Howard Thurman's Impact on Postmodern Liberation Theology
"Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers." Howard Thurman, African American educator, theologian, Search For Common Ground, 1971.
Using Jeremiah 17, Howard Thurman urges his listeners to find their security in God, not in the opinion of others. As Fluker and Tumber note, the denunciation of social elitism was an important theme throughout Thurman's career, particularly as he entered the realm of black society's elite at Howard. When throughout his journey Thurman was confronted with the contradictions of Christianity within segregated society, he answered by distinguishing Christianity from the religion of Jesus. Thurman's belief that the "goal of the mystic ... is to know God in a comprehensive sense; ... the vision of God is realized inclusively." Establishing "community" in Howard's closed cultural environment through inclusive worship practices is a lofty goal.
"What does Jesus have to teach those with their backs up against the wall," Fluker says. "He teaches that the anatomy of fear and hate only leads to violence. He offers the vision of spiritual discipline against resentment. This was the moral basis of the nonviolent movement of the Black freedom movement in the South." Scholars say Thurman's real influence is on building community. "Thurman is a significant figure in ecumenical movements," says Thurman scholar, Luther E. Smith of Emory University and author of Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet. "He speaks to what it means to have a community of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists living in the same community and finding ways to be tolerant of all religious views. The Thurman project seeks to recognize and utilize Thurman as we wrestle with these very difficult questions." (Smith, 1992)
From Howard Thurman we may learn that the Journey must deconstruct the separative categories of domination-over-nature that have been wedded to idealized patriarchy. Ideally, says contemporary patriarchy, nature is but a resource we "use." Thurman deconstructs this assumption by establishing the mystical, theological, and cosmological commonality of all that exists. Seeking to assert the Community of All, Thurman's mystic vision of communion debunks categorical atomism, political separatism, and anti-ecological economics. A powerful deconstruction of homophobic maleness can be built upon this common foundation. Howard Thurman observed the cruel and destructive consequences of messages to people who are led to believe that "they don't count, they don't matter" when their life stories are not deemed worthy of hearing.
The social justice mission of the Catholic Church elaborated in its document are in harmony with the social justice mission as articulated by Black and Womanist liberation theologies. The distinguishing focus of postmodern liberation theology is the insistence that this mission needs to include the particular experience of Black people. These theologies also focus on the realities that divide the human community but place emphasis on those root dynamics at the heart of Black alienation and oppression within society, namely the social sins of racism, sexism, and classism. Both the social justice mission at the heart of the Church and the social justice mission at the heart of Black and Womanist theologies is ultimately directed toward liberation, the overcoming of the oppression of human division, and communion, the visible realization of full human communion. The writings of prolific activist theologians and spiritual leaders born and initially nurtured in the Black community during the 20th century like Howard Thurman gave this theology its strength. His writings emphasize the continued centrality of community in the African American religious ethical tradition and the integral relationship of love,...
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