Notes from Underground – February 2021
"Thurman did what all contemplative activists do. He combined things that are not often combined and held them in creative tension. He combined direct encounter with God and direct action with humanity. Encounter and action are the essence of Jesus’ way."
“Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the 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.”
I can’t think of a better summary of what it means to do theology from below, which is at the core of our work. Learning what Jesus has to say to those with their backs against the wall, led Thurman to become a forerunner of contemplative action in the Civil Rights movement of the 20th Century. He sought ways to connect the outer work of justice with the inner work of the soul and see them as a seamless whole.
Howard Thurman is a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement, but his impact cannot be overstated. He was, by all accounts, a contemplative activist when there was hardly any language for that, especially in social justice circles.
It was Thurman who saw unity between faith traditions and lifted up what some call the “perennial tradition” common to all faiths. It was Thurman who offered the theological and spiritual capacity to forge an identity of peace and non-violence in a time of great chaos and at great cost to those who practiced it. It was Thurman who talked with trees (he was a nature mystic). It was Thurman who co-founded the first multiracial church in San Francisco. He was way ahead of his time.
Thurman did what all contemplative activists do. He combined things that are not often combined and held them in creative tension. He combined direct encounter with God and direct action with humanity. Encounter and action are the essence of Jesus’ way. Thurman was adamant that, in order to act justly in an unjust world, each person must find “the sound of the genuine” inside themselves and pair our sound with the sound of the genuine in others, especially those whose backs are against the wall. Only then can we make great music. Here is how Thurman describes it.
“Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear, and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.”
To find that sound, Thurman spoke of traveling the vast “sea within.” In that sea is an island. On that island is an altar protected by angels with flaming swords. On that altar is where we find “the sound of the genuine.” Our job is to travel the inward sea of chaos. Find a way to get past the flaming swords and approach the altar of the authentic. From that place, we are called to give to the world the sound of the genuine in us.
I can’t think of anything more urgent, but let’s be honest, traveling the inward sea of chaos to the altar of the authentic is not for the faint of heart. In my experience, it is a journey we each must make on our own, but we do not do it alone. If that sounds like a paradox, it is.
When I think about the work of Street Psalms, I see the spirit of Howard Thurman at work in us and I smile. We are not a church, but we do function like pastors to the movement. We invite direct encounter and direct action that calls forth the sound of the genuine. We create a space for leaders to undergo the inner and outer journey. At a personal level, it’s laughable to draw comparisons with Thurman, but when I think of us as a collective, I can see similarities. I am drawn to Thurman’s contemplative action and his intensely solid presence. I want to invoke that same spirit within us as a collective.