Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman, an African-American pastor and teacher, focuses on the human side of Jesus and provides insights into living his teachings. This short book, written at the height of American racial segregation, influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights work.
Thurman believes to truly understand Jesus’s message, we must understand the community in which he lived—and that we of the privileged group miss much of the message if we fail to understand the fear and insecurity of the less privileged. By focusing on the Divine, sometimes we miss seeing Jesus as a poor Jew, considered less than human by Roman rulers. To compound that injustice, Jesus was persecuted by his own—Jewish leaders who collaborated with their oppressors.
Today, as in New Testament times, the world divides into oppressors and oppressed. Both fall victim to fear, hypocrisy, and hatred. In Thurman’s view, Jesus’s teachings were born of the need for survival of his oppressed people—to release them from the bondage of destructive negative thinking. Thurman’s examples from the lives of African-Americans, Arabs, and other colonized and exploited people are eye-opening. His own wisdom illumines the message of the scriptures. He says, “It ill behooves a man who is not forced to live in a ghetto to tell those who must how to transcend its limitations.”
His book shows Jesus practicing brotherhood with the flawed human beings with whom he had contact—setting an example for other humans to follow. Thurman shows us the man who not only stops the crowd from stoning the woman taken in adultery, but saved her feelings afterwards. In Thurman’s words, “Jesus, always the gentleman, did not look at the woman as she stood before him. Instead, he looked on the ground.” Jesus respected the woman’s personal space before sending her, without condemnation, to “go and sin no more.”
Thurman believes Jesus’s teaching that humans are children of God is the most liberating idea possible. That concept makes all of us equals and each of us holy.
Thurman provides an unusual interpretation of “the unpardonable sin.” Jesus uses that term after being accused by Jewish leaders of casting out devils by the power of the devil (Matt. 12:22-37). In Thurman’s view, Jesus’s answer, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” indicates his accusers knew they untruthfully accused him. Thurman believes the following statements about blasphemy and committing the unpardonable sin refer to the accusers. A person who calls a lie the truth eventually loses the ability to discern truth from falsehood. This loss of moral compass may be irrecoverable, hence unpardonable.
In his book Thurman presents Jesus as a person providing answers for living in an unjust world. He concludes with this statement: “What he did, all men may do.”