The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a pastor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thurman was a pastor to King in every sense of the word, but today I want to talk about his influence as a pastoral theologian. A theologian whose thought animates as a pastor, gives the sense of a lived faith, a directional ministry, a spiritual connection to both God and humanity that becomes a raison d’etre. A reason for living. Perhaps even more than his own father, Rev. Martin Sr., or Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, who was King’s closest ministry partner from the Montgomery Bus Boycott on and pastored in Cincinnati at Revelation Baptist Church; perhaps even more than them was the influence of Howard Thurman on Dr. King. Thurman was the first ever African-American Dean of Rankin Chapel at Boston University. In 1944 he left a tenured position at Howard University to start the first truly multifaith, multiracial, intentional community, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, which is still open today. Howard Thurman, whose book Jesus and the Disinherited inspired those like Dr. James Cone to develop what is now called Black Liberation Theology. Howard Thurman, the grandson of slaves, who helped Dr. King see Jesus as being bigger than Jim Crow. Howard Thurman, who spoke often of how he learned the truth about God from his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who learned it from a minister, who like her, was enslaved.
It was rare that enslaved preachers were allowed to preach in the open. Most often the Bible was controlled and interpreted by the landowner, or a local white preacher who was brought it. The message was always one of submission, of divinely-ordained bondage Reading the Bible on their own, or hearing it as told by another slave was considered dangerous; Christianity was used by slaveholders as a tool of oppression, but it was turned through righteous rebellion into a source of strength. Negro spirituals are the original texts of Black liberation theology, songs about deliverance at the hands of a faithful God. Religion can sometimes be a surreptitious act. Every now and again an enslaved preacher would get to take the pulpit publicly. This could put the preacher in danger if the wrong people heard God’s Word, if they actual heard it and understood that it was an indictment of them; they couldn’t punish God but they could punish God’s messenger. In the pulpit could be danger, but take the pulpit these preachers did. Miss Ambrose, years later, with young Howard at her feet and snapping beans, told him about one time when a minister said to us, You are not a slave. That is not who you are; you are a child of God. Thurman writes later in his life, “it gave to them a sense of roots that were watered by the underground river of existence.”
This unknown minister, in about a dozen words, was able to cut through the mental chains and provide a viable identity to rival the one constructed by the oppressor: You are not a slave; you are God’s child. I imagine this minister, who could not have known that these words would plant themselves inside the soul of the greatest pastoral theologian since Martin Luther, learned the revolutionary truth by listening to the stories of Jesus.
Once again Jesus is teaching in parables. Two men. One wealthy, dressed in the finery of purple robes. The other, clad in rags held together by pus from purple sores. One tended to in life by servants, the other by dogs. But then, the great equalizer. Death. Angels come not for the rich man, but for poor Lazarus who goes to be with Abraham. The wealthy man does not fare so well. To the underworld he goes, tormented and in agony. He calls across the divide to Abraham, asking for mercy, when he sees Lazarus. Lowly Lazarus. The rich man begs for help, but none can be forthcoming; not because Lazarus is unwilling, but because the actions of the wealthy man have fixed a chasm that cannot be bridged or traversed. His alienation is of his own doing; desperately wanting to save his affluent family members from the distresses, the moneyed man requests a messenger be dispatched by Abraham as a herald. Alas, the patriarch declines. God has sent more warnings that we can count, and it never does any good.
Imagine in the time of Jesus, being poor and hearing this parable. Yes, it might give a feeling of giddy satisfaction that bullies eventually get a comeuppance. Yes, it might help you feel that suffering does not have the final word. But underneath that, there is a profound message: God sees you. God does not see you as a mass of sores or one without two coins to rub together: God sees you are one to be carried away by angels. You are not a slave; you are a God’s child.
This parable often is interpreted as being about the afterlife; a continuation of the ideas expressed in Job and Daniel. A shining example that one reaps what one sows. And perhaps it is; there is certainly ample evidence for that being the case. But I think Howard Thurman would want us to see the underlying theology. First, it was the greed and selfishness of the wealthy man that contributed to and compounded Lazarus’ suffering. Each day one experienced plenty and the other want. Second, wealth and poverty did not prevent the men from dying. Nothing we do here can thwart our demises. Three, there should be no confusion about how to live. The wealthy man cannot claim ignorance, and neither can we. Moses and the prophets, understood here both as historical figures and also as metaphors for parts of the Hebrew scriptures, are available to all. We know that God requires mercy, kindness, compassion, and love. We know that we are our siblings’ keeper.
It might be argued that the theology here is straightforward: we should do nice things for others so we don’t go to hell. Again, maybe. But I think the message is more profound: we must be aware of the ways in which our behaviors might cause others to suffer. All of us, on some level, contribute to the suffering of others. That is just the nature of human experience. The question is, are we aware of it? Do we do it knowingly? Willingly? And how do we discern God’s presence in our lives? Or evaluate whether we are living authentically? Do we look at the wrong things and declare that we have God’s favor? Do we mistake temporary, material wealth with knowing that God sees us and we see God back? Because that chasm is ours to build. And while I don’t think hell is at the center of the earth and we go there after we die, I do believe that hell is very real. I believe that we create it here and now, and we do so with our words, thoughts, and actions; hell, as St. Augustine said, is distance from God. It means not being seen; it means believing lies about yourself and others. It means believing that you are a slave.
I don’t think that fearing hell helps us see God. Maybe it does for you, and if so that’s great. It doesn’t help me and I know that it doesn’t help a lot of others, and Jesus is in the business of helping people. I think that each one of us wants to feel valued. Understood. Loved. Most of us desire peace, comfort, adequate food, and a safe place to live surrounded by those we love. God helps us see that if this is our desire for ourselves, we must work in this world to make it possible for others. Wealth and poverty only exist in relationship with one another; we cannot get rid of one without addressing the other. And while the Bible is not a textbook on economics, it does contain truth about the dangers of greed and serving mammon. And these dangers have long-lasting effects that go on after our bodily deaths. God tells us this not so that we will fear, but so that we will love. Fully. Radically. Unabashedly. For that is the only way to cancel a chasm. Amen.