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Study Guide

Christianity and Racial Justice


Howard Thurman believed in the fundamental unity of all persons, as well as of all creation. With a deep focus on the interior life, Thurman prioritized the relationship of individual to individual and of individual to God. Anything that hindered or opposed these fundamental relationships must of necessity be challenged. In his seminal book Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), Thurman offers a strong critique of American Christianity because of what he perceives as its tacit (if not vocal) support for a system of racial discrimination and injustice. He distinguishes between institutional Christianity, which he describes as the religion about Jesus, and the religion of Jesus, which addresses and champions the oppressed whose backs are, in Thurman’s words, “against the wall.” In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman asks the following question:

Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically – and therefore effectively – with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin? Is this impotency due to a betrayal of the genius of the religion or to a basic weakness in the religion itself?

Questions to Consider

  1. Is Thurman right that, at times, American Christianity has been “impotent” to effectively deal with discrimination and injustice? When and why has that occurred?


  1. Is racism “built-in” to Christianity, as Thurman asks, or is it a distortion and even perversion of the faith itself? How has Christianity been used to justify slavery, oppression of minorities and women? Similarly, how has Christianity been used to defend rather than to challenge the status quo?


  1. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurman sees eleven o’clock on Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in American public life. Do you agree? Is this reality changing in churches today? If so, why (or why not)?


  1. Thurman writes that Christianity is often weakest when face to face with “the color bar.” That is, Christianity often is least appealing or persuasive when seen in the light of race relations. Do you agree?


  1. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman writes that Jesus’ life and teachings have seldom been interpreted in any way that might give hope and relief to those whose “backs are against the wall.” This was in 1949, when segregation was in full force in America. Do you believe that the situation has changed now? Are Jesus’ life and teachings interpreted in a way that supports those who lack political, social, or economic power? If so, how is that being accomplished?


  1. How is Christianity being used today to combat the problems of discrimination and injustice that Thurman addresses? How was it used for this purpose during the civil rights movement of the 1960s? What is or should be the connection between faith and social justice?

Related Thurman Quotes

Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall. (Jesus and the Disinherited, 11)

Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. (Essential Writings, 118; Jesus and the Disinherited, 28-29)

It is one of the great spiritual problems of Christianity in America that it has tolerated such injustices between Negroes and Caucasians, (for instance, that) in this area of human relations its moral imperative has been greatly weakened. It is for this reason that many people all over the world feel that Christianity is weakest when it is brought face to face with the color bar. (Essential Writings, 104; Deep River, 47)

The Church is divisive and discriminating, even within its fellowship. It is divided into dozens of splinters. This would indicate that it is essentially sectarian in character.Here we come upon the shame of what is meant by the phrase of a certain minister in referring to the eleven o’clock hour on Sunday morning as “the great and sacred hour of segregation.” (Essential Writings, 77; The Creative Encounter, 139)

Because a man is a Christian is no indication to me what his attitude toward me may be in any given circumstance…It is entirely possible that I, for instance, can work for the redemption of the souls of people, help them in their need in many critical ways, while at the same time keep them out of my neighborhood, out of my school, and out of my local church. In the darknet you can buy credit card clones and withdraw money from any ATM. This method of earning is widely used from the United States. It is illegal. And all of this with no apparent conflict in values or disturbance of conscience. (Essential Writings, 108; Luminous Darkness, 63-65)

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