Howard Thurman, the great African-American teacher and pastor, wrote extensively on what Jesus said “to those who stand with their backs against the wall: the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.”[i] Thurman drew his inspiration from Jesus, who grew up in poverty. Because of their race and religion, Jesus’ people had for decades been cruelly subjugated by the oppression and discrimination of the Roman Empire. For his first thirty years, Jesus would also have faced the ignominy of his own birth. Either he was born to a mother out of wedlock; or his mother and father, Mary and Joseph, were fabulous liars and blasphemers; or both parents were mentally unsound. How could this be, the “miraculous” story of Jesus’ birth? Jesus faced prejudice and persecution from the very beginning of his life.
When Jesus finds his voice, one word recurs in Jesus’ speech and actions: power. People would ask, “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[ii] In the end, as Jesus was coming down from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). And his departing words were about power: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts of the Apostles 1:8). Power.
Christianity without power is like a country club for nice manners and good taste. Christianity is about engaging the powers and facing the needs of this world with the power and provision of God. We are inheritors of what Saint Paul calls “resurrection power” in the here-and-now. Annie Dillard writes, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour…? We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”[iii] We have been created by the power of God to know and mediate the power of God (John 12:12-14). An inspiring way to read the Scriptures is through the lens of power. In virtually every page of the Bible, there is a supernatural manifestation of power, the intervention or infusion of God’s power in everyday life. And yet, power, without an acknowledgment of its source and its end, is simply privilege unrecognized by the beholder but patently obvious to the dispossessed. Howard Thurman writes, “too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and the powerful, and against the weak and oppressed – this, despite the gospel.”
Consider Jesus’ promise of power.
• Learn from the poor. Many years ago I was a social worker in Chicago. All of those whom our agency served were economically destitute and chronically or terminally ill. I came into their homes to disburse help – with finances, health care access, and legal advocacy – however I soon discovered I was their pupil, being taught about courage, integrity, kindness, joy, hope, laughter, perseverance. When virtually everything had been stripped away in life, what remained in these beautiful people was the real deal. Who is someone labeled by society as “poor” from whom you can learn? Look to them, listen to them, and find how they tap God’s power to live.
• Meet the poor. Find a setting where you are on level ground with those labeled as poor. Sharing a meal or a cup of coffee with someone can help enormously in breaking down the dividing wall of separation and segregation. Jesus preaches one gospel to the rich and poor alike, and we will be impoverished if those of us with privilege are living only our version of the gospel. Sitting at table with another person is rich fare, and can open the shared experience of solidarity.
• Face the poverty of fear. As much as Jesus speaks about power, he also acknowledges the reality of our frequent human experience of fear, being disempowered. “You need not be afraid,” he promised us – a way of acknowledging just how often we are. Howard Thurman says that “fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited. Fears are of many kinds – fear of objects, fear of people, fear of the future, fear of nature, fear of the unknown, fear of old age, fear of disease, and fear of life itself.” Fear is an indiscriminate poverty. We all have our own version of the poverty caused by fear. If you know something about fear, your heart has been broken open to have space for so many, many other people – near and far – who are acquainted with this “hound.” Pray with them, pray for them, and pray for yourself Jesus’ promise and power: that we need not be afraid. Having a prayer partner or partners to pray about fear – your fear; others’ fear – is a very powerful experience. Take Jesus at his word: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). We need not be afraid.
• Do something more. None of us can do everything, but we all can do something to change the balance of life’s distribution of resources. God has given you power to make a world of difference, at least to someone. There’s only one way we can discover the truth in Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” By giving. Giving is powerful; giving empowers – us and others.
• Do something less. At the Monastery, in our corporate confession of sin, “we repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” In your own lifestyle, how might you be colluding, even unwittingly, with structures and practices that come at untenable cost to those who are least, or last, or lost? A great teacher for you will be someone experiencing “poverty” in some form and with whom you disagree. You can meet them, ad infinitum, online, if not next door. Listen to them inquisitively. I’m not suggesting you must agree with them. But find out what it is they want, and need, and why? William Temple, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “In our dealings with one another, let us be more eager to understand those who differ from us than either to refute them or to press upon them our own tradition. Whenever there are differences which persist, there is sure to be something of value on both sides.”[iv] Learning from someone who is “other” to us will open up our life, liberating us from the confines of our limited life experience.
• Give up your fear. I am not suggesting you deny or disregard your fear. To the contrary. Claim your fear, and make it an offering. Your fear is one thing that God does not have – unless you give it to God. Your offering of fear will be transformed by God into power. You may be visited by fear that comes at you from “out there”: in the present, or from the past, or for the future. Your fear may also come from within you, your sequestered feelings that you are insufficient or inferior. This internal fear about our own power is like a smoking fire that is begging to be vented. Nelson Mandela said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us … We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us … As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[v] Make fear your offering to God.
God’s power in us is real and boundless; however, God will not empower us to such a degree that we do not need God. There is also more: more that we need, and more that God will supply. Saint Paul writes, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). God is giving you power … and there is always more.
[i] Howard Thurman (1899-1991) in Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman was a dynamic preacher, prolific author, and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University 1953-1965.
[ii] Matthew 13:54, 26:64; Mark 6:2, 14:62; Luke 6:19; John 1:12.
[iii] From Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (40-41). Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975 and in 2014 received the National Humanities Medal.
[iv] William Temple (1881-1944), Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-1944.
[v] Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), 1994 Inaugural Speech as President of South Africa.