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Remembering Howard Thurman: A Prophet of Intercultural Transformation

Howard Thurman has been heralded as a “godfather of the civil rights movement” and a spiritual leader who embodies and transcends any single identity — Scholar–Intellectual, Teacher–Educator, Pastor–Preacher, and Spiritualist–Mystic. What makes these aspects of his life even more fascinating is that he was an African American man living amid the terror of racial oppression in the United States in the early 20th century and bore witness to a vision of social justice and mutual liberation alongside diverse others.

Thurman (1899–1981) was intimately aware of the violations and challenges marginalized communities faced and advocated for transforming those realities by engaging one’s deepest interiority. To use Thurman’s own words, he lived with his “back against the wall” as one bearing witness to a “technique of survival for the oppressed” devoted to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. 

While Thurman is widely known to be a leading precursor to Black liberation theology or the Black social gospel, the Civil Rights Movement, and inter-religiosity, he is often unknown to many Christian advocates for social justice and healing. Why is that? It seems because of his radically integrative and intercultural convictions that many in his time did not (and perhaps many today still do not) understand his views. As a scholar of engaged spirituality, when I look at Thurman, I see a prophet of intercultural transformation whose example promises to cultivate greater courage, passion, and creativity in our current times of polarization, distrust, and widespread injustice.

Courage

While Thurman was rejected by the academic elite who preferred theoretical rationalism or various notable Black intellectuals who desired a more separatist vision of Black liberation, he persisted in fierce advocacy for communities of radical belonging composed of people from all backgrounds and social identities. The former was a lifelong struggle for Thurman as he repeatedly found himself explaining why he did not believe that his embrace of the Christian message was an act of “betrayal” into the hands of Whites who would so easily dominate racialized others. Thurman was willing to be one who would go against the grain.

One of the primary ways he did this was with his repeated call for integration and belonging on all accounts and inclusive of all dimensions of a person (personal, communal, societal, religious, and cosmic). Thurman preached a message of radical inclusion all while maintaining respect for difference, choice, and the agency of each being.

“There is a profound ground of unity that is more pertinent and authentic than all the unilateral dimensions of our lives,” he wrote in The Inward Journey. “This a man discovers when he is able to keep open the door of his heart. This is one’s ultimate responsibility and it is not dependent upon whether the heart of another is kept open for him.” Thurman’s call toward connection within oneself and all of life as of paramount importance is the core of interculturality which provides the biggest foundation for his vision of social change.

howard thurman
Howard Thurman; file. (Photo: Boston University Photography)

Passion

Additionally, Thurman believed lasting change would only be granted by engaging life holistically and devoting oneself to spirituality. The spirituality Thurman lived was embodied, prophetic, open-hearted, and lived with a willingness to suffer for the truth. To better understand Thurman’s spirituality, it is helpful to consider three foundational aspects that he taught: 1) a practice of nonviolence, 2) the importance of overcoming fear, and 3) a consistent call to social transformation.

Nonviolence

First and foremost, Thurman believed liberative spirituality was rooted in nonviolence. He saw Jesus’ teaching as such and worked tirelessly to promote a Christian message that denounced violence in all forms. While Thurman believed Jesus’ own spirituality was nonviolent, he also believed Christians had much to learn from other traditions that taught and practiced nonviolence, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. He shared in his autobiography, With Head and Heart, that this work was not easy but required commitment and sacrifice. “I had to find my way to the place where I could stand side by side with a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, and know that the authenticity of his experience was identical with the essence and authenticity of my own,” he wrote.

Fear

Second, Thurman’s spiritual approach emphasized the centrality of overcoming fear in order for social transformation to occur. The antidote for Thurman was to cultivate experiences where marginalized communities could sense compassionate acceptance of their personal experience — the opposite of violence, rejection, or imposition. Thurman believed that people needed counter-hegemonic experiences so that fears of failure or rejection would evaporate and be replaced by a willingness to pursue spiritual growth and destiny regardless of obstacles, setbacks, or struggles. For Thurman, it was his own personal and spiritual awareness of acceptance and belovedness that grounded his capacity to have genuine relations with those around him.

Creativity

Lastly, Thurman emphasized creative action as integral to social change. He spoke fiercely of how his spiritual approach was steeped in “listening to the sound of the genuine” versus institutional forms of religion that re-entrenched hierarchy, segregation, and the status quo (which, for him, was based on the supreme self-reliant individual). Thurman saw listening as the foundational act that gives rise to creative action in the world. He taught how Jesus was one who lived out such creativity that he brought spiritual restoration and agency to others and, as a result, strengthened communities’ capacities to transform oppressive patterns that were reinforced throughout society. However, Jesus’s path did not promise a life without pain or suffering. For Thurman, the key was to be honest about one’s struggles and identify a creative response.

Thurman’s Leadership in Action

Thurman believed that any talk of consciousness, love, justice, solidarity, or belonging should start with the spirituality of those whose backs are against the wall and then deepen through intercultural partnerships and solidarities. He modeled this ideal by giving up his tenured position at Howard University to co-found the nation’s first interracial and interfaith congregation, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, with White philosopher and minister Alfred Fisk. He believed transformational learning could take place purely in the realm of idea exchange in homogenous settings but required encounters with people from all walks of life.

It was through Fellowship Church, a community of spiritual transformation rooted in mutuality and reciprocity for all people seeking justice, that Thurman’s message of integration was fully lived out. He believed that it was necessary “for the privileged and under-privileged to work in the common environment for the purpose of providing normal experiences of fellowship” and that “the first step toward love is a common sharing of a sense of mutual worth and value. This cannot be discovered in a hypothetical, it has to be in a real situation, natural, free.”

Through Thurman’s teachings and life, we see the importance and value of cultural diversity, a commitment to nonviolent spirituality, and a courageous witness that sought to transform suffering in creative ways and for the benefit of all.

All of these insights continue to be of importance to us today as we navigate increasing fear, despair, and paralysis.

May we find comfort in Thurman’s witness and ground our struggles toward justice in relationality, intentionality, and connection to society’s most vulnerable. While the call is weighty and requires inner fortitude, a dependence on encounters with the sacred, and a persevering spirit, it also promises possibilities for overcoming the seeming impasses within self, others, and the world.


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Aizaiah G. Yong
Aizaiah G. Yong
The Rev. Aizaiah G. Yong, Ph.D. is a practical theologian, intercultural educator, ordained Pentecostal minister, and an award-winning author of numerous books including "Multiracial Cosmotheadrism: a Practical Theology of Multiracial Experiences" and "The Pulse of Life: Exploring the Power of Compassion in Transforming the World." Yong currently serves as Associate Professor of Spirituality and co-director of the Center for Engaged Compassion at the Claremont School of Theology in Los Angeles, California.

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