Jesus And The Disinherited – (A Reflective Book Review)

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Jesus And The Disinherited

A Reflective Book Review

By Pastor Vinnie MacIsaac

“If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.” — Howard Thurman –“Jesus And The Disinherited”

Howard Thurman is an unsung grandfather of the civil right movement. His most notable book “Jesus And The Disinherited” was the blueprint of non-violent resistance that propelled the civil rights movement in the 60’s. I want to take a few moments during Black History Month to stop and reflect not only the man behind it but the power of this colossal book.

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It is no secret that Thurman may have been the greatest influence on Martin Luther King Jr in the development of his approach to the civil rights movement. Legacy says, whether true or not, I don’t know, that Martin Luther King carried in his briefcase a copy of, “Jesus And The Disinherited” every place he went. What is certain is that Thurman knew Martin Luther King Jr’s father at Morehouse College as classmates. Martin Luther King Jr also formed his own direct friendship with Thurman years later during his time at Boston University. Thurman played a mentoring role in the friendship with Martin and other young future black leaders he sought to enlighten. It seems his time was not wasted because Martin adopted the key teaching of Thurman’s thesis, that only a non-violent life of love, like Jesus, can overthrow the power of oppression.

“Jesus And The Disinherited” is a systematic map of the mechanics behind holding a non-violent stance of rebellion, for the long term. Thurman’s book was influenced heavily by studying the life of Mahatma Gandhi. He traveled to meet him in India and had direct conversations with Gandhi about the plight of black people in America. Their conversations lead Gandhi to reach the following, near prophetic, conclusion: “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”[1]

The whole structure of the book itself is a sermon worth considering. Thurman creates a “sandwich” structure that starts off with a chapter about understanding the life of Jesus, moves on to three chapters about oppression, and ends with a chapter on Love.

The structure goes like this.

Chapter One: Jesus. An Interpretation

The Three Hounds Of Hell Of The Oppressed.

Chapter 2: Fear

Chapter 3: Deception

Chapter 4: Hate

The Solution As The Only Option

Chapter 5: Love

So to greatly simplify it in a “snapshot,” the message of the book follows this pattern: Jesus faced great oppression and we can find comfort in his life and the solution will be only in finding out how Jesus overcame. Because, in the human experience, oppression always leads to fear. Fear always leads to deception, even for good reasons, like protecting your family or loved ones from real threats. Deception always leads to hate because living a dishonest life, even for good causes, creates unbearable resentment in the heart of the oppressed from generation to generation. Once hate sets in, the oppressed is headed toward destruction, both internally, on a moral level and externally in a defeated person model. The only escape from hate is the “Love of Jesus.” When we see into the heart of the hater we are broken by pity for the hater because you realize they, themselves, are also being oppressed by their own hate and you have been called to spiritually set them free.

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Thurman’s central hypothesis in the book is that the religion that Jesus lived produced the kind of life for Him that identifies with downtrodden, outcast, broken, and disinherited of the world. That is to say, the true religion of God is expressed in living a life of love, under oppression, that you may find the transformative power of Christ to love your oppressor. While not denying the divinity of Jesus, it is fair to say Thurman grounds himself in the humanity of Jesus and brilliantly exegetes the oppression of the Jews by the Romans and the response of Jesus facing off against it. He takes this picture of Jesus and brilliantly compares it to the oppression of Blacks in America. Thurman is unapologetic in his honesty about the evils of ethnic oppression and racism. Unlike others I have read, he does not romanticize the spiritual side of living through oppression, but calls its long-term impacts on people the “Hounds of Hell.” He spends the largest portion of his book being blunt in exploring the hounds of hell found in oppression.

Thurman pulls no punches as he awakens us to the call Christ would demand of us, but which we, too often, have denied. Thurman had a way as I read and re-read his words to shatter my white privileged Christian façade that this is a problem of the world and not the church;

“It cannot be denied that too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful and against the weak and oppressed—this, despite the gospel.”

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The most heartbreaking truth about this book is that it was written in 1949 and it could have been written today because it is still valid and relevant today. As I reflect on this classic book, I can’t help but see how much ground in civil liberties has been lost in the last couple of years. Worse yet, new brands of white supremacy in the highest of our offices goes unchecked, treated as the new normal, and is seemingly untouchable. We have not lost everything we once gained during the Civil Rights movement, but if things are permitted to remain the way they are, we are well on that path. So after having read this book now a few times all I can say is… Jesus, Help us! Jesus, speak to us anew through your servant Howard Thurman and teach us to have the love you had that foils the darkest heart of hate.

As a white man, living in modern America during a time when white supremacy is making a resurgence I am glad Howard Thurman calls for non-violent means to overthrow hate and yet at the same time, I seek to understand and have compassion upon those who are currently, and have a history, of being oppressed by people that look like and have the privileged of myself. I don’t blame people from the oppressed if when they see someone like myself they are suspect. And while I don’t actively engage in racism, as I know it[2], if I don’t use my privilege to fight it at every turn then I am  just another passive oppressor who is in denial. True, Christians can’t stand on the sidelines and watch hate win. We can’t watch neo-Nazi events[3] happen and say to ourselves, “that is a shame,” yet do nothing because it has not yet come to our neighborhood. We must realize the hounds of hell that Thurman talks about were the life and culture Jesus was born into and overcame. And when we help fight back this hounds of Hell with love we are actually walking in the very footsteps as Jesus walked and to not walk in those footsteps is to depart from the Master’s path!

May we reflect and pray on these true words of Thurman about Jesus until they are also true about us…

“Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit and death to communion with his Father. He affirmed life, and hatred was a great denial.”


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[1] Dixie, Quinton; Eisenstadt, Peter (2011). Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence. Boston: Beacon Press.

[2] Racism is a tricky thing that can deceive anyone’s heart.



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