Introduction: Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” and the Subjective Nature of the Human Hermeneutic

Hello dear ones

Dear friends

Hi again,

(One day I will come up with an appropriate greeting for potential readers. Alas, today is not that day.)

I must have been out of school for far too long, because I have assigned myself a book report…


As an academic person, my research interest has always been Hermeneutics–the interpretation of the Bible–and how it influences the everyday manifestations of the Christian faith in life and worship. (I.e. the connection between Hermeneutics, Practical Theology, and Social Behavior).

I am going to begin a series on a book called “Jesus and the Disinherited,” written by an African-American theologian named Howard Thurman. In this book, Thurman seeks to answer the question, “What benefit does Christianity offer to people who are oppressed?” In his words? How does Christianity help people who have their “backs against the wall” (Thurman, 11)? How does the message of Christianity resonate with people who are poor or who experience discrimination?

When I was in seminary, many of the books I studied were by White men like Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. These men wrote eloquently, persuasively, and one might argue, “truthfully,” about the nature of God. They addressed concepts such as pneumatology (the person and work of the Holy Spirit), and soteriology (the work of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection). I learned that there were multiple theories of what Jesus was meant to accomplish. Was He a blood sacrifice meant to atone for our sins? Was He the substitute, killed and punished in our place? Or was He the recipient of God’s wrath against sin, which again, should have been unleashed upon us?

These are all important questions, and they are the reason I loved seminary so much. If my degree program allowed me to have majors or concentrations, they would have been Systematic Theology and Practical Theology, specifically Worship and Liturgy. I enjoy wrestling with these questions.

However, the issue with these concerns is that they are primarily lofty and transcendent, aloof from the everyday concerns of the average person. The individual whom Thurman depicts as having their “back against the wall” is less concerned with the very specific task, whether atonement or substitution, accomplished by Jesus, and more concerned with what God has to say about their inability to feed their children, the discrimination they experience, or the fact that they are one paycheck away from homelessness.

The truth is that the gentlemen I named above are situated in a very specific position of privilege that allows them to spend their time asking these abstract theological questions. Over time, these questions and those asked generations before them have become a theological standard, resulting in the application of creeds and statements of faith, which in some cases do determine whether one is an adherent of the “true” faith.

We now have the divisions of “High”, “Middle”, and “Low” Christologies, which skew quite clearly against these people who have their “backs against the wall.” For the higher the Christology, the more it attests to Jesus’s salvation as a lofty spiritual event worthy of divine intercession, while the lower the Christology, the more “earthly” it is; the closer it is to the human experience. Thus, people like Howard Thurman or Gustavo Gutierrez would be cast under the light of theological suspicion, whereas a Timothy Keller or John Piper would pass with flying colors.

In some cases, I consider myself a moderate. I believe it is most likely that each group has 50% of the message. The transcendent nature of God and the immanent nature of God need to be married in a way that shows that even though God is divine, heavenly, holy, and mysterious, God also deeply cares about our suffering and is not just with us in a type of spiritual sympathy. As someone who came to earth enfleshed in Jesus Christ, as a social minority (a poor Jew within the Roman social majority), how can God not have answers to the questions of the oppressed?


Next up:

“Who do you say I am?” – Matthew 16:15

My theory is that an individual’s response to this question varies depending on how they have seen–or how they believe they have seen–Jesus intervene in their life.

Also, what does the apostle Paul have in common with what the mainstream media calls the “White Evangelical”?