Who Stole My Bible?: Reclaiming Scripture as a Handbook for Resisting Tyranny and Prophetic Healing: Howard Thurman’s Vision of Contemplative Activism

[Who Stole My Bible?] By Jennifer Butler. Faith in Public Life, 2020. 178 pages. $15.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

[Prophetic Healing] By Bruce Epperly. Friends United Press, 2020. 122 pages. $18/paperback.

Jennifer Butler and Bruce Epperly are two contemporary White, Christian ministers deeply inspired by the late Howard Thurman, a mid-twentieth-century African American theologian who encouraged the faithful of his day to become nonviolent warriors and organize social movements to win rights, freedom, and justice for all God’s children. As Thurman said of his own life’s work, “To me it was important that individuals who were in the thick of the struggle for social change would be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church.” In their recent books, both Butler and Epperly seek to pick up Thurman’s task of nurturing radically faithful Christians today.

Butler does this by bringing into focus the often-neglected, liberating heart of the Bible, with its many stories of inspired people working with God and each other to resist oppressive regimes and create more just, equitable, and compassionate communities. Like Thurman, Butler encourages spiritual activists in the Christian tradition to renew themselves through engagement with the justice-seeking narrative that emerges in the book of Genesis, runs through Exodus and the Prophets, moves into the gospel stories about the nonviolent revolutionary Jesus movement, and concludes in the dream-like and visionary Book of Revelation. As she writes, “The most joyful moments in my life have come while watching people come to terms with the true meaning of biblical texts by wrestling with them in study, prayer, and activism.” She has done this for years as a spiritual activist herself and as the CEO of Faith in Public Life, a multiracial national network of over 50,000 clergy and lay faith leaders “united in the prophetic pursuit of justice, equality and the common good.”

This is not how many Christians view the Bible, which is too often used to delegitimize social justice activism or—even worse—to justify social hierarchies, oppression, cruelty, and hate as being God’s will. As Butler readily admits, the sprawling pages of the Bible do sometimes include such sinful passages, and the Bible “was written by people with often-flawed perspectives, translated by people with agendas, and is preached by people with blind spots.” She, like many of us, has also heard more than enough from the misguided and oppressive “Bible thumpers” of the Religious Right, especially by the White supremacist preachers she grew up with as a “born-again Christian” girl in the South. What saved her was the initially confusing fact that “what I read [in Scripture] did not match up with what I was hearing from the pulpit and from the Moral Majority.”

This early contradiction sparked a lifelong spiritual journey for Butler, where she came to see that the oppressive outlook she was taught to think of as “biblical Christianity” was not the same as the fundamental spiritual truth revealed in the Bible. For her, a liberation-oriented biblical interpretation not only is possible, but makes more sense and offers a more healing vision. As she writes, “Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were illiterate freed slaves and yet they interpreted Scripture with an accuracy that white slaveholders lacked.” Indeed, she opens her book with a quote from Thurman expressing wonder that, “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” This same insight led Butler to see the biblical interpretation of oppressed people like Tubman, Truth, and Thurman as the key spiritual resource she needed to embody in her own activism.

As one of her grateful readers, I have to say that Butler has a profound gift for helping contemporary people see the Bible as a vivid spiritual handbook for resisting tyranny. Both oppressor and oppressed can be transformed through movements that give birth to what Thurman and others have called “the Beloved Community” of God’s shalom. Butler points the way by highlighting and illuminating key stories and themes in the long biblical narrative of justice seeking and reconciliation, and then she relates these stories to the struggles of spiritual activists throughout history who have joined the ongoing dance of this ancient but continuous revelation of “the liberating power of God.” I turned the last page of her book feeling wiser, braver, more spiritually grounded, more compassionate, and more inspired than before. That is a good outcome.

Epperly’s book covers similar ground but in a somewhat more abstract and elliptical way. He is certainly not as experienced a spiritual activist as Butler, and he tells few if any vivid stories of real-world spiritual activism that combine what he calls “prayer and protest.” In contrast to Butler, Epperly is a very reclusive, academic theologian with a private contemplative spiritual practice: one who loves being alone in his study, writing books on Christian mysticism. Yet, due to his fascination with Thurman’s life and work, Epperly also finds common ground with Butler, and has increasingly, though somewhat uncomfortably, been called to consider greater engagement with the rough-and-tumble world of spiritual activism for justice in the wider community.

Epperly’s book offers some real insight into and wisdom about this journey to radical faithfulness, especially for new and inexperienced spiritual activists with a strong background in contemplative practice. He is particularly powerful on the importance of cultivating social justice movements that follow the biblical commandment to “love your enemies.” Epperly makes it very clear that the world is not neatly divided into those who are oppressors and those who are oppressed. He encourages instead the empathy and compassion that come from realizing that we, as well as the people we struggle against in our movements, are usually both oppressors and oppressed in varying degrees, and that almost all people are good toward others in some parts of their lives while being complicit with social evil and oppression in others.

This spirit of humility is touched on in Butler’s book, of course, but it is not as central as it is in Epperly’s. Yet, I have to say, Epperly also seems a bit confused on this point and sometimes drifts unconsciously into fear of the conflict, polarization, and social struggle that are essential elements of what civil rights activist John Lewis called “making good trouble.” When I turned the last page of Epperly’s book, I was reminded of both Martin Luther King Jr. and the eight White clergymen who wrote King when he was in a Birmingham jail, complaining that King was being too militant, pushing too hard, and disturbing the peace of respectable people like themselves.

I am not limited to recommending just one of these books, and each has value and offers important complementary insights into the radical faithfulness of spiritual activism encouraged by Howard Thurman. As Epperly rightly notes, “Thurman knew what it felt like to feel powerless, but he came to believe that every person, including those whose backs are against the wall due to centuries of social injustice and racism, can do something to change the world.” Each of these books provides vital insights and resources for this journey of spiritual activism.

Steve Chase is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and the author of the Pendle Hill pamphlet Revelation and Revolution: Answering the Call to Radical Faithfulness and the QuakerPress of FGC book Letters to a Fellow Seeker: A Short Introduction to the Quaker Way.

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