Howard Thurman on the Contagion of Hatred and the Antidote of Love
Howard Thurman, Cultivating the Climate for Social Transformation: A Response to Kipton E. Jensen’s Essay
Dr. Shively T. J. Smith
Lurking in the background of Kipton E. Jensen’s rich and probing essay, “Howard Thurman on the Contagion of Hatred and the Antidote of Love,” is our current global experience of pandemic and vaccines, quarantines and testing centers, social distancing and re-opening measures. As America crosses the 50% mark for COVID-19 vaccinations and Summer 2021 draws near, Jensen brings forward Thurman’s concern about the struggle between hate and love in this country. It is yet another crisis of dis-ease in our midst requiring expedient treatment, and he casts Thurman as a head and heart doctor skillfully proficient at the task of treating America’s “contagion of hatred.”1
According to Jensen, Thurman prescribes combatting one contagion by treating it with another—namely, “the contagion of love.” As Jensen states: “The treatment that Thurman prescribes is neither quick nor easy. While waiting for the antidote to take effect, which is sure to require booster shots, certain steps can be taken in order to protect ourselves as well as one another against the risk of becoming infected by hatred. But rather than social distancing and masks, which make sense with other forms of contagious disease, Thurman prescribes social proximity and the removal of masks that protect us.” In his masterful metaphorical, cross-mapping of physical disease and remedy with America’s body politic and social-cultural tendencies, Jensen’s reading of Thurman offers pathways toward wellness and flourishing that is both personal and communal, individual and social, theological and political.
Jensen methodically demonstrates how Thurman characterizes love and hatred, respectively. Love sustains and expands life while hatred, as an aspect of evil functioning in the world, destroys and shrinks life. Thurman elucidates the evil and destructive nature of hatred in Disciplines of the Spirit by saying, “However, the Christian view insists that ultimately the evil enterprise will not be sustained by life, for the simple reason that it is against life. What is against life will be destroyed by life, for what is against life is against God.”2 The notion that life is pluralistic and growing is significant in Thurman’s thinking. Life is constituted by both the state of being connected and the action of connecting to other lives.
Jensen’s essay brings to mind one of Thurman’s clearest statements about the unboundedness of hatred and its growing foothold in America’s social body politic. Writing not long after World War II ended, in his 1946 essay “The Fascist Masquerade,” Thurman defined the American brand of fascism as totalitarian, separatist, discriminating, and distorting of human worth and relationality. In this essay, Thurman recorded the history and guiding principles of three American fascist movements (Christian American, The Nationalists, The Ku Klux Clan), which he demonstrated had an active and growing influence within the American body politic and social cultural interactions of the 1940s. Thurman asserted these American fascist movements lend themselves “…to the release of unrestrained passions in human nature, causing the focusing of hatreds on individuals because of race, class or religion.”3
Thurman’s sociopolitical diagnosis of America’s social struggles, preserved in this essay from the 1940s, challenges us today. If one closes her eyes and listens to Thurman’s exposition, it is difficult to distinguish his past interpretive context from our present. Now, over 75 years later, Thurman’s diagnosis sparks a startling moment of pause and consideration. How far has the American social experiment progressed, or not? Perhaps the relevance of Thurman’s 75-year-old essay is that it signals the progressive disintegration of our society’s care and affirmation of human life and the natural world. Thurman charges fascist movements for spreading the contagion of hatred that wore threadbare America’s social tapestry of equality, liberty, and justice for all the country’s citizens. The influence of these movements, according to Thurman, went unchecked and, thus, they were unashamed of their endeavors to engender maladies of antisemitism, racism, classicism, homophobia, separation, and dispossession. But who failed to check such carriers of the hate-filled pandemic infecting American social relations and its founding principles, as manifested in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence?4
Thurman lays much blame for the contagion of hatred, untreated by the antidote of love, on the American Christian Church’s failure to preach and act on its authentic message of love, inclusion, and humanity. He says, “…the Church has done a wretched job in making clear what the Teaching is, either about God or man [humanity]. It is to the utter condemnation of the Church that large groups of believers all over the United States have stood, and, at present, stand on the side of a theory of inequality among men [humanity] that causes the Church to practice in its own body some of the most vicious forms of racial prejudice. It often affirms separateness solely on the basis of race, which separateness it insists upon in worship, in organization and even in its graveyards.”5
While Thurman pronounces the contagion of hatred as untreated by the American Christian Church, Jensen builds on Thurman’s perspective, offering his own diagnosis of the problem—namely, diminished imagination. Thurman’s insistence that love requires “dealing with persons in the concrete rather than the abstract,” prompts Jensen to state: “This poses a genuine challenge to our under-exercised imaginations.”6 Herein resides an underdeveloped aspect of Thurman’s approach for mediating social tensions created in the clash between hate and love—namely, the cultivation of a new process of social imagining.
Jensen’s use of Thurman’s phrase “contagion of attitudes” as a contemporary and contextually relevant image on this side of history as the worst of the COVID fallout appears to recede, is in step with Thurman’s conceptions of socioreligious experience, exploration, and invitation. Thurman uses word images or metaphors throughout his expository and meditative writings as a mechanism for cultivating new awareness of our inner selves, God, other people, and the created world at large. His socio-theological play in metaphors is reminiscent of the diverse mystic and black contemplative traditions of which Thurman is associated. Describing appreciatively the treatment of religious language in mystic traditions, Sallie McFague states:
It is no accident then that the mystics in all religious traditions have been the most perceptive on the question of religious language. Aware as they are of the transcendence of God, they have not been inclined to identify our words with God; in fact, their tendency is more often to refuse any similarity between our words and the divine reality… The mystics, however, have also been the most imaginative and free in their language about God, finding all sorts of language relevant. As Augustine notes, we must use all the best images available to us in order to say something about the divine. The mystics have also not restricted their language about God to biblical or traditional imagery for the experience of God, the certainty and the immediacy of it, has been the basis for new and powerful religious language.7
Thurman explores the meaning and impact of hatred and love on the inner self and spirit as well as its social, political, and theological implications by deploying metaphors to get his readers and hearers imagining differently. What do we see, both within and outside ourselves, when we try to put “a face,” a picture, or image to hatred and love and what they accomplish when they spread among us like highly contagious viruses?
In Jensen’s article we encounter an array of images Thurman uses to reignite our socio-theological imaginations. Jensen’s article archives Thurman’s metaphorical use of other images for hatred, such as: (1) an experience of stepping along a road; (2) a building device; (3) an instrument for insulation; (4) a hell hound; and (5) a masquerader disguising itself as one thing in order to conceal its true “fact.” In similar fashion, Thurman deploys metaphors to awaken our imaginations about the antidotal potency and potential of love for our inner and social selves. As Jensen shows us, for love, Thurman deploys images such as: (1) a door forcibly held open; (2) a type of sight or vision; and (3) a personification of the human action of grasping an object. Metaphors are Thurman’s delivery system for administering the antidote of love. Love is only as good as we are disciplined in our active awareness of it. As Thurman states, “Love means to deal totally with a person. And you can’t do this without a disciplined and sensitized imagination.”8
A Common Critique Against Thurman
Reading Jensen’s essay, one can miss a common critique past and present scholars put against Thurman. At times, Thurman’s emphasis on the transformational power of the loving individual appears impractical in endeavors to remake social structures and systems that shape human interaction and life. Thurman seems to stand on one side with the individual and love-ethic as the primary means for social transformation while others, like James Cone and Reinhold Niebuhr, affirm love as a necessity, but demand the social ethic of justice as the primary aim. By love, does Thurman mean social justice? On first reading, Thurman’s insistence that the transformation of loving individuals is morally essential for transforming society, seems naïve. It appears out of touch with how shifting institutional systems and power structures are historically complicit in the inequities and exclusions leading to experiences of disinheritance, disenfranchisement, oppression, marginalization, and even genocide. Luther E. Smith summarizes some of the classic rebuttals against Thurman’s social love ethic in these terms: “Thurman’s position would be viewed by some theologians as not just poor political analysis or limited personal experience in totalitarian states or idealistic hopes for society, but as bad theology, which ignores the liberation motifs of scripture and the Bible’s emphasis on the ‘fallen’ state of humanity which has a will to oppressive power.”9 According to these critiques, Thurman’s love-ethic is an insufficient guide for transforming social systems and institutional structures.
