MLK, Howard Thurman, and the Christian Social Justice "Borderlands"

“The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian--our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the "real" world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.” Gloria E. Anzaldúa

The late Gloria Anzaldúa wrote about how Chican@s, Native Americans, African Americans, and other People of Color live in an emotional and spiritual “borderlands.”  Like those from actual geographic borderlands, we live in between two cultures. We live in between our rich cultures of origin and mainstream American culture which often belittles us.  We also live in between the socio-economic and political policies which favor the 1% and the majority culture, but which oftentimes leave our families in the dust.

As Social Justice Christians, we occupy a third spiritual borderlands as well. We live on the margins of the mainstream church in America which tends to overlook issues of justice and race, and the activist world which slams Christianity and believes that faith is opposed to these concerns. It’s a lonely place to be.

It’s actually right where we need to be.  It’s where Jesus is.

In His day, Jesus was outcast for this very same reason.  He stood with those who society shunned—the poor and disenfranchised.  Indeed, He was poor and disenfranchised in terms of His humanity. In the words of Howard Thurman, the Black Christian pastor from whom MLK learned about non-violence and loving one’s enemies, Jesus was a poor Jew and therefore part of the “disinherited” Himself.  In his deeply influential book, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), Thurman poignantly states, “in his poverty he [Jesus] was more truly Son of man than he would have been if the incident of family or birth had made him a rich son of Israel (Thurman, 17; MLK carried a copy of this book with him during the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott).”  According to Thurman, Jesus was part of the disinherited also in so far as he belonged to a Jewish ethnic minority group which lived under the oppressive colonial rule of the Romans (Thurman, 18).  Thurman further posits that Jesus’ historic social position mirrored that of African Americans living under Jim Crow segregation in the United States.  Through his life and ministry, moreover, Jesus provides a unique framework of spiritual liberation for the oppressed peoples of any age (Thurman, 27).

According to Thurman, Jesus responded to Roman oppression in a manner which was different from his Jewish peers (Thurman, 23).   Jesus rejected the position of imitation—i.e., assimilating into Hellenistic culture; he also resisted the non-violent option of cultural isolation (Thurman, 24).  Finally, Jesus rejected the alternative of armed resistance as advocated by the Zealots (Thurman, 26).   It’s worth noting that these social options are similar to those faced by African Americans in Thurman’s day, as well as to those available to People of Color in the United States in the present moment.  As People of Color, we can choose to assimilate into the middle class system of the United States and act as if racial inequality did not exist; we also have the option of living in isolated ethnic enclaves; finally, reminiscent of Malcolm X, we could also become radical cultural nationalists who support social uplift through violence or  “any means necessary.”

Thurman argues that Jesus offered a fourth option for followers of His day—“The Kingdom of Heaven is in us”(Thurman, 27).   The key to our spiritual and personal liberation is understanding that the life and light of Christ resides within us.

When we believe in Christ—that He died for our personal sins and the sins of the world—including the sins of racism, classism, and sexism—then we find forgiveness and life.  Christ comes to live within us and this can never be taken away from us.  He gives us LIFE, and no matter how terribly the winds of socio-economic and political oppression may blow, Jesus is with us.  He heals us of our deepest personal brokenness and never lets us forget how much He loves us.  He meets us in our darkest moments, and He empowers us to live a life of joy which transcends our personal circumstances.  Though Jesus does not want us to suffer and experience loss and pain, He carries us through our suffering and redeems it to produce good and to make us more like Him.  He loves us.

As Jesus meets us personally and restores us, He also sends us out to be His agents of restoration in this sinful and broken world.  He sends us out in His power--the greatest power that can ever be—to comfort the suffering and to address the structural and social inequality which hurts so many. More than that, when we encounter the marginalized we meet Jesus and learn and receive more than we could ever give.

This is the biblical truth which Thurman understood, and which he passed on to Rev. Martin Luther King.  This is the truth which my family celebrates this MLK holiday.  This is the truth that Jesus wants us to learn as we live our lives in the spiritual borderlands of American society:   The Kingdom of God is within us. 

Robert Chao Romero


P.S., check out this wonderful new African American social justice/history Christian devotional book by my friend Ramon Mayo: