Howard Thurman on the Contagion of Hatred and the Antidote of Love
Reply: Love isn’t naïve.
One day there will stand up in their midst one who will tell of a new sickness among the children who in their delirium cry for their brothers who they have never known and from whom they have been cut off behind the self-imposed barriers of their fathers. An alarm will spread throughout the community that it is being felt and slowly realized that community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them—unknown and undiscovered brothers [and sisters]. Then the wisest among them will say: What we have sought we have found, our own sense of identity. We have established a center out of which at last we can function and relate to other men [and women]. We have committed to heart and to nervous system a feeling of belonging and our spirits are no longer isolated and afraid (Thurman, Search for Common Ground, 1971: 104).
At this point, and increasingly, we find ourselves in dire if not desperate need of the “sound of the genuine”i and the brooding wisdom of Howard Thurman. As evidenced from the responses, Thurman’s teachings are—as Augustine put it—’open to all but chaste to each.’ Even if we speak in the tongues of men and angels, even if we immerse ourselves in the work of peace and justice, but have not love, we are little more than ‘a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal’ (I Cor. 13:1); the present cacophony, the clashing of gongs and cymbals, is often overwhelming. Where does one go from here? The mind is moved by metaphors. There are philosophical similarities to be found between Thurman’s thought and that of Emerson, who claimed that “particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual truths.”ii
I want to thank each of the respondents for exploring with me the epidemiological facts of contagious disease, whether COVID-19 or otherwise, as symbolic of the spiritual truths expressed in the teachings of Jesus apropos of love and hate. Whether we’re contemplating the toxic political discourse of our times and the polarization of our people (see Shively Smith), or anti-Asian hate crimes in America (see Wonchul Shin), or even when we ponder the prospects of inter-species communication (see Jamison Collier), Thurman’s teachings on the contagion of hate and the antidote of love are both timely and timeless.iii
In this brief reply, I wish to focus on the longstanding critique—reiterated by Shively Smith and also, though much earlier, Luther Smith—of those theological realists who, perhaps not altogether unlike Reinhold Niebuhr (with whom Thurman corresponded), claim that all this florid talk about unconditional love and turning the other cheek is adorably naïve but utterly inapplicable to the untoward business of Realpolitik. Surely Jesus didn’t really mean it, they suggest—at least not in the simplistic way that children might interpret it—when he commanded us to love our enemies. One cannot command the impossible or foolhardy, claim the casuists among us. Rather than implying that Thurman was simply out of his depth, perhaps a bit simple-minded or short-sighted (which has always struck me as condescending or patronizing), these critics might want to make so bold a move as to say the same about Jesus: that He was impractical and naïve or simply too otherworldly for living in the real world. Thurman understood this critique; Martin Luther King did too, but they insisted that Jesus was far more radical that we tend to imagine.
In the epigraph of Just Mercy (2014), Bryan Stevenson quotes Niebuhr: “love is the motive, but justice is the instrument.”iv Cornel West once wrote (though most of those who cite him seem to think that it is a quote from Martin Luther King), “justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.”v I agree, but it doesn’t seem go far enough. Jesus was not so quick to separate the public from the private. I’m convinced that we’re too eager to accommodate or appropriate the commands of Jesus into the wisdom of the world. I fear that we oversimplify or underestimate what’s required of us as a means of placating our calloused consciences and rationalizing our all-too-human yet nevertheless perverse proclivities. How are we to become—as sheep in the midst of wolves—”as shrewd as serpents yet as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16)?
This is a time for centering down, taking stock, and renewing our commitments. The spiritual discipline of love and reconciliation is not for the faint of heart. Following Thurman: “The experience of love is either a necessity or a luxury. If it be a luxury, it is expendable; if it be a necessity, then to deny it is to perish. So simple is the reality, and so terrifying. Ultimately there is only one place of refuge on this planet for any man or woman – that is in another person’s heart. To love is to make of one’s heart a swinging door.”vi At this point, and increasingly, we need to learn how to open the doors of our hearts to—as Thurman put it in his Search for Common Ground, quoted above, “our unknown and undiscovered brothers [and sisters].”
1 See Thurman, “The Sound of the Genuine,” 1981 (available here).
2 Emerson, Nature, Literary Classics, 1983: 20.
3 Thurman certainly experienced anti-Asian racism during his years in San Francisco. In 1942, Thurman wrote to a friend: “I saw some of the internment centers for the Japanese. They are behind eight feet of barbed wire with the outside patrolled day and night with United States soldiers with machine guns”). In ways analogous to anti-Black racism, Thurman observed in 1944 that white supremacists attempted “to read the Japanese out of the human race; they were construed as monsters and as such stood in immediate candidacy for destruction. They were so defined as to be placed in a category to which ordinary decent behavior did not apply” (see “Howard Thurman and Japanese Americans,” Robinson and Eisenstadt, 2021).
4 Neibuhr, Love and Justice, John Knox Press, 1957: 25; quoted in Just Mercy, 2014.
5 West, Cornel. 2015, Ware Lecture, transcript available here..