Reflections on Howard Thurman and Psalms 8
Archie Smith, PSR's James and Clarice Foster Professor of Pastoral Psychology & Counseling, gave this lecture, What is the Human Person that God is Mindful of Us?: Reflections on Howard Thurman and Psalms 8, at Colgate Rochester Crozer Theological Seminary.
When I look up at the heavens,
at the work of Love’s creation,
at the infinite variety of your Plan;
What is woman that you rejoice in her,
And man that you do delight in him?
You have made us in your image,
You fill us with your Love;
You have made us co-creators of
guardians of the planet!
to care for all your creatures,
to tend the land, the sea,
and the air we breathe;
all that You have made,
You have placed in our hands.
O Love, my Beloved,
How powerful is your Name in
all the earth!
I am grateful to all of you for this opportunity to revisit and talk about Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman. Thanks to all who worked so hard on this, especially GP Dickerson-Hanks.
I first met Howard Thurman as a Trustee at the Pacific School of Religion. He was among those who called me to that faculty in 1975.
It is not easy to summarize the thought of a great human being like Howard Thurman (1900-1981). Thurman was a philosophical theologian. That means he drew certain basic principles or lessons from nature and melded them with the realm of everyday experience to guide the way he lived.
He was a complex man. His wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, once referred to him as a very lucky man. ‘He was able, she said, to stride through most of the 20th Century’—81 years of it.’ I will try to make a summary statement of his thought for the sake of this presentation.
A Summary statement of Thurman’s thought:
All people are fundamentally interrelated and members of one another, regardless of real or imagined differences between and within culture and religion, ethnicity and economic status, gender and sexual orientation or political persuasion. God, the Universal Spirit, is the creator of all of us. And buried deep within each of us is the spirit and mind of the Divine. It is the ancient call to harmony and community.
This was Howard Thurman’s basic insight. Perhaps it is deceptively simple. Clarifying this insight in the face of deep divisions was his life’s mission. He was born in segregation and weaned through experiences of rejection and discrimination and emerged to embrace an all-inclusive, universal ethic for being human in the world. The message from his life journey might be: ‘we are not the mere product of our upbringing. We are more.’ His was (and still is) an uncommon achievement in a world where xenophobia is high and parochial views of the world are commonplace.
Living through unprecedented change:
He lived through the first and second World Wars, witnessed the Women’s suffrage victory, the development of the atom and hydrogen bombs and nuclear weapons of mass destruction. He knew of the bombings of Pearl Harbor, the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The silent movie era and the advent of television were born during Thurman’s early years. So was the development of Henry Fords model T automobile and the Wright brother’s historic airplane flight. Thurman lived through the great depression, the cold war with Russia, the Korean conflict, the great migration of African Americans from the southern states to the urban centers of the North, the mid-20th century civil rights movement, which included the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs Board of Education. He knew of the history of lynching, saw the fall of Jim Crow, and knew of the savage murder of Emmitt Till. He witnessed the landing of human beings on the moon, the Viet Nam War, the War on Poverty, the programs of the Great Society, the turbulent 1960’s, the pill and the sexual revolution, the inward turn of the 1970’s, the rise of the mid-20th century feminist movement, the assassinations of Malcolm X, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Francis Kennedy, the massacre at Jonestown in 1978. Sue Bailey Thurman was right, he was a lucky man in that he witnessed unprecedented changes and commented on much of it.
I share words from two events he commented upon, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. First, John F. Kennedy:
“President John F. Kennedy is dead.
It is given but rarely to an individual the privilege of capturing the imagination of his age and thereby becoming a symbol of the hopes, aspirations, and dreams of his fellows, so that often in their enthusiasm and relief they are apt to forget that he was the symbol—that he stood for them, and his strength was their strength, and their strength was his strength, and his courage was the courage he drew in large part from his faith in them and their faith in him.
This, by the grace of God, was John F. Kennedy’s privilege.”
Thurman spoke these words in 1963 at the American Embassy in Nigeria. These words were spoke to a nation in shock and wove together the sentiments of the grieving audience. With those words he assigned John F. Kennedy a place in history—‘he was a symbol that stood for strength and courage.’
Five years later, he spoke the following words on the occasion of the slain Baptist minister and mid-20th Century Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Martin Luther King, Jr., is dead. This is the simple and utter fact.
There are no words with which to eulogize this man. Martin Luther King was the living epitome of a way of life that rejected physical violence as the life style of a morally responsible people. His assassination reveals the cleft deep in the psyche of the American people, the profound ambivalence and ambiguity of our way of life.”
In this way Thurman commented upon how a local crime and a national tragedy had power to reveal contradictions in American democracy, uncover deep cleavages in the collective psyche and expose our ambivalence and ambiguity.
Thurman shared his insight about the Universal Spirit and oneness of human kind with those who came before him such as we find in Psalm 8, “you have made us in your image,” St. Paul, ‘We are members one of another and a part of the whole body of Christ,’ St. Augustine, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” John Dunne, ‘No one is an island, all are a part of the main.’
Thurman’s insight was shared by those who came after him-i.e. Rosa Parks and her quiet dignity, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘we are wrapped in a common garment of destiny.’
Sue Bailey Thurman was right, he was a lucky man because he witnessed unprecedented change, was able to comment on much of it; contemplated God’s infinite variety and sought to care for all of God’s creation. Where did his uncommon strength and focused came from? Can we find it for ourselves today?
His message was this: the Divine-human relationship is the cradle of human experience and the primary relationship. Estrangement from this primary relationship constitutes our deepest hunger and drives the search for reunion. If we are estranged from self and one another, divided into warring camps, then there is something more compelling than these frightening divisions. That “something more” is Agape, God’s unconditional love for us. The origin of community, then, is in the uniting spirit and loving mind of God. This drives the search for reunion, harmony and comm-unity. This mind of God and call is buried deep within each of us and transcends all the tribal loyalties that divide. That is what Thurman strained to see in the cosmos, nature and human affairs. This was the fount of his utopian vision. Utopia here means, the ideal community of harmony and peace held together by love, power and justice. Such a community has yet to be achieved.
It is important to notice that the present campaign for the presidency of the United States is also about utopian visions for society and for the world. American’s, who enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, say they (we) want more. We want a better life. Our quality of life is stressful. We are divided (red states and blue states), afraid and deeply ambivalent about who we are. We want to get back on a right track; we want our banks to work. We want economic security and health care insurance for everyone—or at least for our self. We want to be safe in our homes and neighborhoods and a good education for our children. These desires for material comfort are a part of our utopian dream, our ideal community. But what kind of society ought ours be—given the harsh realities of the world? Given the crash of global markets, rise of terrorism and deepening poverty, what kind of world leadership do we need? Friends outside of the United States are worried. Many see Americans as having tunnel vision and caring only for themselves. Do the Americans realize that they are choosing leadership for the world, and not just for themselves? What is the meaning of our utopian vision in a world where we consume more than our share of the world’s resources? How far does our utopian vision extend? Thurman may have something to say to us. His vision became inclusive, steady and it ripened into maturity through the challenging and churning decades of the 20th century. Perhaps he can speak to us now. Listen to more of his words:
“There is a world within where for us the great issues of our lives are determined.”
“The literal fact of the underlying unity of life seems to be established beyond doubt. It manifests itself in the basic structural patterns of nature and provides the precious clue to the investigation and interpretation of the external world of man. At any point in time and space one may come upon the door that opens into the central place where the building blocks of existence are always being manufactured. True, man has not been able to decipher all the codes in their highly complex variations, but he is ever on the scent.”
“If life has been fashioned out of a fundamental unity and ground, and if it has developed within such a structure, then it is not to be wondered at that the interest in and concern for wholeness should be part of the conscious intent of life, more basic than any particular conscious tendency toward fragmentation.”
“…man has an inner and an outer environment. …In times of great stress and strain in the outer environment, men tend to retreat or escape into the inner world as a place of shelter or refuge.”
