Mysticism and Social Action: The Spirituality of Howard Thurman

Activism is at the heart of progressive theology. The way of Jesus is both personal and social. Jesus’ embodiment of prophetic spirituality was reflected in his welcome of the marginalized, affirmation of women, expansion of the scope of salvation and ethical concern to include foreigners and the disinherited, and challenge to narrow purity codes which promoted exclusion. Jesus proclaimed that the “spirit of the Lord” was upon him, and this meant the healing of the social order as well as people’s religious lives.

Yet, today politics has become a hotbed of polarization, even among progressive Christians. In our quest for a more just society, we too have succumbed to incivility, exclusion, and divisiveness, even among our own progressive ranks as many insist there is only one right way to respond to the current political crises and only one language set appropriate to including the marginalized. If we are to go high in transforming our culture, we need models for activism that transform, heal, and liberate.

African American theologian and spiritual guide Howard Thurman (1899–1981) provides one pathway toward healing our cultural divide even as we protest the injustices of our time. A descendant of slaves who experienced racism throughout his life, Thurman sought to nurture a liberating spirituality that included foe and friend alike. Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949, was one of the first texts on black liberation theology and was an inspiration to the nonviolent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr., who reportedly carried Thurman’s book in his pocket during the height of the civil rights protests.

Thurman was an activist mystic, a universalist who experienced God profoundly in the non-human world of flora, fauna, sky and sea. He believed that the world is animated by a Spirit within which all of us “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This Spirit joins all creation and is the deepest reality of every person. Thurman knew the dangers of polarization and racism, having grown up in a culture where he was “an outsider in the community of power, where most of the life and death decisions are made which control the common life,” who must struggle daily to affirm his identity and find his place in a society whose structures often disregard his voice and value.[1]  He knew the power of poverty and racism to destroy the imaginations and dreams of children and their parents. Thurman also knew that God is present in everyone and that transformation can occur among the greatest as well as the least of these. He believed that deep down everyone could become a mystic.

In Thurman’s lectures on “Mysticism and Social Action,” he defined mysticism as “the response of the individual to a personal encounter with God within his own soul. This is my working definition. Such a response is total, effecting the inner quality of the life and its outward expression as its manifestation.”[2] In the spirit of his teacher Quaker professor and spiritual guide Rufus Jones, Thurman proclaimed an “affirmative mysticism,” which saw God moving through our social structures as well as personal experience seeking the spiritual and interpersonal unity of all things.

The mystic, Thurman believed, is motivated by the desire that everyone receives the opportunity to experience holiness and value, and a personal relationship with God. Going beyond self-interest to world loyalty, the mystic sees our common humanity, empathizes with the suffering of the oppressed, and embraces contrasting viewpoints, even viewpoints they continue to oppose, as ways of moving from polarization to reconciliation. Having experienced God as the source of all creation, the mystic desires that all people experience this same sense of wholeness, according to their unique personalities, cultures, and life experiences. Accordingly, when the mystic observes conditions that threaten persons’ encounter with God, he or she is compelled to confront them. “Social action, therefore, is an expression of resistance against whatever tends to, or separates one from, the experience of God, who is the ground of his being.”[3]

According to Thurman, the mystic understands that healthy societies are fundamental to experiences of spiritual wholeness. Improving the social, political, and economic order opens the door for the leisure and dignity necessary for intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual growth. In contrast, when persons do not have adequate food, housing, security, social equality, and legal protection, they seldom pursue intellectual and spiritual growth. Trauma haunts their daily lives, and mistrust feeds their spirits. The mystic’s social agenda ultimately “has to do with the removal of all that prevents God from coming to himself in the life of the individual. Whatever there is that blocks this, calls for action.”[4]

Thurman believed that “for the mystic, social action is sacramental, because it is not an end in itself. Always, it is the individual who must be addressed, located and released, underneath his misery and his hunger and his destitution. That whatever may be blocking his way to his own center where his altar may be found, this must be removed.”[5] The mystic realizes that the rich and the poor, the oppressor and the oppressed, may be equally alienated from their deepest selves, despite their economic and social differences. The soul-destroying nature of poverty and injustice is obvious and must be addressed immediately with wise personal and political action.

The powerful and wealthy perpetrators of injustice are also in spiritual jeopardy. With all their advantages and privilege, they have turned their gaze from the beauty of the heavens to the banality of oppression and manipulation. One can gain the world, as Jesus says, and lose one’s soul, caught up in consumerism, power, entitlement, and self-gratification. The oppressor’s injustice ultimately stunts her or his own soul as well as the souls of those whom they oppress.

Inspired by their sense of the unity and divinity of all life, the mystic seeks the healing of both oppressor and oppressed. The mystic pushes hard for social transformation, but also recognizes the humanity of the oppressor. Justice is painful – and oppressors need to learn the error of their ways – but the confrontation with those who perpetuate injustice is intended to support their relationship to God, humankind in its diversity, and personal spiritual growth. In so doing, the mystic rises above polarization to promote what Martin Luther King Jr. described as the Beloved Community.

Howard Thurman shows progressive Christians that mysticism can be this-worldly and earth-affirming. The mystic need not escape the maelstrom of life, but has the mandate to be God’s companion in promoting God’s vision “on earth as it is in heaven.”
About the Author
Bruce Epperly is senior pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Centerville, Massachusetts, and a professor in theology and spirituality at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is the author of over 45 books, including The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World (Upper Room Books) and The Work of Christmas: The Twelve Days of Christmas with Howard Thurman(Anamchara Books).

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[1] Howard Thurman, Mysticism and Social Action: Lawrence Lectures and Discussions with Dr. Howard Thurman (London: International Association for Religious Freedom, 2014), Kindle Location, 109.

[2] Ibid., Kindle Location, 177–179.

[3] Ibid., Kindle location, 235–236.

[4] Ibid., Kindle location, 244–245.

[5] Ibid., Kindle location, 249–251.

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