Building the Beloved Community
January 18, 2022
I first heard the term the Beloved Community when I learned about the Montgomery bus boycott in my high school American history class. I was mesmerized by Dr. King’s statement at the end of the boycott campaign, in which he saw beyond that finite but seminal victory and tapped into the broader vision of the civil rights struggle, which he saw as the realization of the Beloved Community. When I read those words, I recognized in them my own convictions about the moral vision that was needed to animate change. I recognized in them the questions my parents raised as they wondered what kind of world would embrace their biracial children.
I became infatuated with the civil rights movement, reading every book I could find, including Taylor Branch’s series, “America in the King Years.” I repeatedly watched the groundbreaking documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.” I became convinced that my generation had inherited the unfinished business of the civil rights movement—and that we must make this moral vision our own. This infatuation from high school through college was probably a little much for some of my friends and family, but I believed then as I do now that a commitment to a broader moral vision helps prevent moral indignation against injustice from devolving into shrill self-righteousness.
The vision of the Beloved Community is an old story, but it’s also a new narrative with the potential to inspire and unite Americans across generational, geographic, racial, and religious divides. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center summarizes the basic idea of the Beloved Community as one in which people of different backgrounds recognize that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others—including those we consider “the other.” It is a society based on justice, equal opportunity, empathy, and love. Building on this foundation, I believe the Beloved Community requires constructing a society in which neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation and where our diversity as a community and nation is celebrated and embraced as a source of strength rather than weakness. The Beloved Community taps into and is based upon religious values and mandates, such as the Golden Rule and the biblical concept of shalom, as well as civic values tied to the founding ideals of our nation and to documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
This moral vision is broad enough to include disaffected white, working-class Americans who feel left behind and have been swayed by a politics of fear and grievance instead of by a politics of justice and inclusion. The Beloved Community has arms wide and strong enough for all of America, including those known as Dreamers and others in immigrant communities, those from religious traditions considered outside the mainstream, and those who have been left out and left behind—from Midwestern towns and rural farms to Indigenous reservations and blighted cities or suburbs—red, blue, and everything in between.
The Beloved Community requires constructing a society in which neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation and where our diversity as a community and nation is celebrated and embraced as a source of strength rather than weakness.
Building the Beloved Community requires truth-telling and repentance about our past. Instead of inciting guilt and casting blame, the Beloved Community is built on a foundation that generates empathy and galvanizes a greater commitment to justice. It will involve communicating a compelling moral vision and a persuasive practical case for why the multiracial democracy that we are increasingly becoming can generate greater belonging, shared thriving, and common purpose for all Americans.
Building the Beloved Community is never a simple task. If it were, we would not be in the national conflict and crisis we are in now. But I have the audacity to believe that despite the founders’ flaws and prejudices, they understood something deeply profound when they fashioned America’s ideals and set us on a path of constant striving to achieve a more perfect union. Yes, the American project is worth redeeming and fighting for. And the imperative to build the Beloved Community requires the involvement of all of us.
In his final book, Martin Luther King Jr. asked the still salient and provocative question “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?”
Just before his assassination, King sensed that the nation was at a dangerous crossroads as he witnessed the stall of the civil rights movement and the rise of rampant violence. The country was embroiled in the Vietnam War and was coming apart at the seams due to culture clashes. We are again at a crossroads moment, which has been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis, the virus of systemic racism, and the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol. We can choose the path of resignation and accept continued, crippling polarization and entrenched inequality, or we can choose the path of transforming our culture, politics, and economy according to the beatitudes of the Beloved Community.
Our choice is between the vicious cycle of a fear-based politics fueled by distrust of and contempt for the “other” and another, more virtuous politics grounded in deeper listening, truth-telling, bridge-building, and common problem-solving. It is time to choose a path that acknowledges and repents for the ways we have failed to live up to America’s ideals. It is time that we boldly pursue a shared vision of a future rooted in our most deeply held religious and civic values. It is time to embark with even greater urgency on the task of building the Beloved Community, which will enable us to achieve a more perfect union and a radically more just nation.