Howard Thurman’s Impact on Postmodern Liberation Theology Essay Example
Howard Thurman’s Impact on Postmodern Liberation Theology Essay Example

Howard Thurman’s Impact on Postmodern Liberation Theology Essay Example

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  • Pages: 6 (1501 words)
  • Published: May 27, 2016
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"Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers." Howard Thurman, African American educator, theologian, Search For Common Ground, 1971.

Using Jeremiah 17, Howard Thurman urges his listeners to find their security in God, not in the opinion of others. As Fluker and Tumber note, the denunciation of social elitism was an important theme throughout Thurman's career, particularly as he entered the realm of black society's elite at Howard.

When throughout his journey Thurman was confronted with the contradictions of Christianity within segregated society, he answered by distinguishing Christianity from the religion of Jesus.[1] Thurman's belief that the "goal of the mystic ... is to know God in a comprehensive sense; ... the v


ision of God is realized inclusively." Establishing "community" in Howard's closed cultural environment through inclusive worship practices is a lofty goal.[2]

"What does Jesus have to teach those with their backs up against the wall," Fluker says. "He teaches that the anatomy of fear and hate only leads to violence. He offers the vision of spiritual discipline against resentment.

This was the moral basis of the nonviolent movement of the Black freedom movement in the South."[3] Scholars say Thurman's real influence is on building community. "Thurman is a significant figure in ecumenical movements," says Thurman scholar, Luther E. Smith of Emory University and author of Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet.

"He speaks to what it means to have a community of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists living in the same community and finding ways to be tolerant of all

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religious views. The Thurman project seeks to recognize and utilize Thurman as we wrestle with these very difficult questions." (Smith, 1992)

From Howard Thurman we may learn that the Journey must deconstruct the separative categories of domination-over-nature that have been wedded to idealized patriarchy. Ideally, says contemporary patriarchy, nature is but a resource we "use." Thurman deconstructs this assumption by establishing the mystical, theological, and cosmological commonality of all that exists. Seeking to assert the Community of All, Thurman's mystic vision of communion debunks categorical atomism, political separatism, and anti-ecological economics.

A powerful deconstruction of homophobic maleness can be built upon this common foundation. Howard Thurman observed the cruel and destructive consequences of messages to people who are led to believe that "they don't count, they don't matter" when their life stories are not deemed worthy of hearing.

The social justice mission of the Catholic Church elaborated in its document are in harmony with the social justice mission as articulated by Black and Womanist liberation theologies. The distinguishing focus of postmodern liberation theology is the insistence that this mission needs to include the particular experience of Black people.

These theologies also focus on the realities that divide the human community but place emphasis on those root dynamics at the heart of Black alienation and oppression within society, namely the social sins of racism, sexism, and classism. Both the social justice mission at the heart of the Church and the social justice mission at the heart of Black and Womanist theologies is ultimately directed toward liberation, the overcoming of the oppression of human division, and communion, the visible realization of full human


The writings of prolific activist theologians and spiritual leaders born and initially nurtured in the Black community during the 20th century like Howard Thurman gave this theology its strength. His writings emphasize the continued centrality of community in the African American religious ethical tradition and the integral relationship of love, justice, and community within that tradition.

Katie Cannon has correctly observed that "for Thurman everything moves toward community."[4] Although he offered distinct interpretations and application of the concepts of imago Dei, love, and justice, he argued that love and justice are to be ordered toward community.

He insisted that all men and women, including Black men and women, were made in the image and likeness of God who is the source and means of the inter-relatedness of all human beings. Luther Smith has summarized the essence of Thurman's theological ethics as follows:

“Thurman's greatest legacy may be his vision of inclusive community: a community based on reconciliation, which recognizes and celebrates the underlying unity of life and the inter-dependence of all life forms. Justice and a sense of innate equality are ruling principles for community, and love-ethic established and maintains the community's creative character.

Person identity is affirmed while unity is sought with one's fellows. Thurman's inclusive community harbors all races, classes, faith claims and ethnic groups, for in the eyes of God, every human being is His beloved child. Difference among people are not ignored or depreciated, though their importance does not overshadow the bond of kinship between individuals.

And because of this bond, difference can be appreciated rather than feared, for the variety of truth perspective

they bring to understanding. In cultural pluralism persons come to know the many faces of God, and what God is doing in diverse ways. Hopefully, this will give individuals a proper sense of self and neighbor such that one does not fall into destructive righteousness, inclusive community confirms what Thurman understands as God's will for human relationships.

[5] As Cannon also observed, Thurman held that "mystical experience, love and community relatedness are part of the same continuum. Inclusive community is nonspatial. It is qualitative."[6] Howard Thurman's role in the Civil Rights Movement, although public, was never essentially political; rather, it was a theological and ethical movement grounded in a notion of community quite similar to that of Mohanda Karamchand Gandhi, the Indian pacifist.

Thurman's dream of the future for America and the world was expressed in his concept of "the beloved community," his metaphor for the achievement of a qualitatively inclusive community. Thurman's creative activism involved three basic strategic principles "assessing the character and logistics of the situation; naming the primary evil to be dramatized; and identifying the meaning of non-cooperation with evil."

[7] Thurman was outlining strategic principles for the achievement of political and civil rights, but the purpose of that achievement was ultimately the establishment of an inclusive human community rooted in the Judeo-Christian love ethic.

Thurman once noted: "It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America, we will have to boycott at times. But we must remember ... that a boycott is not an end in itself ... the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community."

style="text-align: justify;">[8] The writings of Howard Thurman are precursors of the liberation theology that would emerge in the late 1960s. His speech, writings, and actions demonstrate the integral relatedness of liberation and communion. He initially struggled for the liberation of oppressed Black people within the United States. He eventually expanded his concerns to include all oppressed people and their oppressors as their analysis and vision took on global dimensions.

Until 1958, most U.S. Catholic bishops were silent and appeared indifferent to racism. Even when some bishops took public stances against racist behavior, the majority of theologians and lay people persisted in their silence.

Howard Thurman, as theologian and pastor, was the first prophetic voice that effectively challenged the Christian churches and the United States to confront their complicity with racial injustice. Thurman helped galvanize the prophetic anawim.

Black Christian clergy and laity and attentive and committed White and Black members of predominately White churches, including Catholics, began to protest the racism that divided both Church and society. Thurman welcomed all who were prepared to march and protest as a necessary prelude to the realization of his vision of the world as the beloved community.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, Thurman attempted to confront the silent complicity of Christian theologians and the churches in the continued perpetuation of racism. His initial work called for a profound paradigm shift in theology as well as within ecclesial structures and social patterns of relationship. Such a shift required an examination of the limits of the prevailing interpretations of Christology and ecclesiology that had legitimized ecclesial and social "American Apartheid."[9]

The formal articulation of

liberation theology emerged almost simultaneously on the North and South American continents in the writings of Thurman, Black Theology and Black Power (1969) and shortly thereafter in his A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), as well as in the volume of Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation (1971).

Interestingly, both these expressions of liberation theology began by challenging the interpretations about Jesus and the Church in the prevailing theologies of the period. Thus, the theologian took up his own "quest for the historical Jesus."

Thurman began to reread the Bible and theological traditions from the perspective of the oppressed. Thurman gave emphasis to the plight of oppressed Blacks in the U.S. and focused on the oppressed indigenous peoples in Latin America. He discovered a Jesus who did not condone slavery or the devaluation and dehumanization of human beings. He discovered a Jesus who was God of the oppressed, a Liberator.

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