“The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being.” Those words from great theologian Howard Thurman were among those that inspired the life of on of the greatest American liberators, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Both men were guilty of having a dangerous spirituality, as described below by yet another great theologian and activist, Vincent Harding.
By Vincent Harding
In their different and sometimes similar ways, Howard Thurman and Martin King represented a spirituality deeply, solidly based in one place, among one people, about which they had no doubts at all. Just as Jesus of Nazareth represented a spirituality based in one place, among one people, about whom he had no doubts at all. At the same moment, both King and Thurman reached out far, far beyond that ground and that base and saw no contradictions in being grounded and reaching out as part of one motion of spirit and life.
Thurman was — and this was a deep part of his spirituality — a seeker. Thurman was never satisfied with the truth that he had achieved, knowing always that there was more to come, and that he must never think that he had found it all. And so in 1935, Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman — her name must be connected to his and his to hers, because they were a magnificent team and she was as powerful a figure as you could think of — went to India.
They went to India and what is now Sri Lanka and traveled a great deal. Thurman had to understand who were these people who were not Christians but who, from the deepest part of his being, he knew were God’s children. He began asking in profound ways, What is the relationship of God’s various children to each other, though they go by different names? And he went to sit with one of the greatest of God’s children, that Hindu saint, Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi asked him questions about what it meant to be black in America. Thurman asked Gandhi questions about the possible relevance of the nonviolent struggle that was going on in India for what might go on in the United States.
Thurman’s faith was not a door that closed in on him as something to be kept, protected, and guarded. It was an opening door that opened out into the spirit, faith, dreams, and seekings of others. We cannot know the spirituality of Howard Thurman unless we know the spirituality of the open door.
What was he seeking? Why did he go to Gandhi? The center of his seeking was, “Mr. Gandhi, we are in deep trouble in my country. Millions of people are in deep trouble. Some of them know it, and some of those who are causing the trouble don’t know it. But we are all in trouble in my country, Mr. Gandhi. What do you have to say to us from what you have learned about the nonviolent struggle to deal with the troubles of the Indian people?”
You see, this is not a 1990s New Age seeker who goes around the world looking for answers only to personal issues. The spirituality of Howard Thurman was that of the seeker who sought for the healing of his people and of his nation. Therefore, Howard Thurman must be understood as a man of spirit who understood what roots are for. Thurman saw that his roots were not to be worshiped, that his roots were to provide him with tree-like strength to reach out, to explore new possibilities for his life. But even more, to explore new possibilities for the life of his people and his nation. Roots for growth, not for self-admiration. Roots for power, not to control, but to share.
I want to read to you from Thurman’s The Luminous Darkness. In it he tells us a great deal about those roots and about that spirituality and about where he was going.
The fact that the first 23 years of my life were spent in Florida and in Georgia has left its scars deep in my spirit and has rendered me terribly sensitive to the churning abyss separating white from black. Living outside of the region, I am aware of the national span of racial prejudice and the virus of segregation that undermines the vitality of American life.
So he says, “I know the story. I know the story of racism and segregation in my bones. No one has to tell me about it.” And then he says:
Nevertheless, knowing all of that, experiencing all of that, nevertheless a strange necessity has been laid upon me to devote my life to the central concern that transcends the walls that divide and would achieve in literal fact what is experienced as literal truth: human life is one and all men [and women] are members one of another.
Thurman’s spirituality was grounded not only in the beauties of the black experience, but grounded as well in the terrors of the black experience, as only someone living in Florida and Georgia could know them in 1915 and 1920 and 1930. At the same time, it was a spirituality that says: “And knowing all that, I also know that all human beings are one.”
This kind of strange combination of spiritual truth with hard political social truth led one young man in the 1930s to say this about Howard Thurman: “I’m disappointed in him. We thought we had found our Moses. And he turns out to be a mystic.” That’s the spirituality that gets people all riled up.
Understand this about Thurman, and about King: Here are men who at no point in their life would ever deny the terrors of what it was in those days to be black in America. At no point in their life would they deny the terrorism of so much of being white in America; at the same time they would never deny the oneness of all. That’s a tough spirituality. That’s not any kind of sweet-by-and-by spirituality. That’s a spirituality that takes on the world as it is and says, “I’m gonna figure this out one way or another.” The mystic and the Moses.
It is important to realize that King and Thurman were deeply connected to each other. The legend is that Martin carried around a copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited wherever he went. He was certainly a practitioner of what Thurman was trying to deal with in that book. Thurman was saying, If you are living the spirit of Jesus, then you cannot live in the spirit of fear, you cannot live in the spirit of deception, even for good causes; you cannot live in the spirit of hatred. None of those is the way of Jesus.
