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Eye on the sparrow

Eye on the sparrow

Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman

When I read about the dire impacts of global warming, I think about Howard Thurman. This might be perplexing to those more familiar with Thurman as the author of Jesus and the Disinherited, a book Martin Luther King Jr. was said to carry with him wherever he went.

While Thurman is well-known as a theologian, prolific writer, mystic, seminary professor, and religious leader, few realize that—well before environmentalism became mainstream—Thurman articulated a complex theology of the “original harmony of creation,” a harmony that human action had significantly disturbed. As he lamented in 1971, “Our atmosphere is polluted, our streams are poisoned, our hills are denuded, wildlife is increasingly exterminated, while more and more [humanity] becomes an alien on the earth and a fouler of [our] own nest.”

From the early years of his life at the start of the 20th century, Thurman’s faith was formed in intimate connection with the natural world—specifically, the Halifax River and northeast Florida woods and coastline, where he wandered and played as a boy.  Thurman’s relationship with nature deepened when a heartbreaking event estranged him from organized religion. When he was 7, his beloved father died quite suddenly. The family pastor refused to conduct a funeral because his father was not a regular churchgoer, and a traveling minister who officiated at the service took the opportunity to expound on the dangers of dying “out of Christ”—to the small boy’s wonderment and rage, “preach[ing] my father into hell,” as he later recalled.

In contrast, the young Thurman found solace and comfort in nature’s seasons and cycles:

Here I found, alone, a special benediction. The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings. The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances.

Sitting against an oak tree, he would “reach down in the quiet places” of his spirit, take out his “bruises and ... joys, unfold them, and talk about them ... know[ing] that I was understood.” As an adult, Thurman began to understand that it was God that had been stirring there; when “the boundaries of my life spilled over into the mystery of the ocean and the wonder of the dark nights,” it was a “cosmic religious experience.” In young Thurman’s sense of intimate belonging to something deeply personal and intuitive as well as grand and external, he experienced both the immanent and transcendent God. He found the quiet space necessary for his spirit to meet the Spirit.

Throughout his career, Thurman would return to nature as a means of expressing his personal theology. In his meditation “Surrounded by the Love of God”—published in 1953, but first developed as part of his ministry at the pioneering interracial Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, which he began to co-pastor in 1944—he wrote:

The earth beneath my feet is the great womb out of which the life upon which my body depends comes in utter abundance. There is at work in the soil a mystery by which the death of one seed is reborn a thousandfold in newness of life ... it is order, and more than order—there is a brooding tenderness out of which it all comes. In the contemplation of the earth, I know that I am surrounded by the love of God.

While Thurman was decidedly not a pantheist (one who believes that God is nature), he did see God’s spirit, God’s very breath, in each and every one of God’s creatures. As he wrote in his 1963 book Disciplines of the Spirit, Jesus saw and taught that:

God breathed through all that is: the sparrow overcome by sudden death in its flight; the lily blossoming on the rocky hillside; the grass of the field and the clouds, light and burdenless or weighted down with unshed waters; the madman in chains or wandering among the barren rocks in the wastelands; the little baby in his mother’s arms ...

As his reputation as a theologian and religious leader grew, Howard Thurman carried with him his deep connections to the earth community.

Although he did not link the oppression of African Americans to the oppression of nature as explicitly as do present-day figures such as James Cone, in Disciplines of the Spirit Thurman drew a connection between the way the dominant culture treated nature and the manner in which that culture treated other humans. He explored that connection in a passage in which, inspired by South African writer Olive Schreiner, he affirmed that Christianity has misunderstood Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10 that a sparrow does not fall to the ground "apart from your Father." While this passage is certainly meant to be reassuring to humans, Thurman, like Schreiner, believed that Christians too often forget its literal premise: God cares deeply for the sparrow.

"Christianity as it has developed since the time of its founder wrongly limits the ethical concept of reverence for life to human personality," Thurman wrote, where "personality" means that which culture defines as fully human. This limitation, he pointed out, leaves the door open for the mistreatment of both the nonhuman creature and of the person to whom the dominant race does not ascribe full humanity: "Deny personality to [certain] human beings and the ethical demand no longer obtains ... People who are victimized by injustices must be defined as being, in Kipling’s phrase, ‘the lesser breeds without the law.'"

