Howard Thurman, who was in many ways the spiritual force behind the civil rights non-violent revolution, has much to say about Community. 

Stargazing. Photo by Chris Leggat on Unsplash

Like the medieval mystics before him whom we have meditated with—Aquinas, Hildegard, Eckhart, Julian, Mechtild—he does not begin with the human, but with the universe itself.  He thinks and acts beyond the neurotic and indeed narcissistic anthropocentric preoccupations of the modern consciousness. 

And like indigenous people everywhere, he begins with the universe itself.  A post-modern time like ours demands this pre-modern wisdom which begins with the whole and not a part.

“Check out the friendly, yet forbidden world of Guerilla Gardening in L.A. A community of folks planting public gardens under cover of the night.” Posted to YouTube by SoulPancake.

Thurman places Community at the very center of the foundational question we are asking: “What does it mean to be human?” 

Precisely what does it mean to experience oneself as a human being? In the first place, it means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organized kinship that binds him ethnically or racially or nationally. He has to feel that he belongs to his total environment.

“Is it possible that overfishing, super germs, and global warming are all caused by the same thing?” Video narrated by Nicholas Amendolare, uploaded to YouTube by TED-Ed.

Thurman’s world view is thoroughly creation-centered, we are part of a “total environment” bigger than any tribal dimension that distinguishes us.

Notice how he speaks of community as kinship. He continues: Such an individual

has a sense of being an essential part of the structural relationship that exists between him and all other men and between him, all other men, and the total external environment.

We belong to the bigness of life itself, past and present. 

As a human being, then, he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all that lives and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived. In other words, he sees himself as a part of a continuing breathing, living existence. To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world.

Indigenous nations’ flags fly at the entrance to Oceti Sakowin camp, showing the intertribal unity of Water Protectors opposing the Dakota Access pipeline, December 2016. Photo by Joe Brusky on Flickr.

This sense of an expanded community is central to our being a human being.  It echoes beautifully that wise meso-american teaching with which we began our entire series about the “10 C’s and What it Means to be Human?”  The teaching that “to be human, a person must make room in one’s heart for the universe.”

Thurman does not erase individualism, but urges us, as all mystics do, to move beyond it. We must transcend our ethnic, racial, national, and familial identities to identify with the cosmos itself and all our relations. For as humans, “we belong to life and the whole kingdom of life” and the entire history of evolution that has brought us here.

“Love” by Burak Kostak, Pexels

Thurman personalizes cosmology in this passage. It strikes at an essential paradox: even though we are individual human beings, we must seek a “sense of kinship to life” that transcends all particulars. An attitude of both/and is present in all of Thurman’s writings: Solitude and the individual matter; but so does the whole and our relation to it.  Community is both large and local. 

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations, p. 210.

Banner Image: Preparing the harvest for storage. Image by carlaborella from Pixabay

Let Thurman’s words shower over you.  Be still with them.  Can you also feel yourself swimming in the “endless stream of the river of life?”  What follows from that?

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1 thought on “Howard Thurman on Community”

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    The city of San Francisco, California, because of its cultural diversity, is a good example of where a person can get a “sense of being an essential part of the structural relationship that exists between him and all other men and between him, all other men, and the total external environment. I used to love to ride the busses.

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