By Kenia Vanessa Rodriguez
Howard Thurman’s impact on the ecclesiastical and political society is still as liberating today as when he first preached and wrote in the mid 20th century. Thurman did not hold doctrine or dogmas over individual and communal religious experience. Instead, he focused on “a proper sense of self and the urge to establish community,” which is edifying for the Church and society today. The focus on a proper sense of self is prominent in that once a self-awareness as a child of God is harnessed, it derives a sense of community as God’s children. A “proper” sense of self will then drive self-actions, guide how one lives, and purpose. Once one is committed to self and purpose, then everything else falls into place. Thurman affirms that self cannot be fully actualized without community, showing how intertwined the one is with the many.
What does all of this mean for today’s church and society? It means that instead of focusing on doctrines and dogmas which separate and divide people into those who believe, we need to first focus on our spiritual unity before God as equals, as children of God. Unity from God and with God in the community is the basis for our existence. Unfortunately, today many churches are transfixed on teaching people the doctrines and dogmas that define “their” church or denomination.
It seems that churches only want fellowship with those who fit into their pre-determined boxes and rejects all dubbed “others.” How can it be that one day one is part of a church, and then when one begins to question church doctrine or dogma, all of a sudden, they are no longer part of that church? Is fellowship in the church so vain that it can be given and taken in an instance?
Genuine fellowship in which Thurman ascribes coming from a sense of self in community and unity with God, unity in community is what needs to be preached, taught, and lived out in churches today if we are to have any hope of the kingdom of God coming into full fruition. Only when we understand ourselves in the community and the value of all those who make up our community can we have genuine fellowship with God and neighbor. When we view a community member as lesser than or exclude our neighbor from the community, we shatter the possibility of unity to which we are all called to as one body of Christ.
Thurman’s discussion of self and community in fellowship with God and community can be translated to living out the presumption and responsibility of the imago Dei (image of God). If we are the imago Dei as Genesis states, then we must live that out in deed and action. What does it mean to be the imago Dei? Does it not mean that as the imago Dei with dominion over all that God has given, it is my responsibility to care for such following the will of God in God’s manner? How does God care for us? Is it not with incomprehensible love and fellowship? Is it not with the ultimate sacrifice of God’s only begotten son so we may be reconciled? If so, then how can I, as the imago Dei do likewise? At a minimum, I would argue that I can strive and struggle daily to form a genuine fellowship with the community to grow in a proper sense of self before God with the community and in the community.
If churches today continue to do what they have always been doing, it would be insanity – which is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. In this climate of Black Lives Matter, Me Too movement, immigration debates about children in cages, and a global pandemic, the time is ripe for transformation within church and society to live out our purpose. The question is – what do we want? What is it that we are going to pursue? What will we hold as our purpose above all else without regard to life or death or rich or poor or suffering? What will we pursue with the purpose that is all-consuming and contagious, like Pentecost? That is where Thurman leaves us and where we must stand up and continue.
Kenia Vanessa Rodriguez, is an Lawyer focussing on immigration law and a student of divinity at Wesley Theological Seminary.