Soul Justice and Social Justice: Where Do We Go From Here?

From a talk by Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist Church in Washington, DC.

The McClendon Scholar in Residence Program concluded its four-part series, Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman, on May 20 with a talk by Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist congregation in Washington, DC. Rev. Daniels took the title of his talk from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Howard Thurman’s work substantially influenced Dr. King’s thinking.

Daniels emphasized the need for deep spirituality in fighting injustice. Citing a long list of economic and employment statistics that illustrate the divide between rich and poor, between whites and black and brown people, Daniels said, “If there’s not a deep involvement in our lives with those who are cut off, then our faith means nothing.”

Sadducees, Pharisees and Zealots
“I want to be a follower of Jesus,” said Daniels, but not necessarily a “Christian”—that word has been used by too many who don’t seem to follow Jesus. He pointed to Howard Thurman, who asks: Are we Sadducees, Pharisees or Zealots?

  • Sadducees imitate the status quo, becoming like the Romans for security.
  • Pharisees stay on the sidelines, reducing contact with the enemy, keeping their resentment under rigid control.
  • Zealots resist, but with a violence that it the end “doesn’t get us anywhere.”

Instead, said Daniels, “the answer is to go deeper into our faith … through really understanding what salvation is.” Salvation comes from a Greek word meaning “to make complete or whole.” This wholeness isn’t only spiritual: It’s physical, mental, relational, emotional and financial.

Going Deep
Traditionally, the right has focused on what Daniels called soul justice, the left on social justice, but we all need both: “We need to go deep,” he said, holding his hand low across his belly. “So that how we’re living is in line with the God who is living in us.” We need to confront our own racism, sexism, fear, deceit—“to have that purged” in soul work. This is “a daily walk,” he said. Without it, “we cannot begin to go forward in a way that transforms reality.”

We must “read the gospel with those whose backs are against the wall every day.” Daniels urged prayer, silence, meditation, fellowship, scripture reading, and study. “Until we do that, we are part of the problem, not the solution.” We should ask ourselves “Is my life having influence on the lives of others in a God-transforming way?” We must “step outside our privilege” and cross boundaries. We must act “informed by the fact that Jesus served me … and by the God that’s working inside us.”

For information about upcoming McClendon Scholar in Residence Programs, go to your website.

The Spiritual Work of Prophetic People

A Talk by Rev. Bill Lamar, Metropolitan AME Church, May 6, 2017

How do we gain the strength we need to take “prophetic” action in today’s world? Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan AME Church addressed this question in his May 6 talk, the third in the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program’s four-part series, Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman. The series focuses on Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, which had a profound influence on Martin Luther King, Jr.,

In his talk Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan AME Church pointed to insights from Howard Thurman that can help us gain the strength we need to take action in today’s world. In particular, he talked about two spiritual resources that are available to all of us:

  • special places that renew us and give us a sense of the sacred, and
  • the strength of our ancestors—both our direct relatives and others who have come before us.

He gave examples of ways that Thurman drew on these resources and urged us all to do the same.

The McClendon Scholar-in-Residence Program brings scholars to Washington to speak on their most recent research and to share their learning and their vision. Established through the insight and generosity of the late Rev. Dr. Jack E. McClendon, associate minister from 1957 to 1991, the program is one fruit of Dr. McClendon’s vision that justice, service, and action can only be sustained when a community of faith grapples with profound issues and is equipped to engage in a deepening of faith. To this end, he wished to bring to the church and the larger Washington community noted scholars whose unique gifts, knowledge, and lives would inspire both ongoing reflection and action.

For more information, including our schedule of future programs, go to our website.

Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today

By Rev. Karen Brau

On Saturday, April 8, Rev. Karen Brau gave the second talk in a four part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman.”  The presentation was sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and was held at Luther Place Memorial Church.  Below are notes from that presentation.

Rev. Brau focused on lessons from Howard Thurman’s teaching that she said were directly relevant for those who work for justice today.  She gave specific examples of insights and practices that enable us to draw on the spiritual/mystical tradition that Thurman wrote and talked about.  She discussed Thurman’s emphasis on a direct experience of God and how it can sustain us, quoting Thurman’s example of people who were enslaved and told they were worthless and yet they discovered God on the inside and knew they were of worth.

Rev. Brau explained that when Howard Thurman went to India and met Gandhi, he was asked by Gandhi to sing a spiritual.  Thurman obliged by singing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and she used that as an example of how important spirituals are for tapping the religious experience. She then paused her presentation to invite Jeremy Grenhart, director of music at Luther Place, and four students from Howard University to sing several spirituals.

After the musical presentation, she summarized five specific lessons from Howard Thurman for today’s spiritual activists:

1)    Engage Spirituals—Music, especially music that is rooted in deep suffering, can help open us up to an experience of God.  In many ways, “spirituals are miracles” which can transform how we see things. Rev. Brau urged all of us to engage with spirituals on a regular basis and be open to what they can reveal.

