who lived under a colonial power, the Roman Empire, in a multicultural society with stark divisions between ethnic groups. His being totally God is vital, but it does not change any of those facts about His being totally man. Humans have to grapple with the challenges of the society they live in, and Jesus grappled with the challenges of His own day.

Thurman notes that, “Of course it may be argued that the fact that Jesus was a Jew is merely coincidental, that God could have expressed himself as easily and effectively in a Roman. True, but the fact is he did not. And it is with that fact that we must deal.”

God’s grace in the Incarnation is put into sharp relief when Thurman considers that Jesus was not a Roman citizen. “If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch.” The almighty God of the universe gave up His seat at the right hand of the Father in heaven to incarnate as a man, and not as a man with any kind of human authority, but as a man who could be pushed in a ditch with no recourse. The last will be first, and the first will be last, indeed. It was from that position that Christ taught that, “The kingdom of God is within.” In a culture where He could have looked outward at any number of different problems, He looked inward. Thurman writes:

The basic principles of his way of life cut straight through to the despair of his fellows and found it groundless. By inference he says, “You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea-Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”

Taking Christ’s model, Thurman outlines what he calls the three “hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor”: fear, deception, and hate. Thurman says that those three responses are natural to oppressed people, and they are survival mechanisms that can be effective. But he recognizes that they are ills nonetheless, and the only cure for those ills is found within.

Fear arises in the disinherited because “through bitter experience they have learned how to exercise extreme care, how to behave so as to reduce the threat of immediate danger from their environment.” That fear among the disinherited creates fear among the strong, who use any instances of the disinherited lashing out as justification for oppression to continue. The cycle of fear can be broken by understanding that “God is mindful of the individual,” Thurman writes. That insight is the foundation of human dignity:

A man’s conviction that he is God’s child automatically tends to shift the basis of his relationship with all his fellows. He recognizes at once that to fear a man, whatever may be that man’s power over him, is a basic denial of the integrity of his very life. It lifts that mere man to a place of pre-eminence that belongs to God and to God alone.

Deception is probably the most effective survival mechanism for the disinherited. Thurman writes of a funeral for a black man who was killed by a policeman. Local authorities didn’t allow the black minister to give a eulogy or sermon, but they did allow him to pray. The black minister “told God all that he would have said to the people had he not been under very rigid surveillance.” That kind of deception might elicit cheers from us today, admiring the minister for sticking it to the authorities. But Thurman advocates radical sincerity. “No man can fool God,” he writes. He considers Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats, where “the climax of human history is interpreted as a time when the inner significance of men’s deeds would be revealed to them” since Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” From that lesson, Thurman discerns, “Man’s relation to man and man’s relation to God are one relation.” Once someone believes that, he writes, “Instead of relation between the weak and the strong there is merely a relationship between human beings.”

Hate is contagious, and it harms the hater just as much as the hated, in Thurman’s telling. He says the cure for hatred is not mere understanding because “it is a grievous blunder to assume that understanding is always sympathetic. . . . Unsympathetic understanding is the characteristic attitude governing the relation between the weak and the strong.” Hatred has a totalizing effect; it is “blind and nondiscriminating.” Thurman says Jesus recognized that the natural result of hatred is death, “death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.” Jesus instead affirmed life, saying, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Affirming the full life of each individual as a child of God means rejecting hatred.

“The religion of Jesus makes the love-ethic central,” Thurman writes. We should love each other with respect for each person’s individuality:

The attitude of respect for personality presupposes that all the individuals involved are within what may be called the ethical field. The privileged man must be regarded as being within the area in which ethical considerations are mandatory. If either privileged or underprivileged is out of bounds, the point has no validity. . . . The concept of reverence for personality, then, is applicable between persons for whom, in the initial instance, the heavy weight of status has been sloughed off. Then what? Each person meets the other where he is and there treats him as if he were where he ought to be. Here we emerge into an area where love operates, revealing a universal characteristic unbounded by special or limited circumstances.

Thurman’s thought isn’t just some untested theory for social relations. If any of his writings sound familiar to you, it might be because they bear similarities to Martin Luther King Jr. That’s not a coincidence; Thurman was a mentor to King, and Jesus and the Disinherited was foundational to King’s thought. One of the most powerful recent examples of Thurman’s theory in action was the stunning display of forgiveness by the members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston after a white supremacist massacred nine Bible study participants.

In a time when conservatives are arguing against toxic ideas being taught in classrooms, they shouldn’t neglect to point to better ideas to teach instead. Racial strife is still a problem in the United States, as last summer clearly demonstrated, and ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Thurman was fully aware of that strife in the American context and was more intimately acquainted with its most severe forms than most people alive today. He is writing from a Christian perspective, but believers and nonbelievers alike can gain from his thoughtful interpretation of the life of Jesus as a human being and his deep understanding of human sentiments. Jesus and the Disinherited also has the advantage of being relatively short (only about 100 pages) and references many literary works, from Shakespeare to African-American spirituals, that provide ample opportunities for students to engage with a diverse array of ideas.

Opposition to harmful applications of critical race theory is proper, but conservatives should understand that good ideas can have good consequences just as much as bad ideas can have bad consequences. If you believe ideas matter, it’s hard not to think how much better off we’d be as a country if booksellers last summer had sold out of Jesus and the Disinherited instead of Robin DiAngelo.


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