Such renderings, however, misrepresent where in the process of social transformation Thurman understands his love-ethic to have its first (although not its only) work. He views the process of social transformation as similar to a body healing from an illness. It is a journey on an unfolding continuum. As a process, expansive and far-reaching change in society necessitates certain conditions be met for it to be possible in the first place. Thurman’s emphasis on the antidote of love seeks to cultivate the climate necessary for such change to take place at both the individual and societal levels. His love-ethic does not seek to formerly strategize the step-by-step process for how that transformation takes shape, although he cultivates such strategic models in his founding work of Fellowship Church and his endeavors as Dean of Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. In the spaces Thurman served, he purposed to cultivate the climate for collaborative strategizing that transforms social environments and cultural norms of relationality, proximity, and interaction. One place to glimpse Thurman’s imperative to cultivate the climate for social transformation, is his final report as dean of the chapel at Howard University in June 1944. He concludes his report advocating for new and renovated space for hosting the spiritual activities of the chapel, anchoring the work of religious experience and social-spiritual care in the quality of ecumenical, interreligious, and interracial access and engagement. Thurman says: “The most urgent physical need is for space to carry on the student activities…Students must be able to build their contacts around a place with reference to which they are able to develop a sense of ownership and responsibility.”10 Thurman’s ethic of love is responsive to current contexts—not just at the practical level of securing space for convenings—but as a delivery system for infecting diverse individuals in space with the antidote of love.
Ultimately, Jensen’s essay equips us with “eyes to see and ears to hear” (Matt 13:16) Thurman’s diagnosis and remedy. Hatred corrodes the individual at the same time such animus duplicates itself, infecting local communities and larger societies. Be it the spread of hate or the spread of love, both seek out community and “place.” For Thurman, these opposing contagions are not just matters of religious experience, but the death-dealing or life-giving possibilities of America’s sociality and principles of justice.
The religious experience as I have known it seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives. I am confident that my own call to the religious vocation cannot be separated from the slowly emerging disclosure that my religious experience makes it possible for me to experience myself as a human being and thus keep a very real psychological distance between myself and the hostilities of my environment. Through the years it has driven me more and more to seek to make as a normal part of my relations with men the experiencing of them as human beings. When this happens, love has essential materials with which to work. And contrary to the general religious teaching, men would not need to stretch themselves out of shape in order to love. On the contrary, a man comes into possession of himself more completely when he is free to love another (Thurman, 1965).11
It is the experience of creating new webs of connectivity that change not just individuals disconnected from others, but individuals with expanding and deepening connections to other individuals. In my mind, Jensen’s metaphorical application of contagion and antidote gifts readers with a lens for appreciating Thurman’s perspective on the illness of social hate and the healing and reconstructive balm of social love.
1 To explore the link between Thurman and the trope of head and heart, see his autobiography: Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1979).
2 Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit (New York: Harper & Row, 1963; Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1977), 17-18.
3 PHWT, 3:146.
4 Luther E. Smith, Jr., Howard Thurman: They Mystic as Prophet (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 2007), 154.
5 PHWT, 3:157.
6 Howard Thurman, The Inward Journey (New York: Harper & Row  1984), 191.
7 Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 2.
8 As quoted in Jensen’s essay, which references: Howard Thurman, David B. Gowler, and Kipton E. Jensen, eds., Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019), 47-56.
9 Smith, Jr., Howard Thurman: They Mystic as Prophet, 157.
10 PHWT, 3:80-81.
11 Howard Thurman, The Luminous Darkness: A Personal Interpretation of the Anatomy of Segregation and the Ground of Hope (New York: Harper & Row, 1965; Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1989), 111.