As we in the U.S. and around the world celebrate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, we rightfully reflect on his leadership in the pursuit of racial equality.
But if all we honor Dr. King for is the Civil Rights Movement, we come up a bit short. Because civil rights and racial equality were only part of his larger quest to bring about a new way of being in the world.
A way he called “The Beloved Community.”
The term “Beloved Community” was one King borrowed from Josiah Royce, an American philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who was a major influencer of King’s worldview.
It is summed up in the text of a monolith standing at the King Center in Atlanta, GA (pictured above):
The Beloved Community is a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflict exist, but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness. In the Beloved Community, caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence. The Beloved Community is a state of heart and mind, a spirit of hope and goodwill that transcends all boundaries and barriers and embraces all creation. At its core, the Beloved Community is an engine of reconciliation. This way of living seems a long way from the kind of world we have now, but I do believe it is a goal that can be accomplished through courage and determination, and through education and training, if enough people are willing to make the necessary commitment.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Now more than half a century after Dr. King’s life and movement, it can feel like we’ve made very little progress in realizing his dream.
Fair is fair
In West Virginia where I live, our state legislature is currently debating a bill called the “Fairness Act.” It essentially simply adds protections for LGBTQIA+ people to existing anti-discrimination laws.
But some politicians and many conservative evangelicals are fighting against its passage because they fear it will somehow infringe upon their religious freedoms.
They claim that the bill will leave them vulnerable to lawsuits if they choose to refuse services, employment, or housing to people based on sexual/gender identity.
The argument is specious at best.
What they’re really worried about protecting is not their religious freedom, but their freedom to discriminate against people without legal repercussions.
But beyond all of that, their refusal to support civic freedom for all people reflects a deeper dysfunction.
I was among 100+ United Methodist faith leaders and 500+ people of all faith traditions across West Virginia to sign letters to lawmakers in support of the Act. Opponents have claimed that those of us who signed on have abandoned “sound doctrine” and the “historic teachings of the church” in favor of acquiescence to cultural whims.
But as I wrote in last week’s blog, it is because of my deep respect for scripture and the way of Jesus, not in spite of it, that I base my position that all people should be treated fairly and equally.
Isn’t it ironic?
Religious opponents of the Fairness Act base their opposition on the idea that it condones what they view as “sin.”
Never mind that nothing in the Act makes any moral or value judgment regarding gender or sexual identity…beyond the simple recognition of our shared humanity.
It merely offers legal protection from unfair discrimination for people who identify as LGBTQIA+.
Just like everyone else receives.
But like the Pharisees of the New Testament, these opponents take a behavior management approach to religion. They believe they have a right to dehumanize and objectify others based on their fairly myopic view of scripture.
They believe that by enforcing their views on other people’s thoughts and actions they are upholding “biblical Christianity.”
But what they are really upholding is a worldview based on fear. Fear of an angry God. Fear of being found disobedient.
But mostly, it’s fear of not being in control.
Paradoxically, though, it gives control to fear itself.
But if God is love, and if perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:8,18), then giving in to fear would by default mean being separated from God. And being separated from God is one of the primary evangelical definitions of “sin.”
So, in essence, a faith system based on sin management is itself driven by the ultimate sin of fear.
Ironic, isn’t it?
A better way
It seems to me that a more faithful approach to living into the way of Jesus is not to embrace this kind of fear-based behavior management program, but instead to adopt a way of being more in alignment with Dr. King’s conception of the Beloved Community.
Resolving issues peacefully and without bitterness.
Working from a place of compassion and caring.
Supporting political systems that seek to eliminate poverty, hunger, bigotry, and violence.
Living with hope and good will.
Seeking reconciliation rather than power and control.
You have heard it said…, but I say to you…
While Dr. King was deeply influenced by creative, non-violent figures like Josiah Royce and Mahatma Gandhi, he was, of course, most deeply guided by Jesus of Nazareth. The heart of both King’s and Gandhi’s movements can be found in Jesus’ iconic Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).
Jesus’ unconditional love and respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person, his prophetic ability to call out the systemic injustices of the socioeconomic and political norms of his time, and his absolute adherence to active nonviolence as the only way to confront the physical, emotional, and spiritual violence of fear-driven systems based on power and greed provide the essential model for the Beloved Community.
The Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto that reinterprets the narrative of an angry, vengeful god into a truer view of a God who is love and who expels fear rather than using it as a tool to manipulate and control.
It’s Jesus’ declaration of the kingdom of God. Or as my friend Drew calls it, the Beloved Community of Heaven.
May we all have a dream
And so as we celebrate the work of Dr. King this week, may we remember that his efforts to bring about equality were just one part of a much larger dream.
Instead of seeking privilege and influence at the expense of others, may we seek diligently to eliminate poverty, hunger, bigotry, and violence.
May we embody caring, compassion, hope, good will, and reconciliation.
May we create a culture where our laws reflect our collective ethos to care for all members of our society without regard to the superficial differences we too often use to divide and demonize.
May we live into a bigger story.
And may we do our part to bring about the Beloved Community.