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Meditation on Christmas: An Outsider’s View on Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman

Hello readers,

I just finished reading a remarkable book first published in 1949 by Howard Thurman, eminent African-American theologian and philosopher.  The book is called “Jesus and the Disinherited”.  As a non-Christian and non-practising Jew, I have long been intrigued by the life of Jesus and his quest for truth, personal authenticity and self-responsibility.  My skin and inner being shrink as if reacting to nails shrieking across a chalk board when I hear Christians say that Jesus died to absolve them of their sins.  To me, that dogma is the opposite of my own understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus.  Each man and woman contains a personal, unique truth, and each life unfolds to face dilemmas, choices that require deep inner searching.  I feel that Jesus, by asking us to love our enemies, to face hatred with humility, was asking us to own and to hold onto our own shortcomings – to hold back from projecting them back onto others.  He seemed to be seeking for us to truly love ourselves, with all of our shadows and imperfections, which, personally, I do not consider to be sins.  Why would a God who is supposedly loving and merciful create a race of creatures in his image which are by nature dark, flawed, and somehow evil or in need of being repurposed by a third party? That is not to say that there is no evil in the world or in humans; there is obviously a great deal of darkness, hatred, resentment, and intolerance.  My intent is to express that whatever darkness we contain belongs to us, and it is up to each of us to bring as much of those shadowy areas to light as we are able.  We are each responsible for the texture and weave of our emotions, doubts, fears, joys, aspirations.  What is so magnificent about Howard Thurman’s book is that he deals with the history of the man Jesus, in his own time, situating him in an historic context as a member of an underdog nation and comparing that situation to that of the African-American people under segregation in the United States of America.  Layered with that history is an analysis of human emotions in response to degradation and humiliation; ie, hate, anger, violence, and love.  The analysis is so profound and revelatory as to bring a newer, more vibrant truth to the story and experiences of Jesus, and to the radicality of his thinking.  For the record, Jesus’ philosophies, which he lived and acted upon, are still extreme to this day.  The only reason that Christianity has not revolutionized human behavior in this world is, in my opinion, because it barely, if at all, reflects the philosophy of Jesus.  It is of utmost difficulty to face hatred and discrimination with true humility.  This requires extreme maturity.  Mr. Thurman explains how hatred as a first response restores some level of dignity to an individual who has been divested of his personhood by the culture or society in power over him.  He further develops to say that the pursuit of hatred to create an identity facing the oppressor ultimately leads to moral and spiritual emptiness.  It is interesting to read his chapter on hatred and contemplate terrorism and war in contemporary life.  We all want to be loved, recognized, appreciated.  We all deserve equal rights and dignity.  When we do not receive what we innately know is our due, we feel hurt, rebellious, angry, sad…or all of the above.  To return to ourselves and to know that we are loved and that our dignity is intact even if society refuses to recognize this primordial fact is the true gift of Jesus. To be able to move through life and the world and to refuse to be diminished by our experiences, however painful, is a great challenge.  It is also a great relief to know that we are always containers of our own dignity and power and that we have nothing to prove to any one.  No one can take our power away, and no one has anything essential to our lives that is not already built into our being, our body, our soul.

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