Each month or so, a member from the diocesan Commission on Racial Justice and Reconciliation will offer a personal reflection, article recommendation, or resource that supports the work of their mission - to dismantle individual and institutional racism by sharing resources and creating opportunities that inspire and empower faith communities and the larger community, resulting in reconciliation and restoration of all God’s People.
This month’s selection is offered by Nancy Bolton Beck. Nancy says, “When I read this reflection from my daughter, Nell Bolton Butler, I felt called to share it because I was late in knowing about and reading Howard Thurman, a brilliant and wise theologian. He visualized a world where racial, ethnic, or religious barriers did not serve as a roadblock to creating meaningful relationships that reflect the teaching of Jesus Christ. That vision could not be more in line with the mission of our ministry."
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
- John 3:5-6
When I was in theology school some 20 years ago, I had the good fortune to take a semester-long course on the mystic, prophet and theologian Howard Thurman. It was my first introduction to Thurman’s profound influence on the U.S. civil rights movement. The central question of his book Jesus and the Disinherited (published in 1949 but developed over more than a decade) was searing and urgent: what do the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand with their backs against the wall? In his response, which lands ultimately on the way of Love, Thurman is concerned not with the religion about Jesus, but the religion of Jesus. The religion of Jesus as a poor Jew under a dehumanizing system of Roman oppression. Jesus facing the dead-end options of submission, complicity, or open rebellion. Jesus with his back against the wall. From this perspective, the creative new path Jesus offers for people to be in dignified, holy relationship to their inner selves (where they meet God) and to one another (where again, they meet God) is nothing short of miraculous. And as Thurman points out, this is a path of radical spiritual freedom.
And yet….when I recently re-read Thurman’s work, his concluding chapter on Love left me with a hunger for more. A “mere” ethic of Love seems insufficient to show us the way to new systems and structures that no longer perpetuate injustice. On further reflection, though, I can see that my dissatisfaction is perhaps a misunderstanding or a misreading of just how profound a transformation Jesus is calling each of us into. In the Gospel passage above, Jesus is in conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee seeking deeper understanding who is only further confounded by the statement that he must be (re)born of the Spirit. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it in a 1967 address, “Where Do We Go From Here?” what Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that “Your whole structure must be changed.” If and when our whole structure is changed, so too must the structures around us – for we can no longer live in them as they were, as we were. It is from the deep well of our connection to God that we draw strength for the work of change.
Open unto me, light for my darkness.
Open unto me, courage for my fear.
Open unto me, hope for my despair.
Open unto me, peace for my turmoil.
Open unto me, joy for my sorrow.
Open unto me, strength for my weakness.
Open unto me, wisdom for my confession.
Open unto me, forgiveness for my sins.
Open unto me, love for my hates.
Open unto me, thy Self for my self. Lord, Lord, open unto me! Amen.
- Howard Thurman, Open Unto Me
Nell Bolten Butler