Howard Thurman and the 2017 Presidential Inauguration


Lately I’ve been pondering what my historical mentor and spiritual guide, Howard Thurman might say as we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States.  I suspect he would not be on Twitter or any other social media platform.  I don’t think, like me, he would be blogging about it either.  But I believe he would have an opinion and perhaps some recommendations about how to live in the current social and political atmosphere.

Dr. Howard Washington Thurman experienced great social transitions in his lifetime.  Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman lived through the severity of Jim Crow legal segregation, state sponsored domestic terrorism, and a host of racial insults and indignities.  He spoke of the time when he had been invited to give a talk at a major meeting only to learn that hotel would not serve him lunch in its main dining room.  Thurman was so enraged that he decided to forego eating and walk through the city instead.  I sense that during the walk he heard some of what he would later talk and write about in his classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited.  This same book inspired Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., to begin his civil rights work and he carried Jesus and the Disinherited whenever he marched.

In preparing to live through the Inaugural weekend and the days to follow, Howard Thurman would likely advise us to; 1) use our outrage constructively, to better someone else’s lot rather than become bitter.  2) He would discourage the use of violence and instead admonish us to use our energy to educate and enlighten, and to wake up those who sleep in the fog of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and materialism.  3) Thurman never thought that changes in laws and social policies meant much if they did not change people’s hearts.  He would want sustained, regular exchanges between people who are different because he felt this would create the Beloved Community that he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of.

Howard Thurman knew from spending time with his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, that what sustains people through challenging, difficult and sometimes horrendous conditions is their internalized knowledge that they are holy children of God.  He believed this spiritual self is what Jesus was trying to awaken in his own oppressed Jewish people in the hostile Roman society they lived in.  Clearly right now in 2017, there are so many who need such an awakening, a shift in personal identity that includes an exploration of a deeper spiritual nature, especially among those who perceive themselves to be powerful as well as those who think of themselves as powerless.

If I were fortunate enough to have lunch today with Howard Thurman, I think he would suggest a few antidotes to the media circus, confusion, and chaos of actual news, fake news, and tweets in lieu of actual conversation.  I imagine Thurman would smile and instruct me to be still.  Take some pause pockets so I can create a deep, peaceful sanctuary within my mind and heart.  Create my own inner retreat, a sacred space that I can return to again and again and again to dim the lights and lower the volume on the cacophony of the outer world.

Next, Thurman would sit back and quietly suggest that I go outside and commune with nature.  Certainly walking along a beach, taking in its quiet calm, and watching the birds glide across the azure sky with billowing clouds, or observing how gently snowflakes float to the ground would engender some peace.   Feeling the cool breeze and watching the trees sway in the wind, noting their strength even in the midst of storms is how Thurman sensed a Oneness with everything.  This connection with the All helped him most when the “tempests of life” as he called them blustered through.

Finally, after finishing a luscious dessert, I suspect Howard Thurman would lean in and remind me to increase my practice of inner authority.  Inner authority is just another manifestation of living from a sense of authentic Self; the one God created and a Self deeply embedded in the Presence.  Mastery of this principle is vital for people who suffer any form of discrimination, particularly individuals from visible stigmatized groups, because although a body may be assaulted or a mind temporarily disturbed, “The inner sanctuary cannot be breached without consent.”  It is only by our own inner authority that we allow it to be disturbed.   By being rooted in and living from the Spirit of God, whether that Presence is within us or in nature, one can develop the “authority” to move against oppressive forces in one’s life.*  Thurman portrays it best in this short excerpt from his book, Meditations of the Heart.

The Inward Sea

There is in every person an inward sea, and in that

sea there is an island and on that island there is an

altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel

with the flaming sword.”  Nothing can get by that

angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the

mark of your inner authority.  Nothing passes “the

angel with the flaming sword” to be placed upon your

altar unless it be a part of “the fluid area of your consent.”

This is your crucial link with the Eternal. (p. 15)

In summary, Howard Thurman would believe that contemporary times are ostensibly no different from the times he lived in—just the players on the stage have shifted.  Even if laws or policies are altered, a real change won’t occur until hearts soften and we learn to embrace each other—enemies and friends—with love and compassion.  He would certainly admonish me to pay attention to my thinking, because that determines what I see in the world, and to cultivate a greater rootedness in God rather than putting my faith and power in elected officials.

Howard Thurman would also remind me

 to be still and listen each day for what my role is

in the change I wish to see in the world.

I am certain he would know that quiet, inner listening

brings more peace and joy to the heart.


If  you would like to spend some solitary and contemplative time, listening and learning about Howard Thurman, visit the Howard Thurman Retreat Day (available online until March 31, 2017), sponsored by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  For more information and to register, visit the Shalem website,

*Lerita Coleman Brown, An Ordinary Mystic: Contemplation, Inner Authority, and Spiritual Direction in the Life and Work of Howard Thurman.  Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, 18, 14-22, 2012.

Could a Fleck of Hate and Other-ing Keep the Peace in Your Heart at Bay?