“Community as the Utopian dream is a part of the basic aspiration of the human spirit. …Deep within himself he knows that if he settles for anything less than this, he denies the profound intent [or mind] of his own spirit, which is one with the intent of the Creator.” [Brackets are my own].
These quotes suggest that Thurman believed God was the universal ground of human community and hope. Therefore, our human task is to cultivate, develop and share: cultivate the inner life, develop character and share a belief in an underling and universal call to harmony and community. Universal harmony is the mind of the Divine operating in and through the human condition.
Recently, Evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, asked the senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the way to God, or merely a way?” Had that test question been put to Howard Thurman, he may have flunked it with his all inclusive emphasis upon universal harmony. Thurman, in his turn might well have pointed out that Graham’s implied exclusive view-that Jesus is the only way to God- was itself a source of division, evil and sin in a world of many faiths.
According to Walter Fluker, “Thurman makes a distinction between natural, punitive, and moral evil. He claims that most of the suffering and pain in the world can be attributed to moral evil. Moral evil is a consequence of human disobedience to God. It is rooted in egoism and is an abuse of human freedom and responsibility.” Moral evil can be a barrier to cultivating, developing and sharing a healthy inner life.
Thurman’s emphasis was on the inner world and the internal barriers of evil and sin that worked against community within the self. These barriers included fear and exclusion, anger and a vindictive spirit, deception and hate. These are among the tools in the arsenal of moral evil. They frequently trump the call to community or over ride such gospel values as love, forgiveness and reconciliation. For these reasons, both Thurman and King saw the important role of spiritual disciplines when engaging conflict and social change with non-violent action.
I want to share two paraphrases from Thurman’s work because they represent his emphasis on the inner life and universal inclusion. First,
‘The problem for us is at once clear. I must not make the error of giving myself over to [only meeting the physical needs of people]. Feed the hungry? Yes, and always. But I must know that people are more than their physical body. There is something within that calls for beauty and comradeship and righteousness.’
Second, concerning prayer: “The experience of (solitary) prayer… can be nurtured and cultivated. It can create a climate in which a man’s life moves and functions. Indeed, it may become a way of living for the individual. It is ever possible that the time may come when [individuals carry] such an atmosphere around with [them] and [give] its quality to all that [they do] and [communicate] its spirit to all who cross [their] path. [Brackets are my own].
Thurman’s emphasis upon cultivating the inner life, the solitary individual and universal inclusion has been enormously resourceful for activists and others on the front lines of social change such as Fanny Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many, many others. But there may be some disturbing problems with an emphasis upon the solitary encapsulated individual and the subjective idea of community. These ideals about the solitary individual and the inner life may not make sense to many who are struggling to survive and overwhelmed by the harsh realities of everyday life. Let me explain.
A few years after I graduated from Colgate-Rochester I became “Minister to the Community” on the staff of the First Baptist Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. Gordon Torgerson was the minister who called me that post. One cold November day as I was making my way around the community, I came upon a house that had the sign, “Unfit for Human Habitation.” I was curious. I parked my car and approached the house. I tried the door. It opened with little effort. I step inside and walked down the hall saying, “hello?”, “hello?” I pushed open one closed door. To my surprise there was a family of 10 mostly children, some small, huddled together in a corner. They were African American. I stopped in my tracks. For a few awkward moments they peered at me. I peered back at them. Then I said, “Hello! It is cold in here!” They said, “We know! There was no electricity, no running water.” I asked, “How long have you been here?” “A few days,” was the reply. I wondered, How could I help this family-in-trouble? I said, “We need to get you out of here!” I asked the oldest son if he would be willing to come with me. I explained that I was going for help and needed him to come with me. He could interpret the family’s experience. Help consisted of food, blankets, warm clothing and to see if we could get the electricity turned on for at least a few days or until the family could be relocated. This was not a time to ask about the inward journey or about the sense of community within the solitary individual or to explore universal inclusiveness, but it was a time to act concretely on what I know to be true compassion in my faith and religious tradition. It was a time to connect community resources with physical need and in a timely manner. It was time to bring a family out of its isolation. There were many urgent needs that demanded immediate attention.
