At Christmas Time, Howard Thurman and the ‘Inward Center’

This day before the worldwide celebration among Christians of Jesus of Nazareth’s birth has found me thinking about spiritual questions. I’m doing so not just because of that calendar reality; it’s because it just so happened that this was the day for me to do some work on an essay, “Does God Exist, Does It Matter,” in connection with a new book manuscript I’m in the process of finalizing.

In the latter parts of the essay, I quote from a very important but relatively unknown historical figure, Rev. Howard Thurman. Thurman was an African American minister, an author, a visionary and an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. He was close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In one of his most popular books, Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman sagely articulates how Jesus, preaching and teaching to the oppressed masses under Roman rule, “recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them. Jesus saw this with almighty clarity. Again and again he came back to the inner life of the individual. With increasing insight and startling accuracy he placed his finger on the ‘inward center’ as the crucial arena where the issues would determine the destiny of his people.”

In Jesus’ day, in Thurman’s time, and still today this holds true. Positive social change doesn’t happen unless growing numbers of individuals develop the inward clarity and strength to fight for justice day after day. Over time, all of this can add up to needed and even revolutionary change.

In a sermon preached in 1951 published in the book Sermons on the Parables, before the 50’s civil rights movement had burst forth, Thurman spoke very specifically to this “inward center” work in a way that all people, whether religious or not, can learn from:

“The restlessness of our age, the churning tumult of our times, the quiet frustrations and the riotous frustrations in the midst of which we live, all these surround us in the quietness, and yet we recognize the privilege of unhurried contemplation, of laying ourselves bare to the searching processes of singleness of mind, the privilege of becoming aware of needs of which we are scarcely conscious in our fevered rush, the privilege of hearing voices that need not speak above a whisper in our hearts, pointing us to the way that we should take in the midst of our own problems and responsibilities, our own hopes, and our own fears. The time of regaining of quiet. The time of searching of heart. The time of regaining of perspective. The time of lifting of hopes about ourselves and the world. The time of insight. The time of the renewal of courage.”  

Elsewhere in Sermons on the Parables he writes: “So many things of which we are not aware when we are living at a more superficial level, we become aware of in the stillness, when all the noises, the interior noises, are quieted.” 

I hope that at this special time for those who believe in the importance of the life of Jesus of Nazareth that everyone, Christian or not, will take time to reflect on Thurman’s wise and very relevant words.

Ted Glick is the author of the recently-published “Burglar for Peace: Lessons Learned in the Catholic Left’s Resistance to the Vietnam War.” More information can be found at, and he can be followed on Twitter at