2)    Articulate Hells—It is important to tell the truth about the suffering and evil we see around us.  Thurman talks about hell being “fear, deception and hate” and we certainly regularly see examples of all of those.  In particular, our politics seems more and more characterized by these indicators of hell and we need to be aware of and acknowledge that.  Rev. Brau also pointed out that the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon that he was to preach the Sunday after he was killed was “Why America May Go to Hell.”

3)    Love, Love, Love—There are many way in which Thurman expresses the power of love, and we need to hear his message that love is the greatest expression of the spiritual experience.  We need to focus on this type of love and practice it as regularly and fully as we can.

4)    Engage Inner Life Practice—Rev. Brau talked about various practices Thurman and other mystics have used to develop a rich inner life.  In particular, she talked about the simple power of silent prayer, reflection and meditation.  She gave an example of a “breath prayer” which can be used to calm and focus the spirit and then stopped talking and asked everyone to engage in that prayer for three minutes.  After three minutes of silence, she again spoke to the group and pointed out how regular time nurturing the inner life is so crucial.

5)    Be Mystic Activists—Rev. Brau reminded us of the challenges we face, especially in this political environment, and urged us all to be as active as possible.  She said we need to draw upon our spiritual resources and be bold in responding to the injustices we see around us.  We also need to stay in touch with other “mystic activists” to support and encourage each other.

Rev. Brau closed her presentation by summarizing these five lessons and then once again calling on the musicians who presented two more spirituals.  After the music, there was a time of brief silence and then a discussion between participants and Rev. Brau.

Mysticism, Social Action and Reconciliation

On Saturday, March 18, Rev. Lionel Edmunds gave the first talk in a four-part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman,” sponsored by New York Avenue Presbyterian’s McClendon Scholar in Residence program.

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Just move on up, for peace you’ll find,

Into the steeple of beautiful people

Where there’s only one kind.

–  From the spiritual “Move on Up,” by Curtis Mayfield

 Mayfield’s lyrics “capture in song our topic today,” said Rev. Edmunds as he began his talk on the spirituality of Howard Thurman and Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Mayfield, a contemporary of Thurman’s, expresses an African American spirituality: “Our spirit is traveling in an upward way, expressed in music, dance, and also social justice. … Acts of social justice and reconciliation are spiritual acts that move us toward that beautiful steeple of beautiful people.”

For Thurman, social justice and reconciliation came from a “profound spiritual root,” said Edmunds. Thurman’s prophetic witness was an “overflow of mysticism, a response to a personal encounter with God.”

All of God’s Children Got Wings. Mysticism is a fairly recent word in Christianity, Edmunds said, noting that you won’t find the word in the bible. But it has always been a part of the faith. “It’s natural for a bird to fly and it’s natural for a Christian to be a mystic. … ‘I got wings, you got wings, all of God’s children got wings.’ Whether we use them is another thing!”

Edmunds emphasized mysticism’s connection to the world. “Some folks think mysticism means that you got God on your quick dial,” he said, and that it’s about the personal “God told me to tell you.”  But it’s connected to the political, he argued, quoting Isaiah. “In the year king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord” (Isaiah 6:1). Isaiah’s encounter with God was intertwined with what was happening in Israel’s political life.

An Overflow of Spirit. While Thurman didn’t call himself a mystic, saying the word had come into vogue after his own experiences, Edmunds noted that Thurman’s spiritual life fits the classic definition of mysticism offered by Bernard McGinn: “Mysticism is more about presence that it is about ecstatic experiences.” It’s always a process, a way of life.

Edmunds urged contemplation in silence: “At its root, prophetic activity is an overflow of what’s going on in your spirit. … Cultivate a quiet time, get in touch with your spirit, and that’s going to help in you in your activism.”  Edmunds said it takes at least 13 minutes for the body and mind to become quiet — “And you shouldn’t be listening to Morning Joe!” In addition, various tools, what Thurman called “clotheslines,” can help with distracting thoughts. Edmunds held up his own homemade rosary, and noted that words, scripture or lines from songs can be helpful.

Pray Without Ceasing. You don’t need a class, he said. “Just take the bird out of the cage, and it will fly by itself. The Spirit takes natural ascent to be in the presence of God.”  It’s about fostering an awareness that you can carry with you into your day. That’s what Paul meant by “pray without ceasing.”

Mysticism isn’t just individual; it is communal. And communities that have been oppressed “are uniquely positioned” to understand the teachings of Jesus, said Edmunds.

While Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is often called black theology, “it’s about spiritual theology that transcends black liberation. It’s human liberation,” said Edmunds. “It’s beyond feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, it’s about liberation from anything that tries to deprive me of who I am as a child of God.”

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This was the first talk in a series of four sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program. Please join us for future programs!

 April 8, 10 to noon, at Luther Place Memorial Church
Rev. Karen Brau of Luther Place Memorial, Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today
 May 6, 10 to noon, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan A.M.E.,  The Spiritual Work of Prophetic People
 May 20, 10 to noon, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory United Methodist, Where Do We Go From Here?