The Beloved Community
by Cary Williams
Here is the phrase: “the Beloved Community”. We have adopted the term for use in the People’s Church mission statement, and I found myself growing curious about its meaning. I needed more information. And since getting more information for me almost always means digging into the history of something, that is where I started.
The phrase originated with an American theologian and philosopher named Josiah Royce in the early 1900s. Royce was a liberal Christian who thought deeply about the meaning and actions of the Christian faith in a rapidly changing world. In considering how people could live in the most ethical way, he came to believe that they needed to do more than passively obey the mores of society. Action and commitment were needed in equal measures in order to solve the inequalities of the world and that meant making a conscious decision to move beyond lip-service to change. The ultimate goal was the Beloved Community, described as a “divine or spiritual community capable of achieving the highest good as well as the common good.” All moral deeds and reforms needed to be looked at in terms of how much they were contributing to the realization of the Beloved Community and all ethical people should be involved in bringing it about. If more people joined in building the Beloved Community, chances were greater that it would be created, for the work itself would lead to a radical transformation in both individuals and society.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Boston University’s School of Theology for his doctoral work, the phrase “Beloved Community” was part of the theological vocabulary he heard. As he moved to his work in the Civil Rights movement, the concept came with him as the cornerstone of his vision of a newly re-created America. Within the Beloved Community he held two important principles—the American dream of equality and justice for all its citizens and the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God, created on earth. He felt that the when enough people committed to a philosophy of nonviolence, that the ills that beset the country and the world such as poverty, war, hunger and homelessness would not be tolerated anymore. Bigotry would be replaced with acceptance. Conflict—a natural and normal part of human behavior—would be solved through peaceful means, and adversaries would be reconciled.
King knew these changes would require a radical transformation of how society viewed such concepts as love and justice, as well as great changes in how the American people saw one another based on race, religion and class. He did not expect that this would come overnight. The Beloved Community was an ideal that first had to be envisioned, then consciously and consistently worked at. Every generation would pick up where the last one had left off. The principles that governed it were simple but powerful: all beings on this earth are interrelated, humans are all of one family, the individual and the community have equal moral status, and there is not one of us who does not benefit from the contribution of all others on the planet. The work toward creating the Beloved Community is transformative, involving thought and effort and belief. Belief in hard work, in changing ourselves and in changing a hurting and weary world.