A Profound Sense of Belonging, of Counting

Awhile back I wrote about my experiences worshiping with the poor. In that post I wrote the following:
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?"

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.
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:
[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."

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14 thoughts on “A Profound Sense of Belonging, of Counting”

  1. A lot of crimes are committed out of frustration and desperation.  (Some are just done because of pure meanness.)  Recently I was called to jury duty and I had not been there for many years.  The environment at the courthouse was overwhelming to me.  The prospective jurors wore badges.  The attorneys wore suits.  The police and security wore uniforms.  The accused wore their best clothes but still stood out as needy.  Disinherited.  I had compassion for the accused as well as the victim. 

  2. I am an atheist and really enjoyed/value this piece. I was on a panel with other faiths as I represented my atheist views. I said my purpose was to tell God where it went wrong (i.e. *I* would work to change those aspects of existence I found unjust or in need of modification).

    There *is* unity in our existence - as Carl Sagan observed, "we are all star stuff."

    Sincere best regards,


  3. Thanks so much. I'm very fond of atheists who can have charitable discussions with Christians and have little tolerance for Christians who can't return the favor.

  4. I'd like to hear more about how you see this certainty and belonging meshing with our pluralistic world and worldview defense.

    Personally, I'm not yet convinced it's possible to give this fearlessness in such a manner, so much as repress our fear so long as we maintain the illusion we know we are correct.

  5. I think it's an issue that needs to be evaluated. A feeling of worth that creates the sense of relaxation talked about in the post should help a person not be fearful in the face of Otherness. But a belief the is merely repressing fear still has that fearful core which causes the lashing out of worldview defense. Sorting this out is no easy thing as the entire psychic configuration has to be evaluated. But the quickest diagnostic tool I know of is relaxation. If the person is relaxed around Otherness and not paranoid, hostile, agitated and vigilant then I think the belief system creating that relaxation is healthy.

  6. And thank you for your warm reply. I've always enjoyed discussing the eternal and have often said, I hope there is some sort of justice and compensation for those who had so little in their own lives. As it is, I operate on the principle that these changes can only be made in the here and now by other humans beings, working together or independently.

    I shall remember to return here often. Thank you again.

  7. "I operate on the principle that these changes can only be made in the here and now..."

    In Christian terms, we say "May your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."

    Which is why I'd call us partners.

  8. Great observations, Richard.

    As love often has to be differentionated between agape and eros, I thought this quote I came across recently was fairly profound. Nice sharing the same space-time with you. See you "on the other side."


    In the end, it doesn’t matter if love comes to you or not, or if doesn’t come to you in the form or with the force you may have wanted. All that matters is that love exists somewhere in the world, and that we strive to make a world where this astonishing fact — which alone gives meaning to life, and is itself immortal — can flourish in all of its manifestations.

  9. I've always thought that, whatever other label I carry, the most important one to hang on to is my identity as a child of God, for reasons similar to the ones listed here. I'm curious to hear what you think about this notion in regard to the recent atrocity in Newtown.

  10. I guess I want to think more about the definition of "child of God." My initial impulse is to say that everyone is a child of God, whether they know it or not, and part of the work of evangelism is sharing that knowledge about our shared identity and divine heritage. I think people need, I think I need, to be aware of that profound sense of "belonging," in the way Thurman uses the term. I look at what happened in Newtown, and the incredible "othering" that seems to be involved-- I mean, all I know is what's on the news, and who can really see into another human being's heart anyway?-- but Adam Lanza sure seems to have felt othered. And it seems like a catastrophe of this sort might throw even the victims into a sort of community ghetto of grief, like, this is their identity now: Victim of Adam Lanza, Adam Lanza Survivor, etc. People are quick to describe Lanza as a shocking monster, and maybe they're right because he did a shockingly monstrous thing, but how do we know? And, you know, aren't we all sinners? I'm not hot on the idea of predestination, or any theology that declares that we are entitled to salvation. No matter how righteous we are, at some point, we rely on God's grace to perfect us. So... I guess I'm wondering at that line we might draw around us that says "All children of God are inside this circle, and the rest of you are lost." Aren't murderers children of God, too? Don't they need the "succor and strength," the "dignity and creativity," and the plain old love offered by Christ just as much as anyone? And yet, those deaths in Newtown are such a terrible thing. Such a terrible thing. Can we push ourselves out of being a child of God, or is God's love more relentless than that? Our choices do matter, I think. What does Thurman think? What do you think? As you can see, my own thoughts are in process. Sorry these comments are not more concise. 

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