Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited was published in 1949, a time when African-Americans were racially prejudiced against and persecuted. And, of course, this still exists today.
Chapter Two is called "Fear." I was especially interested to see what Thurman had to say about this. This chapter shocked and humbled me.
I've read a lot of things about "fear." There's the fear of failing in the eyes of others, the fear of self-failure and God-failure, the fear of what others think about me, fears of an unknown future, and many practical fears about family and friends with their jobs and illnesses and relationships. In some small sense I've become a student of fear, and been influenced, for example, by the brilliant and wise writings of Henri Nouwen, a man acquainted with fear. (Especially see Nouwen's The Inner Voice of Love, Lifesigns, and A Cry for Mercy.)
While the kind of fears I normally deal with are important, the kind of fear Thurman writes about is different in its oppressive, relentless pursuit to dispossess and marginalize. The fear Thurman talks about is the concrete, real presence of political and religious powers who use their influence to crush the spirits of people. He writes:
"Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited... When the power and the tools of violence are on one side, the fact that there is no available and recognized protection from violence makes the resulting fear deeply terrifying." (36-37)
And: "There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person." (39)
There is a fear that strikes the people of this world who, in terms of their political and religious situation, "count." Then there are those who do not "count." For the disinherited ones, fear is their constant companion. I have never experienced this kind of fear. Yet Jesus's audience knew it.
Of course not all fear is bad. God made us so to fear the tornado that spins on the horizon and the shark that swims in the sea. This is fear as, says Thurman, a "safety device." (46) But when the tornado spinning on your doorstep has come for you, the fear this engenders "finally becomes the death for the self." This renders a normal life of eating, sleeping, playing, and loving impossible. Such is the kind of fear the marginalized and dispossessed always live with.
Thurman asks: "The crucial question' then' is this: Is there any help to be found in the religion of Jesus that can be of value here?... Did Jesus deal with this kind of fear? If so, how did he do it? What did he say?"
First of all, Jesus came into a fear-filled world of oppressed and captive peoples. He quoted from the book of Isaiah, and implied that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and had anointed him to do such things. In the "Song of Mary," Mary sings, in wonder and amazement, that God has now come to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to put down the mighty from their lofty thrones, and to exalt the dispossessed.
Jesus tells us who to fear, and who not to fear, in Matthew 10: "Don't fear those who can kill the body but are not able to kill the soul."
In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us to not worry about our lives, since God cares for us. These words of Jesus become crucial for Thurman, who says that the "core of the analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God, the God of life that sustains all of nature... This idea - that God is mindful of the individual - is of tremendous import in dealing with fear as a disease." (49) He continues: "The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again." (50)
Thus, security in one's true identity protects one from marginalizing and disinheriting fear. This is because I view myself as God's beloved child and, ipso facto, accepted in the family of God. I am family, and no one can take this inheritance from me.
I love this next quote from Thurman, in its entirety:
"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 God alone. He who fears is literally delivered to destruction. To the child of God, a scale of values becomes available by which men are measured and their true significance determined. Even the threat of violence, with the possibility of death that it carries, is recognized for what it is–merely the threat of violence with a death potential. Such a man recognizes that death cannot possibly be the worst thing in the world. There are some things that are worse than death. To deny one’s own integrity of personality in the presence of the human challenge is one of those things. ‘Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do,’ says Jesus.”
In Christ there is no social hierarchy, no honor-shame continuum. When one is in Christ, one is taken out of the Kingdom of the Disinherited into the Kingdom of the Inherited. All of this gains its force in the reality of our dark, hierarchizing world systems. This is important to remember. It's not about some kind of idealistic, platitudinous piety. It's real life stuff.
As James Cone writes in God of the Oppressed,
"Jesus was not an abstract Word of God, but God's Word made flesh who came to set the prisoner free. He was the ‘Lamb of God' that was born in Bethlehem and was slain on Golgotha's hill. He was also ‘The Risen Lord' and ‘The King of Kings.' He was their Alpha and Omega, the One who had come to make the first last and the last first." (50-51)
Jesus has made the disinherited the inherited.