This encounter began a long relationship that included getting the family on welfare assistance, moving the family to affordable housing, getting some of the kids back in school, employment for the able body adults, medical care for the family, seeing one of the teenagers through a pregnancy, understanding the family’s rules of engagement, the role that alcohol and mental illness played in the family, frequent cycles of unemployment and incarceration, and eventually the funeral of the mother.
This was not a church going family. Going to church meant washing up, putting on dressy clothes, having access to transportation, and social skills. This was not a family that did that. Rather, this was a poor family that struggled every single day and moved from crisis to crisis. Our conversations were framed around emergencies and crisis interventions. We had to learn from our mistakes and what did not work so that we could do more of what did work. Supra-personal forces(the subtle operation of people’s joint or collective activities) work imperceptivity through religious communities, labor, health, education, welfare and law enforcement. They intersected the life of this family and occupied most of my time with them. We never had a conversation about the problems of suffering and moral evil and the meaning of life, religion, God, faith, Jesus. This does not mean that Howard Thurman’s ideals about the deeper hunger, the Divine-Human encounter and the primacy of religious experience and the universal call to community were irrelevant. But if we were to get to that level of reflection, then a way had to be found through the concrete and immediate physical needs that concerned them. The closet I came to addressing the deeper hunger and religious talk was during the time of the funeral and bereavement.
To talk about the spiritual life—the inwardness of personal faith would have been difficult to sustain if it was not backed by results that made a material difference. Many of the impoverished families with whom I worked in my street ministry were in similar situations. They were caught in the cross-winds of poverty, broken promises and urban violence, alcohol abuse, mental health/illness, the courts, unemployment, trafficking and family violence. In order to understand them as solitary individuals, one had also to comprehend the real and volatile situations in which they lived, moved and had their being.
It was victor Hugo, the 19th Century poet and dramatist who said,
If the soul is left in darkness, sin will be committed.
The guilty one is not he who commits the sin,
But he who causes the darkness.
This brings me to briefly consider Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Jones before returning to the important work of Howard Thurman. Each addressed the material and social forces that contributed to “the darkness.” Each of these figures, in their own way, held utopian views of American society. Each addressed the relationship between the individual and society differently. Each struggled with the questions: What is the object of salvation, the individual soul that sins or the social soul that helps cause the darkness? Of course, this is an old debate and a perennial question. What is the purpose of the church in the world? Is it to be a light to the Nations? Is it to save individual souls? Is it to rescue the perishing, care for the dying, to show that Jesus is merciful, that Jesus will save; or is it to confront moral evil and help redeem the life of the world? Is it all of these? Let us see what Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr, King and Jones had to say.
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918):
Walter Rauschenbusch was the one to coin the term, “supra personal forces.” By that he meant the invisible, yet powerful influences of human activity that operate through our institutions. Rauschenbusch was known for this emphasis and his stress upon the social Gospel. He broke with a pietistic emphasis in Christianity that saw the church as primarily concerned with saving individual souls and eternal life. Eternal life is another-worldly concern. It begins when earthly life is finished. Soul salvation was the goal.
Rauschenbusch refused to separate the saving of souls from the salvaging of the social conditions in which people lived. Soul salvation and social salvation were inseparable. In this way, Rauschenbusch placed himself in the prophetic tradition of his day. Siding with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, meant for Rauschenbusch, addressing the personal dilemmas people faced by addressing the social and material conditions that held them in physical and spiritual bondage. The kingdom of God was an in-breaking reality here and now. As Rauschenbusch once put it, “the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teachings is “filled with democratic spirit. … it abolishes human lordships, puts people on an equal footing, and binds them together in an order of mutual solidarity.” This was Rauschenbusch’s idea of the Kingdom of God and a part of his utopian vision for society. This meant that Christians had to be engaged in the world as seekers of justice and reformers in social, economic, political, educational institutions and other places where they lived, moved and had their being.
