Many of the people at Freedom are at the absolute bottom of society. And they know it. But in the midst of worship and during the proclamation of the gospel they are transformed. They become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are infused with an incandescent dignity that they cannot find in the soul crushing meritocracy of American life. There is a reason they pull out the streamers and the tambourines. During worship at Freedom the Spirit of God moves and tells those in attendance--tells me--that we are precious, wanted and loved. That we are not waste, trash, or failures. That we are human beings.I was reminded of this observation recently as I was reading again through Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited, a book that, it is said, Martin Luther King, Jr. took with him wherever he went.
In the book Thurman argues that the gospel of Jesus is intended for those "who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall." For these, for those with their backs against the wall, the gospel provides "profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity..."
How so? Thurman begins his analysis by noting that the gospel provides a grounding for self-identity and dignity. He writes:
The core of the analysis of Jesus is that man is a child of God...This idea--that God is mindful of the individual--is of tremendous import...In this world the socially disadvantaged man is constantly given a negative answer to the most important personal questions upon which mental health depends: "Who am I? What am I?"Knowing that the dispossessed and disinherited live with constant fear in the face of various forms of violence, Thurman goes on to note how an identity rooted in the gospel proclamation inoculates and protects the ego:
The first question has to do with a basic self-estimate, a profound sense of belonging, of counting. If a man feels that he does not belong in a way in which it is perfectly normal for others to belong, then he develops a deep sense of insecurity. When this happens to a person, it provides the basic material for what the psychologist calls the inferiority complex. It is quite possible for a man to have no sense of personal inferiority as such, but at the same time to be dogged by a sense of social inferiority. The awareness of being a child of God tends to stabilize the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power. I have seen it happen again and again.
[Seeing oneself as a child God establishes] the ground of personal dignity, so that a profound sense of personal worth can absorb the fear reaction. This alone is not enough, but without it, nothing else is of value. The first task is to get the self immunized against the most radical results of the threat of violence. When this is accomplished, relaxation takes the place of churning fear. The individual now feels that he counts, that he belongs.More and more I'm convinced that this relaxation is the foundation of spiritual and psychological well-being.
And it's in the proclamation of the gospel where many of my poorer friends experience this relaxation--a feeling of belonging and counting that "stabilizes the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power."