Beloved Community
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I found a humorous book a few weeks ago called The Savvy Convert’s Guide to Choosing a Religion which encourages the reader to “Compare and contrast before you commit” to one of the “99 religions to choose from!” It is all in good fun but it certainly points out the consumer-angled and individual-focused nature of religion today. The book offers a side-by-side comparison for you using categories such as dietary restrictions and afterlife quality, time commitment and sex regulations. In short, the book allows a person to research the question: “What do I get out of it? What does this or that religion offer me?”

Every religion can be boiled down to such questions. One offers Inner Peace while another presents you with Enlightenment. Perhaps you are really seeking Salvation, or it could be you’re just looking for a personal Purpose in this Life. Depending on if you want Paradise, Detached Calm, or a Fully Realized Human Potential – well, just scroll through the lists and pick the best fit. Every religion has something to offer the individual.

Of course the serious religions don’t stop there. Not that you’ll necessarily see this part outlined in The Savvy Convert’s Guide, but religion is not just a private occupation. Despite Alfred North Whitehead claim that “religion is what an individual does with his solitariness,” there is often a strong ethic involved in each religion that outlines how we are to treat other people – something more than ‘restrictions’ in certain behaviors; something closer to a call to participate in creating a better world. And the best among the religions go so far as to declare not just a social ethic but also a social order. They answer the question, “What do we get out of it?” Or “What is the vision of the optimal religious society?”

There is a little tension in the practice of every religion between the individual and the community. Religion needs to keep a dynamic balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. In religions that over-emphasize the community-aspects of faith there is a need to work a little extra to allow the individual’s needs to be addressed. And in religions such as ours that over emphasize the individual-aspects of faith there is a need to work a little extra to allow the community’s needs to be addressed.

For all that we Unitarian Universalists focus on the dignity and worth of each individual and how each person is on their own religious path, we also have a vision of religious community that rises naturally from our way of faith. Many Unitarian Universalist congregations speak of themselves as Beloved Communities, or as striving to become such. In many ways “Beloved Community” is growing into almost a cliché or at least a buzz-phrase among us.

Do we know what it means? Do you remember when I said we tend to over-emphasize the individual in our tradition? Here is a perfect example: the phrase “Beloved Community” means one thing to some people and something else to other people. This week I read articles and sermons from UU ministers stating that Beloved Community is about justice making and specifically about racial justice. I read other places that Beloved Community is basically a very healthy religious community. Some will argue that the phrase can stand in for whatever we want while others will insist we use the phrase as it was originally used. And a multitude will happily point out that our debate about Beloved Community is actually a perfect example of our version of it – because Unitarian Universalist congregations have a healthy sense of individual conscience and civil debate is one positive mark of individuals in community.

While it comes up a lot around UUs, we of course did not originate the phrase. It was popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Beloved Community was central to his efforts of racial integration. The phrase first appears in a speech he gave at the conclusion of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The U.S. Supreme Court decision to desegregate the seats on the busses, and during the victory rally King reflected that the end goal of such non-violent boycotts was not simply the legislation of desegregation. He said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.”

But King was not even the one to first use the phrase, “Beloved Community.” The phrase was actually coined in the early 20th century by an obscure Idealist named Josiah Royce, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. King, a member of that same Fellowship of reconciliation, brought the phrase into more common use. The phrase comes from Royce’s book The Problem of Christianity in which he wrote:

“Since the office of religion is to aim towards the creation on earth of the Beloved Community, the future task of religion is the task of inventing and applying the arts which will win all over to unity, and which shall overcome their original hatefulness by gracious love, not of mere individuality but of communities.”

Royce saw it, not as heaven and the ‘here-after,’ but heaven on earth where hate and division were no more. He said it was a form of community we work to create here on earth marked by unity and gracious love. King, when he first used the phrase, compared it to redemption and reconciliation, words that evoke a change from disharmony and disparity to harmony and equality.

In that speech he gave at the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in ’56 King went on to say this: “It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. … It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” What King was after was not simply the legislation of desegregation. He was after a transformation in the hearts of all people to the end that we might learn to live and love together as one people, as a Beloved Community.

The most similar metaphor I can think of to compare with “Beloved Community” is “the Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom of God is meant to convey a sense of the divinely intended order of life. In the Kingdom of God, which is not yet realized – ‘thy kingdom come’ the prayer says because it is not yet here – in the Kingdom of God there is an order of things, a harmony with the lion and the lamb laying down together in peace. Shifting the language to “Beloved Community” creates a different tone, an even more egalitarian tone. The idea at the root is still he same: there will come a time when the Divine social order is lived among all humanity – a social order that declares all equal and all included with peace and harmony. Both phrases offer that idea at the root.

