Shall the disinherited inherit the earth, really? Ecclesiastes 4:1-6 Matthew 5:1-4
I want to ask a question this morning, that I don’t have the answer to. But I want to ask the question so well, that you will want to answer it, that you will want so deeply to be a part of Eliot’s answer to it, and make of Eliot Church a community devoted to finding and living the answer. Here is my question: Shall the disinherited inherit the earth, really?
Can we agree that the complaint of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is not so far-fetched? Elizabeth only read you a small part of his inventory of discontents. The Preacher frankly acknowledges that injustice is endemic, which made him and us, too, feel it’s all useless, futile emptiness. Even so, he doesn’t say “helpless.” I’ll come back to that later.
Although the feeling persists among us in the U.S. today that we’re not moving the baseline at all, of course we do move the baseline. Jesus acknowledges as much in today’s Beatitude when he says the meek, or the gentle, will inherit the earth. As someone we know paraphrased it, the arc of the universe bends toward justice. The first shall be last, and the last will be first, Jesus promised.
Who are the meek, anyway? --the gentle, the unassuming, the cooperative, the non-squeaky wheels? They are the decent people certain presidents call losers. They are simply those regular people often at a competitive disadvantage in this competitive society of ours--they are the ones likely to get cheated by cheaters, duped by grifters, over-mastered by the hyper-achievers. Just like so many in the Israelite economy who were at the wrong end of the abusive debtor laws, the dishonest market practices, and the courts that let rich violators off with fees instead of physical punishment. Sound familiar? Ancient Israelite society was a caste society and would fit right into the description of the U.S. in Isabel Wilkerson’s book about caste.
Jesus said the lowest caste would be vindicated and in so saying, Jesus was also dignifying their status in life as human beings, no matter what their society deemed them or made them into. And by validating them, he activated their sense of justice and their indignation at any injustices they experienced. We like to say, God loves everybody, but frankly such news matters more to those without means than to those to whom money sticks. It is only those without earth who need to be reassured that they will indeed inherit the earth—Jesus was speaking a social religion to the disinherited.
Perhaps Jesus was just trying to make people feel better, so was this Beatitude only a bromide to salve hurts that he couldn’t heal himself? It certainly sounded rather cynical for him to have said to Judas, when Judas later in the gospel complained about the expense of the spikenard being lavished on him, “the poor you always have with you.” Jesus was not minimizing them or depreciating the obligation to minister to them. His was simply making a comparative statement—yes, the work on behalf of the poorest is our mission, but you only have me for a few more days, best attend to me just for this last moment. Jesus doesn’t say it explicitly, but he means that soon you will be resuming the work for the disinherited without me. Our conclusion should be, if we want to do good, don’t omit first and last to celebrate Jesus in our life, Jesus who is the Good among us and our inspiration to do justice.
Jesus means it when he says the disinherited will inherit the earth, I believe. But we have a right to ask, exactly how?
How? The answer Howard Thurman gave was, we will only inherit the earth by resisting, and then he adds, by resisting in a very specific way--by laying hold of and controlling certain emotions that the disinherited are subject to in their condition. Thurman, who died in 1981, was an African-American public intellectual and theologian who taught at Howard University and was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-65, just at the same time ML King was a student here. In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949, he warned about the disabling emotions which betray the disinherited into the hands of the dominant, white society. “To revile because one has been reviled--this is the real evil because it is the evil of the soul itself.” Again and again, Thurman writes, it all has to come back to the inner life of the individual--the prior condition of resistance must be the health of the soul. “Anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the oppressor the keys to his destiny.”
They are three spiritual weaknesses that undermine resistance, and I want to describe them and then to point out a very surprising correlative.
First is fear--the black man and woman in America had reasons without number to fear whites. And while fear is originally a protective reflex to survive, yet ultimately it becomes death for the self. Thurman counseled his people to banish their fears of whites through an acceptance and internalization of God’s love.
Second is deception--Thurman understood that to survive under the conditions of white supremacy, American blacks went to extremes of self-distortion and dissembling. Deception shelters and protects us temporarily, but it distorts the soul. The penalty of deception is to become a deception, without a moral compass anymore. A man or woman who lies becomes a lie. However, during slavery the cost of honesty was death, so resistance was blocked until the Emancipation. Even so, Thurman was writing in the era of the Great Migration north where blacks would find very different kinds of rejection to navigate.
Third, hate. Hatred is only natural when black men and black women are confronted with arbitrariness from their first waking moment every day until they fall asleep. When hatred becomes a source for you of the validation of your personality and the entire reason for being, you have murdered yourself. Hatred must be met on the battlefield of the inner life for resistance even to happen let alone succeed.
Such was Thurman’s counsel to his community of the disinherited. But is there possibly a curious parallel here—with the white supremacists? Even though they have not been disinherited, at all, white supremacists feel disinherited and that’s where their malignant behavior stems from. And, in their way, white supremacists are proving the truth of Thurman’s observation--fear, deception, and hate are corrupting, debilitating influences upon the soul and actually disempowering. Thurman was right in his analysis of the black man and woman’s predicament. I’m certainly not saying white supremacists merit sympathy, but they might benefit from the same analysis and advice. If they are to be weaned off of the toxins of fear, deception and hate, we might have to ask what a Christian ministry to them might need to look like. Isn’t it worth asking, if we want to change this racist society? Don’t we have to address directly those who are captives of their own debilitating resentments? And to the extent that we write white supremacists off as hopeless deplorables to be feared, we have our own inner work to do. We too must attend to the inner life and seek the higher self we are meant to be, or our resistance will only be so much vanity, futility and chasing of the wind.
Howard Thurman, a black preacher, could speak commandingly to the disinherited blacks--. How would I, a white preacher, and you my white (mostly) congregation, go about speaking to white supremacists? It probably won’t work to tell them to read books on my shelf like, “White Too Long,” or “Dear White Christians.” However, I could see spending money to distribute these books the way the Gideons put Bibles in every hotel and motel in this country. I would love to evangelize the evangelical churches of this country, stand outside as they leave their sanctuaries and ask, “Jesus loves you: what do you have to fear and hate and lie about?” How would you change peoples’ hearts in rural Pennsylvania, in McConnell and Rand Paul’s Kentucky, in Chicago, in North and South Dakota and Minnesota, Texas? It would require a Johnny or Sally Appleseed with missionary zeal.
But here we are in Newton Corner in greater Boston, and we have a church. We have a community and a building and a history as the foundation for a new ministry not yet even conceived of. You are on the threshold today of fashioning that ministry! What an exciting thought—to see that the disinherited inherit the earth and with their and our souls intact. Moreover, we have to be concerned what state the earth is in that the disinherited shall inherit. But that’s another subject.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes was driven to the conclusion that all is vanity because human beings never seem to change, but that was no reason to suspend our commitment to God’s Word. God’s Word, he said, is the foundation of our inner life and the way out of fear, deception and hate. Religion is inescapably social; religion is not a gated mental community for us to escape into. Climate change will force us into each other’s laps and each other’s fates, so let us commit to become a church here that will minister to the world of the disinherited which is only getting bigger. The best part about today is that you will be discussing how to trade in this lumbering 18-wheel semi-trailer truck for a more maneuverable, economical, sharp-cornering sports car!
As I said, I don’t have the answer to my own question—I am betting on Eliot Church to come up with it! Bless you and amen!