The spirituality of Martin King, in an even more active, militant way than Thurman, was the spirituality of wrestling with the angels, the angels within and the angels around. The demonic angels and the divine angels. No spirituality without wrestling — that’s where King was coming from. That spirituality came directly out of the gospel of Luke: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” And what is the spirit upon me for? So I can jump and scream and shout and sing? Yes, maybe that. But right then, in Montgomery, Alabama, the spirituality began, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me” so that I can go and stand with the poor, with the messed up, with the beaten up, with the downtrodden.
That was King’s spirituality. A spirituality that makes it impossible for you to avoid the folks in trouble. A spirituality to work with the poor, to be with the prisoners, to stay close to the brokenhearted, and to know what Thurman knew: Even though God was so good to black folks in such hard times, their God could never be captured by black folks. Black folks were simply one of God’s beloved people. Like Thurman, King had to figure out what you do with all of the other beloved people. Especially the messed-up beloved people. Especially the beloved people that don’t know they’re beloved.
So this was King’s spirituality, that sent him into Albany, Georgia; into Birmingham; into St. Augustine — present, present, constantly present with those in trouble. That’s where he was coming from when he came here to Washington, D.C., in 1963. Don’t forget that, please. He didn’t come down and say “I have a dream” and disappear. He came out of hard struggles that were guided by his spirituality. Tough, dangerous, death-defiant struggles. And yet, at the same moment, he could speak to the whole nation and say, “You aren’t what you should be, nation. And I’m not just cursing you out, I am entreating you in love to be what God meant for you to be, for me to be, for us to be.” King was offering an entire nation the opportunity to be free at last if we’re willing to work, if we’re willing to struggle, if we’re willing to face our bondage.
This spirituality took him back to Birmingham to mourn with the mourning mothers and fathers of those bombed-out children. But it also led him to challenge the white supremacy of that Alabama countryside and say, “No, I’m not going to give into this, because this is contrary to the Spirit. White people are not supreme. And every time they think they are, they are killing their spirit and every spirit.” This spirituality led him to Selma, to challenge the terrible voting discrimination there and throughout the South. His spirituality led him to call thousands of us to risk our lives, to join the struggle for the expansion of democracy.
Martin Luther King’s spirituality did not stop with marching from Selma to Montgomery. Martin was saying some very, very powerfully spiritual things to black people and white people and everybody else who would listen. Here is how, in 1966, he expressed his spirituality. This man must have certainly gotten things mixed up. Because this is what he thought spirituality was about:
I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way. If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If it means dying for them, I’m going that way. Because I heard the voice saying: do something for others.
That was his spirituality. I’m not absolutely sure why you would want to know about it, but that was it.
Of course, before many months were over, King also said, “I identify with those people you call gooks and enemies and Viet Congs and those who must be burned to death. I identify with them; they are my sisters and brothers. Those are my children running aflame.” That was his spirituality. It’s not just praying “Our Father,” but finding his sisters and brothers and then acting it out in public challenges to the U.S. government. Acting out his commitment to the poor by trying to organize the poor. Not just to give nice things to them, but to organize the poor so that they can gain what they needed for their own lives.
That is the spirituality that we see him going to the end of his life with. His final saying was, “America, listen to me, please. You are being burdened down by some terrible commitments. Any nation that chooses to spend more on armaments than on social reform is a nation in trouble.” He said, “America, I would not say these things to you if I did not love you. But you are in danger of giving in to militarism, to materialism, as well as to racism.”
The tricky matter is that when Martin said these things it had already become very clear that he was not just talking to white people. The very process of desegregation was already beginning to suck us in so deeply into the ways of life and thought of the nation that he could not speak to the nation about its situation without speaking to his own black people. That was a spirituality that got lots of people very uncomfortable. That’s what spirituality does. It gets people uncomfortable.
Howard Thurman once offered a wonderful statement from the great social gospeler, Walter Rauschenbusch. He said that Rauschenbusch claimed that there are many, many good people around, but very few who are good enough to disturb the peace of the devil. King became a disturber of the peace without any question, speaking to us.
I want to close now by coming back to King’s father, to my father, to your father — Howard Thurman — and to listen to these words that Thurman wrote about life in this country and what kind of spirituality is required to live it. This again is from The Luminous Darkness (please forgive Father Howard’s sexist language).
The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being. It may be, I don’t know, that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one’s fellows as human beings. It means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organic kinship that binds him [or her] ethnically or “racially” or nationally. He has a sense of being an essential part of the structural relationship that exists between him and all other men [and women], and between him, all other men [and women], and the total external environment. As a human being, then, he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all that lives and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived. In other words, he sees himself as a part of a continuing, breathing, living existence. To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world.
What more could one ask from a spirituality? To show us the way to be alive with God’s life in God’s world. That’s what the father was about. That’s what the brother was about.
This article was originally published by On Being.