You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught

You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, from the musical, South Pacific (1949)

I sit stunned in silence for several days before I can begin to write.  I know I must speak, say something about this most despicable crime. By the cover of my usual middle of the night “morning pages” routine, the thoughts and words begin to form.  How could any person enter a church, sit and pray with people and then kill them in cold blood? As a former social psychology professor and researcher who studied race and ethnic identity, I cannot ignore this atrocity and others like it that occur daily around the world.  See the sickness of Dylan Roof is not just his alone.  Clearly he is troubled and possibly mentally ill.  But the hatred he possesses about Black people is representative of many people who cultivate and nurture hate like his in their hearts and minds.

In the US, frequently the category chosen for hate and oppression is race whereas in other countries it may be ethnicity, clan, caste, religion, or gender.  No matter where one lives or travels, there are people stigmatizing and devaluing individuals and thus giving them license in their minds to hate, dehumanize, and kill.  Some psychologists would argue that racial stereotyping and bias are natural cognitive processes frequently operating unconsciously which is why stigmatizing is so prevalent.  Yet infants are not born with hatred in their hearts.  As the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” suggests, hating people who appear to be different is learned.  This cultivation of hatred is helped along by talk around the dinner table, teachers who hint at or speak of the inferiority of Blacks, portrayals of Blacks on the news and in the media including television programs, movies, blog sites, and books.  And it is not new.  From my shock at viewing the movie, Birth of a Nation to watching a video tape of a policeman shoot an unarmed black man running away from him, racial hatred is supported if only indirectly everywhere.  I’ve spent many years wondering why, why would one racial or ethnic group need to dehumanize another?  What purpose is this enmity serving?

One thing we rarely talk about in our discussions of race relations is the undercurrent that supports the notion of White supremacy.  Even those words give people chills  Yet if I speak truthfully about what stimulates racial hatred to sprout and grow,  I believe the source lies in the meanings we attach to race in America–being a White person means you are inherently better than a Black person.  I suspect many people feel uncomfortable with this notion about how race is constructed.  Yet everyone in the US has racist tendencies.  Sometimes even I feel wary of young black males for no good reason which is ridiculous.  Now that I am aware that I’ve internalized this meaning of race, my goal is to undo this inclination. Among the many reasons touted for racial tensions recently, one of the socio-cognitive processes that has not been proffered is “othering.”  Yes, othering happens and continues to operate even in spiritual and religious domains.  What is othering you ask?  The technical definition of othering is any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us.” (James Norriss,–Also see Centre for the Study of Otherness,  It is a way for members of a dominant racial, ethnic, or even gender group to psychologically or socially exclude a person.

As an African American woman, I frequently find that when I join an all-white group of strangers, I eventually become othered. This typically happens when Whites perceive me to be of equal or higher social status as them.  This fact alone violates the “Whites are better than Blacks” meaning that we attach to race thereby creating tension.  The process usually begins with a discussion of my name, Lerita and how unusual it is and maybe I said “Letitia.”  I try to help people by saying that I believe that my name is some variation of my father’s name, Leroy.  It is similar in spelling and pronunciation (Loo-Roy, Loo-Rita, not Lo-Rita, Lolita, or LaQuita).  As the conversation proceeds, I sense from those gathered that, “You are not one of us” and I begin to feel like “I don’t belong.” There is a distinct difference between sitting down with a welcoming group of people and those who feel uncomfortable with my race combined with my intellect, educational background and social status and thus must “other” me.

Race is an easy category to use for othering yet sometimes the category may be more subtle like social status, college attended or membership in a fraternity or sorority, neighborhood or region of the country.  With race, the phenotypic differences are obvious and mixed with some cultural distinctions it becomes perfect for the process of othering. Othering is not difficult to do in fact it feels quite natural.  We learn how to other as young children often on the playground or in a playroom.  Othering is the basis of cliques that form in middle and high school and later in college.  It is a way the ego uses to maintain our specialness and keeps us from recognizing our interconnectedness.

Yet it is the opposite of othering that we must learn.  How do we embrace each other and begin to realize that we complete each other?  Its like ying and yang—we need all of the parts that we’ve psychologically exiled and projected onto others in order to feel whole. Othering is one path toward developing the kind of hatred that Dylan Roof held in his heart for people who appeared different from him.  He obviously could not perceive the shared humanity that he has with all sentient beings—his hate was fueled by different physical attributes and his projections.  Isn’t ironic that he labeled African American “stupid and violent” when that was an apt description of him?  He knew if only unconsciously that he was “stupid and violent,” projected his own self-hatred onto a group of innocent people gathered together for prayer. Perhaps the question is not whether one engages in othering because most people do but to what degree and how frequently.

Are you “othering”  anyone in your life?  Is it your Latino sister-in-law or African American brother-in-law?  Maybe it is your White uncle or Asian cousin or multiracial neighbor. Perhaps someone at work intimidates or makes you feel uneasy?  Possibly you feel uncomfortable to have a “foreigner” in the family or work environment—someone who possesses distinctive physical attributes and cultural traditions.  What prevents you from perceiving your commonalities with individuals instead of your differences or experiencing the humanity in everyone?  What were you carefully taught and who taught you?  Is “othering” keeping you from the Peace in your heart?  Even a fleck of hate can take up space, a place for more Love, more Peace, and more Joy in your heart.