In an address entitled “Religion in a Time of Crisis,” Howard Thurman, African American mystic, spiritual guide and seeker after Jesus and justice, spoke these words to seminarians at Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garrett-Evangelical Seminary). It was 1943, but Thurman’s words could have been written today:
“Witness our own land at the moment. It is only for war that we permit all the details of our lives to be shifted, thrown out of normal balance, readjusted. Something is at stake. The ordinary individual now counts in a strange new way….
“It becomes critically important what everybody does. No one is exempt. Everybody and everything counts. Something is in the air – things are happening, the deadly monotony of ordinary living is blasted out of the doldrums. Something is at stake! A new kind of civic character appears sired by new and awful responsibilities…. God is at stake.”
The world was at war, and Thurman, then chaplain of Howard University’s Rankin Chapel, acknowledged that while the times harbored uncertainty and danger, they were also an occasion “to provide a more profound and permanent basis of unity for the human spirit than is summoned simply by the threat of an external enemy.”
“Will this exceptional moment in American history strengthen and renew our own spiritual experience and gospel commitments?”
In 2020, as we “witness our own land at the moment,” we’re involved in another global conflict in which the “external enemy” is also an internal enemy, a “novel virus” that can silently invade and ravage the most vulnerable among us, from infant to senior adult, with 90,000 confirmed deaths in the United States, and counting. Our lives too are “thrown out of normal balance,” and “no one is exempt.”
In 2020 America, however, “civic character” seems strangely fragile, threatened or altogether absent.
Seventy-seven years ago, Thurman challenged the seminarians to experience and participate in a spiritual awakening; to “find in the present a way of life that is worth living;” to “maintain a faith that can be honestly and intellectually held;” and to seek “the kind of world in which even the weakest may find refuge.” That challenge extends to us here and now, specifically to those who, like Thurman, find in Jesus (and his Body, the Church) the guide to a way of life worth living.
Thus, the audacious question: What if Americans were to go looking for spiritual renewal and our churches were too troubled to help?
I’m not talking about an “old-fashioned revival hour” awakening with multitudes packing churches or discovering them for the first time. Right now, they couldn’t, even if they wanted to. While physically gathered faith communities might be spiritually preferable, that is currently a dangerous option – especially for senior adults, a numerical majority in many congregations. Recent studies suggest that even singing together increases the odds for contagion.
At the same time, engagement in worship has never been easier, with innumerable churches Zooming the Spirit online.
Either way, “gathered” in pews or on laptops, such an awakening might not readily occur today. We’ve been here before. After the 9/11 crisis, many anticipated a significant return to religious communities, but studies by Gallup and others suggest that didn’t happen. A recent poll from the Pew Research Foundation indicates that 56 percent of participants in predominately African American churches believe their faith has been strengthened in response to the coronavirus pandemic, while majorities in no other denominational groups indicate a similar degree of renewal.
There is anecdotal evidence that some churches are registering unanticipated numbers of online worshipers, some of whom have become new financial contributors. Apparently, “worship surfing” is gaining online ground. Likewise, faith communities galore have been rising to the occasion, with expanded ministries to the homeless, the hungry and the unemployed, while consoling families whose loved ones are separated by illness, ICUs or lonely deaths.
“In our own ‘climate of deep insecurity,’ with no vaccine in sight, Jesus’ way of life still cuts straight through our despair.”
These days, I find myself in awe of the clergy and laity offering frontline care of souls in response to COVID-19, lovingly creating ministry alternatives, even from a distance. While these acts of selflessness are themselves a dramatic sign of spiritual renewal, sobering trends confront churches. In pre-coronavirus America, participation in religious communities was already in decline. Studies indicate church attendance by adults has dropped from 50 percent to 35 percent of the population, membership from 75 to 62 percent, and overall religious affiliation from 95 to 75 percent.
COVID-19 could exacerbate these declines. Already, the fallouts are eroding church finances, limiting ministries and threatening the survival of already weakened congregations. All this occurs as Christians, like the nation itself, seem divided at multiple levels over scripture, theology, ethics, doctrine and politics, politics, politics – all as vulnerable to this rampant virus as everybody else.
Will this exceptional moment in American history strengthen and renew our own spiritual experience and gospel commitments? Will it send us back to Jesus, who calls us to renewal, witness and sensitivity to those longing for spiritual renewal, whether they know what to call it or not?
In 2020, we know it’s time for spiritual renewal:
- When armed “protesters” invade the state capitals in Michigan and North Carolina to shout their opposition to stay-at-home measures.
- When an unarmed black man is gunned down in Brunswick, Georgia, and it takes two months and three district attorneys to bring charges against the killers.
- When the editor of a prominent religious journal tweets that wearing a protective facemask is a cowardly act perpetrated by “a regime dominate(d) by fear of infection and fear of causing infection. Both are species of cowardice.”
- When, in the words of William Barber, “We have too many people in power who are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.”
In times like these, Howard Thurman can be an important guide to spiritual renewal.
Martin Marty, the great Lutheran historian, has noted that Thurman understood that the spirituality of Jesus “offers an anchor, a harbor from which one departs for the high seas and to which one returns, changed.” Marty contrasted Thurman’s “soul-search” with “the gaseous and self-invented spirituality that is easily marketable and consumable.” Thurman, he said, was “too demanding, too historically rooted, too Jesus-centered to remain the guru of choice through the years.”
In his best-known work, Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman observed that, unlike St. Paul, Jesus held no Roman citizenship. Unprotected by those culture privileges, he lived “in a climate of deep insecurity” in first-century Palestine. In a divisive society, Jesus “projected a dream, the logic of which would give to all the needful security. There would be room for all.” For Thurman, Jesus’ “way of life cut straight through to the despair of his fellows and found it groundless. By inference [Jesus] says, ‘You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God…. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike.’”
In our own “climate of deep insecurity,” with no vaccine in sight, Jesus’ way of life is once again put to the test – and so are those who seek to live it. Once again, we confess that the Jesus Way “cuts straight through to” OUR despair, even when it is not groundless, strengthening us to live as if there really is “room for all.” And renewing our call to make that happen.
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