To illustrate his point, Thurman told the story of a young white girl for whose family he worked when he was growing up in Florida. One day, as she kept re-scattering the leaves he was raking, he threatened to report her to her father. In retaliation, she pricked young Thurman with a pin. When he drew back in obvious pain, the little girl was taken aback, saying, "That didn’t hurt you really! You can’t feel." By denying Thurman’s full humanity, the girl gave herself permission to do him violence.

In a meditation published in 1951, Thurman articulated the connection between the oppression of nature and that of humans in the evolution of human power. In early times, Thurman wrote (in the gendered-language convention of the day), “man learned how to use a club in self-defense and thus to extend his control over an area farther than his arm unaided could reach. When he learned to throw this club with precision and power, it meant that the control of his environment was farther extended.” Thurman then traced the increasing sophistication of human power over the earth from club to “bow and arrow, gunpowder, gasoline engine, through various kinds of vehicles and machines up to ... the atomic bomb.” The challenge then to “modern man is to match spiritual and moral maturity with the amazing power created by ... mastery over nature. He has learned a part of the secret of energy by unlocking the door of the atom, yet he continues to be moved by prejudice, greed, and lust!” The use of power began as a means of controlling one’s own environment and quickly expanded to the violent domination of other peoples.

Howard Thurman could not have foreseen the extent to which humans have used their power to unravel the original harmony of creation, most notably by significantly altering the climate of the planet. However, his most famous book—Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949—offers poignant insights as Christianity attempts to come to grips with the impacts of climate change on the earth’s most vulnerable. In this work, Thurman made the compelling case that, despite Christianity’s historical use by dominant powers to affirm their dominance, “the basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” Jesus stands, side by side, with those who have “their backs against the wall.”

As I reread this book today, it is hard not to think of the farmers of Bangladesh, struggling to grow rice on flooded fields, or the villagers of Shishmaref, Alaska, an Indigenous community being forced to relocate from its ancestral lands due to the melting permafrost. It’s hard not to think of the nearly 10 million people in the Horn of Africa who face a severe food crisis, brought on by a prolonged drought. It’s hard not to think of the “climate gap” in the mainland United States, where the poor are bearing a disproportionate burden of climate change impacts. As temperatures soar and sea levels rise, Thurman offers hope to the oppressed, as well as a distinct challenge to those of us who, by our own actions and inaction, have become the oppressors. Thurman reminds us that Jesus was, first and foremost, a poor Jew who suffered the indignities of the mighty Roman Empire, not to mention from the religious authorities of his time. As such, he speaks, always, on behalf of those who are afflicted, on behalf of those who suffer at the hands of the powerful.

While he boldly confronted the dominating powers of his time, Howard Thurman also was an unwavering believer in the potential of humankind to alter the course of history when we are open to the leading of the Spirit. More than 60 years ago, Thurman wrote the following words in Jesus and the Disinherited, in the face of the pernicious racism of the mid-20th century: “The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of [humans] which is committed to overcoming the world ... For the privileged and underprivileged alike, if the individual puts at the disposal of the Spirit the needful dedication and discipline,” he or she “can live effectively in the chaos of the present the high destiny of a [child] of God.” Today, Thurman’s words offer renewed hope as we confront the seemingly overwhelming challenges of our overheating Earth home.

Howard Thurman’s understanding of God, and the human relationship with God, was molded in large measure by his intimate connection with the natural world. It was here that he saw the Creator’s original intent for creation—harmony and unity. It was here that he found the divine in the complex entanglement between all creatures, human and non-human. That unified, loving community, which binds us all together, holds our primary hope for redemption and renewal.

Beth Norcross ( speaks, teaches, and writes about faith and ecology, and is the co-founder of the Green Seminary Initiative and adjunct faculty at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Commentary courtesy of Sojourners Magazine