But notice this also: like many of the metaphors used for God in the Bible (such as Father, Master, and Lord) King is meant to be heard as one end of a relationship. The Father has a child; the master and lord have servants; the king has subjects. There is a relationship evoked in the metaphors. Certainly it is saying “God is like this;” but it is also saying “God is like this with us.” In shifting away from the phrase Kingdom of God and toward the phrase Beloved Community we are still using a relational metaphor, but we’ve left out the hierarchy and patriarchy embedded in the older Biblical phrase.

Beloved Community was the end goal of what Martin Luther King Jr. was striving for. The specific point of struggle began around racism in America. His end goal was bigger than racial injustice. He also spoke out and marched and protested against war and poverty. He fought against all injustice and oppression. He was working to create the beloved Community with equality and justice for all.

When he said that he dreamt of a day when “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” he was talking about the equality of the Beloved Community. When he said he dreamt of the day “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” he was talking about the how we are all connected to each other as one family, as God’s children together with a song of freedom on our lips.

That’s what the Beloved Community meant to King. It looked like equality and fairness. It looked like kinship with all the care and responsibility that comes with that. He called for the “solidarity of the human family.” He insisted that “all life is interrelated.” And if only he had been caught up by the feminist movement too he would have worded this a little differently but listen graciously to this. He said, “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

That’s what King meant by the phrase Beloved Community. Is that what we mean when we use the phrase? I think it is when we can allow ourselves to rise out of the individual focus where we tend to reside. Clarence Skinner, an early 20th century Universalist minister, author and dean of Tufts School of Religion wrote, [in his book Worship and a Well Ordered Life, in the chapter called “The Church and the Beloved Community.]

“The Beloved Community is not an organization of individuals seeking private and selfish security for their souls. It is a new adventure, a spontaneous fellowship of consecrated men seeking a new world.” Again we hear the tension between the individual and the community: on the one hand we have individuals seeking ‘private security’ while on the other we have individuals in fellowship ‘seeking a new world.’

I believe that ‘new world’ is one in which differences are honored as a way to highlight our individuality but are never used to divide us into tribes and cliques. I believe that ‘new world’ is one in which equality and fairness give balance to extremes of greed and selfishness. I believe that ‘new world’ is one in which we afford one another a little extra grace when we are trying to understand one another.

If only we could find ourselves in such a civil and gracious society today. Instead we find an ever increasing level of anger and hate, ignorance and animosity posing as civil discourse in our country. Far from Beloved, our American society squanders its greatness with destructive one-up-man-ship posing as open discourse. How much longer can we spew hatred upon people for the simple fact that they disagree with us? How much longer can we tear each other apart in partisan anger and still say we live in a great nation? How much longer can we ignore the needs of the least of these among us and continue to pretend to be decent people and decent nation? How much longer can we go on without recognizing the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that lay just a step beyond our pride and our pity?

In 1967, after a dozen years of struggle and speeches and protests and boycotts to usher in the Beloved Community, King published a book entitled “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” And now, 2 score and 4 years later we still stand on the edge and wonder, “where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?”

My colleague Mark Morrison-Reed says, “The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind us each to all.” This is the work of the Beloved Community: to unveil those bonds – to help us feel that we are all equal in all the important ways. Morrison-Reed says, “There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.”

And that, dear ones, is exactly how the conversation of Beloved Community gets us into the conversation about justice. For if there injustice anywhere it is because we are not honoring that bond, that connectedness. Yes we have our differences; we have “particulars in our own lives and in the lives of others.” The path of chaos calls us to tear those bonds, to make those differences seem insurmountable as if we can survive without our brothers and sisters. But when the bond is felt, when the relationship is recognized, then we are compelled to seek what is good for our brothers and sisters as well as for ourselves. It is not the left or the right that is destroying the fabric of our nation. It is the debate itself – the level of hate and meanness we let pass for debate. We still stand on the edge between Chaos and Community. Where do we go from here?

Let me finish the quote from Mark Morrison-Reed. He says, “It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and strength is renewed.” (SLT #580)

“What do I get out of it? What does this religion have to offer me?” Let me offer an answer that will not be found in the Savvy Convert’s Guide. Any religious community worthy of you will offer you the unveiling of the bonds that bind you to the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, and the despised. It will unveil the bonds that bind you to all those people you do not like and those with whom you disagree and those with whom you are so very, very different from in thought and interest and values. Such a religion will offer you a seat at the table of humanity and humility and will call you to welcome in the last person you might wish to join you.

The dream Dr. King cast forth into history was not a dream that equality and freedom could be easily won. It was a dream that we would grow to be better people, that we would live up to the lofty ideals we espouse, that we would become the people our world needs us to be for the dream of equality and peace to be made true.

In a world without end, may it be so.