The aim was to redeem the whole of social life where individuals found worth and meaning. If this is the call of the kingdom of God in the world, then Rauschenbusch’s questions were ‘Why has the Church, the Body of Christ, retreated from the world to an other-worldly asceticism?’ Isn’t the world a wild, scary and hopeless place? Why can’t we forget about the world and each of us live in our own little controlled cocoon with like minded souls? For these and deeper reasons the contemporary church has not engaged and challenged the world, the principalities and powers, more than it has. Why is the church ambivalent about taking on supra personal forces or the deep-rooted moral evil that “cause the darkness,” circumscribe and corrupt the private lives of individuals? The moral evils Rauschenbusch had in mind included women’s inequality in the home and work place (the glass ceiling), the abolition of discrimination based upon race and class, the exploitation of children.
Howard Thurman, like Walter Rauschenbusch, believed that “individual experiences cannot be separated from the collective and communal experience. But Thurman did little to analyze the many and complex ways corporate power is arranged and mediated with differential effects by historical forces and through economic, political and social institutions. Thurman gave the power to trump such influences to the private lives of individuals or the human spirit.
Supra-personal forces, according to Walter Rauschenbusch, were transmitted through social mechanisms to individuals who are embedded in the womb of society. Supra-personal forces have incalculable power to corrupt individual life and thwart the human spirit.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971):
Reinhold Niebuhr shared Rauschenbusch’s concerns about the inseparability of individual and society. But there was a real difference between the individual and society. According to Niebuhr, individuals were moral beings and capable of making decisions. Society and the collective were essentially immoral.
Reinhold Niebuhr was considered a realist and sought to interpret American society by identifying this real difference between individuals and the collective. He brought a renewed interest on sin and challenged a superficial and overly optimistic emphasis on humanism. Niebuhr believed that individuals, though driven by self-interest were moral beings capable of reflexive inquiry doing justice and rendering uncommon empathy and compassion. He did not think this was possible for groups that tend to be predatory and driven by corporate greed, self-serving collective interest. But did he include the Church in his understanding of the “collective?” When people join groups, Niebuhr believed, their tendency to become hierarchal and immoral is increased. It is only by God’s grace that we are saved from doom.
Howard Thurman, like Reinhold Niebuhr, believed in sin. But unlike Niebuhr, Thurman placed sin primarily in the personal context and associated it with acts that emanate from the private lives of individuals and as disobedience to God’s will. “The root of sin is pride or egoism, which creates disharmony within the self and in relations with others. Pride is manifested as an “ill will” or a “stubborn will” that rebels against the purpose and intent of the God of life.” According to Thurman, the individual is responsible for her or his actions. Historical forces-- the mediating role of social structures and processes, forces that help “cause the darkness”-- do not receive primary emphasis. Thurman privileged the inwardness of individuals. Niebuhr did not place the individual and the collective on equal terms of mutual influence. Collective power has a life of its own. According to Niebuhr collective power governs, sometimes imperceptibly, the relationship between individuals. It holds incalculable influence to corrupt social and personal relations.
Martin Luther King, Jr.,(1929-1968):
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his turn was engaged in mass non-violent demonstration, protest and direct confrontation with violence. He had to deal head-on with the real and emerging issues of power. King moved among the working poor and masses (as well as celebrities). Later in his career he began to address economic reform. King referred to Niebuhr, especially in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King reminded us of Niebuhr’s adage that those in power rarely if ever voluntarily give up power to the oppressed. Power has to be demanded. King spelled out his utopian vision for the future in his “I have a Dream” speech in 1963.
Thurman, like King, saw the need to transform society and social relations. But Thurman’s work took place, primarily among college students, professors and college administrators, and the religious middle class. Thurman was not beaten, jailed nor his home bombed for acts of civil disobedience. Thurman believed that if enough vital religious experiences could be repeated then they could become more compelling than the forces that divide. Thurman did not lead an organized social movement to defeat real and complex forces of oppression. King, unlike Thurman, navigate the dynamics of organized power between competing forces within the Mid-20th Century Civil Rights movement as well as from obvious foes. King struggled against the forces that caused the darkness by struggling against complex systems of brutal segregation and organized violence in ways that Thurman did not. King believed that sometimes nothing will happen to change urgent issues until there are persuasive demonstrations before the court of world opinion and the urgent need for change is shared. Hence, King and Thurman came to different but not incompatible understandings of the relationship between the individual and society, and the causes of darkness such as entrenched power, the persistent roots of evil in human life and the need for sustained collective struggle to resist and transform it.
