Over the past week, I’ve been reflecting further on aspects of the retreat day I took on Labor Day. Sparked by excerpts from Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited, the retreat led me to think about various aspects of the antiracism work happening in this country, and in my heart, during these interesting times.
One of the very disheartening things about the book our antiracism group is currently reading (America for Americans) is what it reveals about how racism and xenophobia have run rampant throughout America’s history. One chapter outlines how the US not only set up internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, but also strong-armed other countries in the Americas (primarily Peru) to hand over their Japanese citizens, who were then shipped to US camps for use in exchanges for our prisoners of war.
The United States of America has an ugly history, most of which was certainly whitewashed in the history I learned in school. Thinking about all the reading I’ve done about the horrible ways US leaders have treated people, both within and beyond our borders, preceding and throughout American history, I could despair. But I also realize that’s what the powerful want. They want us to capitulate: to give up, give in, and stop trying to work for change.
Jesus’ world was ugly too. The Romans were an occupying force. We don’t hear much about Romans in the Bible, but they were all around, like shadows in the background, clearly impacting the lives of Jesus and those to whom he preached. As he told his fellow Jews in Matthew 5:41 (this is my extrapolation, based on what I’ve read), “If you’re conscripted to carry a soldier’s belongings, don’t go just one mile [the legal limit]. Shame him—or get him in trouble—by going two.”
When Jesus told his powerless, disinherited followers to “go also the second mile,” he was teaching them not to be cowed or broken by oppressive acts they cannot avoid or ignore. Howard Thurman’s version of this message is as follows (and I well imagine that if he were writing today, he’d use language that includes women and LGBTQIA+ people as well as men):
If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him. It seems clear that Jesus understood the anatomy of the relationship between his people and the Romans, and he interpreted that relationship against the background of the profoundest ethical insight of his own religious faith.
Jesus and Howard Thurman both taught their followers to fight back using the tools they had available. One of Howard Thurman’s followers was Martin Luther King, Jr. King was inspired by Thurman’s words and refused to lose his temper or his equilibrium, even to the point of death.
As a result of pondering all this, I’ve thought a lot (again) about how little control we actually have over our lives. We can do our best to vote, and we may be prevented (or have our ballot stolen or lost on some post office floor). We can do our best to keep our equilibrium and support others who are forced to carry today’s equivalent of Roman soldiers’ belongings, and it might not be, or feel like, “enough.”
But we also don’t know what’s really “enough” in God’s economy. We have agendas for what we want the world to look like and for people to act like, but we don’t really know. What we do could well be enough, because God operates at a cosmic level rather than from our limited, individualistic perspective.
Ultimately, there’s also the final of the four lessons of Jonah: let go of results. We need to do our part and find equilibrium by leaving the rest in God’s capable hands.
What’s your part to do these days?
How often do you remember to hand over the rest to God in prayer?
 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon, 1976), 28.