Howard Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, is said to have been a major influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights work. Thurman believes Jesus’s teaching that we are all God’s children is the most liberating message that can reach the ears of oppressed people.He may be right. We all want to belong to something bigger than ourselves. That’s how gangs recruit. Belonging to a God who cares personally about us is the ultimate acceptance.
The Sermon on the Mount is a treatise on God’s love for His children. I agree with Thurman that believing this can give a person a sense of self-worth and personal dignity. Being one of God’s beloved kids also makes us social equals. We may have different abilities and circumstances, but we are one in the eyes of God.
Unfortunately, many Christian sects convey the message that God’s love must be earned through religious rituals and strict obedience to law—or that God’s love is reserved for an elect group. Levi Peterson’s novel, The Backslider, demonstrates the downside of believing God’s love is reserved for a few of the super-righteous. The protagonist, Frank Wyndham, imagines God looking through the scope of a rifle at him—ready to zap him for his transgressions. Frank attempts to cleanse himself of every sinful thought and deed but cannot attain the perfection he believes God expects. He fears and eventually hates a God who will never be satisfied.
For my money, only a God who loves unconditionally counts. That’s the picture of God I developed as a child. It is not the notion of God which George learned although we both grew up Mormon. Of course, George had 100% Sunday School attendance as a child, and I did not. Apparently, my Sunday mornings spent reading the funny papers or picnicking in nice weather with my indulgent parents presented an image of a God who loves unconditionally—an image which George did not find in Sunday School.