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), Martin Luther King, Jr.(1929-1968) and Howard Thurman (1900-1981), sought to address the issues of their day. They were products of American society, prophets and interpreters of a certain tradition and ministers who spoke to utopian dreams. Each sought to better society and saw the importance of offering a critical social analysis from a religious or theological perspective. Each sought to be faithful interpreters of the Gospel of Jesus.
I am not asking us to choose between the private soul, on the one hand, or the public collective social soul, on the other. We need Thurman’s insights as well as Rauschenbusch. We need Niebuhr and King when interpreting life in a super power society such as the United States of America. These prophets have been critical voices from within the Church.
The Church that has sought retreat from the world has never been comfortable with Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr or King. The church that promotes social programs at the expense of spiritual nurture has never been comfortable with Thurman. The balance and integration of the private, solitary individual on the one hand and the social, public life on the other is a challenge for faithful ministry. It brings us to the ancient question: “How shall we live?” For this reason, the balance and integration of the private and public, the pastoral and the prophetic is also a challenge for theological education.
Theological education, in our North American context, is challenged to keep these positions (public and private, pastoral and prophetic) together, in conversation and held in creative tension. This will be increasingly difficult as the collapse of financial markets restructure the organization of life as we know it. Theological education will have to adjust.
But how? We cannot afford to relegate religion or spirituality to the margins of society. We cannot collapse and retreat to the private sphere alone and ignore moral evil. Nor can we afford to move insensitively to the other end of a spectrum and only address material conditions. We cannot address the public display of religious faith in social activism and ignore what is happening in the private lives of individuals.
Psalms 8 reminds us that we are called to be co-creators with the Divine, guardians of the planet, and share care for the whole creation. What we are challenged to do, then is to see and account for the reciprocal influences within the ecological system of which we are a part- and to make connections between the private, social and collective levels of influence. In short, we must account for reciprocal effects, the interplay and emergence of novelty amidst the principalities and powers that cause the darkness. Such reciprocal effects are what I call systemic influences.
The theologian, Marjorie Suchocki helps us think about systemic influences. The idea of the “systemic” is organic and based upon the principle of linkage which means that everything is connected with everything else either directly or indirectly in an unfolding and living process.
The assumption is that we live in an inter-connected universe and must account for the many ways social forces, subjective and inter-subjective experiences are interrelated, shaped and newly shaped in an unfolding social process. Our private lives are shaped, partly through our interactions with self and with others and our material world. We think within the material conditions with which we are faced. This suggest that what we deeply feel and inwardly call god-experiences have multiple roots and are mediated through particular cultural contexts and inter-personal relationships. Our private world, then, may not be as private as we think.
What we call private religious experience has many roots and may connect us with others in ways beyond our imagination. Is this a part of God’s infinite variety? If it is the case that we are members one of another and inherit trans-generational influences, then the private and personal world of each one of us encompasses a variety of experiences as well as all the elements in the universe. Some influences are in conscious awareness, the majority is not. This does not deny the reality of God’s creative spirit moving in and through all of our experiencing, in fact, it suggest a grander, more richly-textured and wider trans-communal view of the Divine than we normally hold.
Typically, our point of reference for a religious experience may be a particular time and place. Such a time and place is a product of certain social and material developments and culturally constructed images, beliefs and emotions of which we may or may not be fully aware. Naturally, we see, as the Apostle reminds us, through a glass dimly.
This is why Suchocki suggested that we need one another and others who are differently situated in order to see further than we normally see. We need stronger awareness of the reciprocal connections between the social structures, the agency of individuals and our ancient traditions to guide us. She suggest that we, in our preoccupation with immediacy, the here and now, have lost the capacity to account for the unfolding enormity of the evils that beset us and that we have helped to create. “Issues such as racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, handicapism, anthropocentrism, and whatever other “isms” we have devised toward the ill-being of peoples require more than an analysis of individual sin to account for the pervasiveness and depth of the [darkness in which we grope].” [The brackets are my own]. The idea that our own well-being and responses are affected by the well being and creative responses of others ought to challenge the idea that we, Americans can make whatever decision we want and not be affected by the consequences. Are we really encapsulated individuals who carry around our own protected, private environment wherein we are entitled to make our own decisions?
I briefly return to the family that I encountered in my ministry. They had much to teach me about ministry and about what causes the darkness. They knew that they were not free to choose their own private protective environment. They knew what it meant to be exposed in a cold world and to live with diminished power. So, we might ask, “What was this family trying to do?” An immediate answer might be, “to survive.” Simply survive. But Thurman would push us to ask a deeper question- such as “What might survival mean for each member of the family and what do they pray and hope for in moments of solitude?” Rauschenbusch would raise the question of social salvation and need to redeem the forces that oppress. Niebuhr would point to the need to challenge corporate greed and invested interest. Both would push us to address the dynamic power arrangements that circumscribe this family’s reality and many others like them.
Suchocki would encourage us to ask the Thurman question about the meaning of survival. She would say “Yes” to Rauschenbusch’s and Niebuhr’s desire to address and redeem the social order. But she would go further and ask us to track the reciprocal influences, note the concrete changes and make the connections between the private dimensions of meaning and the wider ecological systems of which we are part. “What is this family-as a family unit trying to do?” What are the environmental constraints and challenges facing them? I believed that their capacity for resiliency and sense of agency needed to be strengthened so they could make wiser decisions. How, then were their actual responses creating or foreclosing future opportunities? What could be done to help them and the rest of us to see deeper and look further? Suchocki would challenge us to see deeper, look further and remember.
Why is this important? Why is remembering and cultivating the capacity to see deeper and develop the habit of looking further important for a society that wants to lead the world?
In a couple of weeks, we will come upon the 30th Anniversary of the tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana. We still have lessons to learn from Jonestown, but social amnesia appears to prevail. Social amnesia means that we have forgotten the things we once knew. The past no longer informs or help us to see deeper or alert us to potentially dangerous trends in the present. Where there is no memory there is little reflexive inquiry and no vision. There is darkness. Ours, then, becomes the country of the blind.
Jonestown, Guyana, was an isolated agricultural commune, where over nine hundred people, mostly Black Americans, women and children, were murdered or committed suicide on orders from their pastor and leader on November 18, 1978. It was an unusual commune. There were social activists and idealist, religious and secular, the educated and uneducated, Black and White, Yellow and Brown, Red people and people of mixed heritages. They yearned for equality and more meaningful lives. They were ready to work for a better society.
Looking back, I wonder what continues to elude us? Was Jonestown prelude or postlude? Or – as I fear – has Jonestown been largely forgotten and its lessons unlearned? When we fail to learn the tragic lessons of the past, then we are likely to repeat them, unwittingly. In that sense Jonestown is prelude. Are there trends today in our presidential campaign, political and religious life that are reminiscent of the insular society that became known as “Jonestown?” We remember that in the end, Jonestown was characterized by internecine battles, controlled communication, manipulation of thought and a diminished capacity of members to think critically about their situation. Jonestown had evolved a closed cosmos and tunnel vision that played their part in sealing the fate of so many.
A new generation has now come to adulthood since the tragic events in Jonestown. I often draw a blank when I ask my theology students about Jonestown. A few have never heard of it. Jonestown was something that happened before they were born. If it did not happen in their life time, then is it myth? How can we transmit the tragic lessons of a failed utopian dream to the next generation of leaders—if we ourselves are lacking in insight and have failed to learn the lessons of the past? In short, it is important to remember. Remembering enables a way to see deeper and to develop the capacity to look further than conventional wisdom dictates.
It was Jim Jones’ pragmatic interests that sought to make King’s utopian dream come true. Jonestown, in its ideal form, sought to create a utopian community where the barriers or race, class, gender, age and religion would be broken down and no longer serve to divide people into warring camps. But Jim Jones, a charismatic figure, may not have been sufficiently informed or influenced by Rauschenbusch’s emphasis on the operation of supra-personal forces and entrenched moral evil that can invade and cause blindness even in the private sphere. He may not have been sufficiently informed about Niebuhr’s realism and concern for collective egoism and corruption.
Howard Thurman, the philosophical theologian, though ill, was living in San Francisco when the tragedy at Jonestown occurred. Looking back, it was Thurman’s ideas about the kinship with all life and an ancient quest for harmony that made sense of the appeal Jim Jones held for idealists and social activists of the 1960’s and 70’s. Wittingly or unwittingly, Jones had tapped a deep hunger in people that drew them to his vision of a new, egalitarian, just and harmonious society embedded in the American dream. In such a society, Thurman offered the insight that the contradictions of life may not be overcome, but they do not have final say. Something deeper and universal stirs within the human condition and works to transform the powers that separate. This nameless, “something deeper” and of infinite variety can be cultivated and experienced in common struggle against the forces of oppression and work through human cooperation, religious and secular. It can nourish human resiliency. It gives rise to hope and utopian dreams.
But does not this “deeper hunger” that give rise to utopian dreams also make us vulnerable to exploitation. Certain tele-Evangelist and mega church ministries that can blind us with promises of prosperity and individual salvation in the here and now. Many souls have fallen prey to the claims of prosperity gospel to satisfy our deepest hungers.
Americans want to be made safe, put back on a right track, secure and free and in charge. We all want to be millionaires. We want employment and health insurance for ourselves and kids. If God has placed the care of creation in our collective hands, then we cannot shrug off our responsibility by saying, ‘Don’t worry about it! God will straighten up our mess for us.’ Does not this “deeper something” that is endemic to the human condition make us vulnerable to certain utopian claims in the current presidential campaign? In a few days, Americans will be making a decision, not only for themselves, but for the world, as a whole. The recent bank crisis and my non-American neighbors in London and elsewhere remind me, almost daily that we share one inter-dependent world, a fragile web of life. What affects one directly affect all indirectly. We still have this lesson to learn.
We still have much to learn about the deepest hunger and the initial utopian appeal that Thurman talk about. But we also need to stay alert to the supra-personal forces to which both Rauschenbusch and Niebuhr pointed. If it is the case that everything exists in and through its creative response to relationships beyond itself, then what we do really does mater. Doing is related to memory, seeing and looking further. This is important. Your deeds, mind and spirit and relations matter. We need to grasp what Marjorie Suchocki referred to as systemic forces that operate in and through us and help shape and influence all of us—even the private sphere.
What may elude us in the present political climate today is the God of infinite variety. God gave birth to the Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist; to male and female, gay and straight and questioning, slave and free; able bodied and differently able alike. We, though many, are one. This sense of oneness may elude us much of the time, and especially in the heat of a political campaign that emphasize difference. What eludes us is that our hope and fears are related to the deeper hunger that unites us. That means debate and our critical assessment of past and present utopian appeals are important. How we interpret and make discernment with the eyes of faith are relevant to our ministries and the development of wisdom.
So, I end where I began,
When I look up at the heavens,
at the work of Love’s creation,
at the infinite variety of God’s Plan;
I am led to ask, “What is woman that you rejoice in her,”
“And man that you do delight in him?” (Psalm 8:4).
I am drawn back to the ancient ground of hope. It is the call to purposeful harmony and oneness. This call must serve as the thread that weaves its way through everything that causes the darkness and all that is disappointing, destructive, evil and unfinished. The profound challenge before all of us is to be faithful and creative witnesses to this ancient call forward—even when we cannot see what the end will be.
All that God has made has been placed in our collective hands—to be cultivated, developed and shared. What is started in one generation is passed on to future generations in trust. Whether recognized or not, we are a part of an on-going and unfolding ecological project. It was Niebuhr who said, much that is worth doing will not be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must rely on our mates and be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.
If you enjoyed this article check out Smith's sermon in honor of Howard Thurman offered at the Annual Howard Thurman Lectureship.