Reflections on ML King’s Vision of Beloved Community
I think most of you will agree that Martin Luther King, Jr. was more than a minister and civil rights movement leader. To me he was a visionary whose profound legacy overshadows most if not all of his contemporaries in the civil rights movement. His influence was so broad perhaps because his vision went well beyond the liberation of blacks in the USA. At the center of Dr. King's legacy was his vision of “Beloved Community (BC)” with its ambitious goal of global transformation. Here are some words from Dr. King’s most renowned “I Have a Dream” speech which capture some of the sweep of his vision:
Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring–when we
let it ring from every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day
when all God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles Protestants and
Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at
last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
When Denise Hall, the ministerial student, spoke to us about this vision, I was reminded of how much King’s contribution inspired me as part of a whole generation of Americans, black and white, to make this world a better place. So when the program committee asked for suggestions for a theme for this year’s programs Dr. King came immediately to mind.
What I would like to do in my talk this morning is to revisit the concept of BC, to relate it to our UU principles, and finally to say a few words about forgiveness in particular because it is an important part of creating and maintaining BC. My hope is that this talk, and indeed this series, will inspire our fellowship to grow both inwardly and outwardly.
Every organization has its share of conflict and our fellowship is no exception. We differ in our beliefs, in what we value most about our group, about whether to build a building, what form our service should take, and so on. How we address conflict with one another has implications for the health of our faith community, and our individual and collective spiritual growth. The vision of BC can provide us with a framework for how to address conflict, while at the same time taking an ethical stand as our UU Principles urge. Dr. King spoke in depth regarding the transformative value of reconciliation in fostering BC. Here again in the “I have a Dream” speech:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of
former slaveholders will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood….I have a dream
that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be able to be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
And as well:
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
Dr. King is telling us that the path to brotherhood and reconciliation is not "bitterness and hatred." He sought to liberate the oppressed without attacking the oppressor, but instead converting the oppressor into a "brother." He worked every day and even gave up his life in order to bring about the changes he spoke of. His most important tool besides to his powerful rhetoric was of course nonviolent protest, a method he learned from Mahatma Gandhi. King stated, “Nonviolence is the way of the strong man…a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love." He also said “The end (of nonviolent resistance) is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” I am not suggesting that we are violent with each other but I think we can benefit from approaching our conflicts with a greater degree of love and reconciliation. As Judy Fjell stated during our last service UU is probably the most diversity oriented religious movement in the world. That brings unique challenges for cooperation in our congregations.
What would the BC look like? Denise Hall gave us a glimpse. King envisioned a completely integrated society, where love and justice and brotherhood prevailed. He saw a society that was truly “color blind,” and grown beyond mere desegregation to real integration, or what he called “total interrelatedness.”
What made Dr. King's vision unique in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, in addition to it’s insistence upon nonviolence, was, as I stated, its inclusiveness. He championed the rights not just of oppressed blacks in the USA but oppressed people all over the world. He said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King felt that discrimination, oppression, poverty, and any other form of injustice weakened the fabric of the entire society. This viewpoint morally correct though it is, has unfortunately still has not taken hold sufficiently. There remains tendency to ignore the needs of our underclass in our country and in the rest of the world. The response to Hurricane Katrina is a powerful example of injustice and indifference to the plight of the poor and minorities. Again in Dr. King’s words, “Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the third world of Asia, Africa and Latin America will no longer be victims of imperialist exploitation….”
Dr. King’s egalitarian aspirations of transforming our society and the world fit very well with our UU Principles. As Dr. Hall mentioned to us this coincidence was not lost on Dr. King. He was a friend and colleague of Rev. James Reeb the noted UU minister who also was murdered in the cause of civil rights. In addition, Dr. King was invited to address the UU General Assembly in 1966 and spoke of "The Church" as a means to foster the transformation of society. The UU Principles and the BC are indeed established for the same purpose of improving society. Let’s take a look at each principle in turn and see how they relate to the idea of BC.
Principle 1 declares the, “inherent worth and dignity of every person. “ It is clear from the quotations above Dr. King showed concern for the plight of oppressed people everywhere. He showed his belief that people are of equal worth regardless of their skin color, country of origin, religion, or income level. UU Principle 2 speaks to, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Again it is evident that King’s words and actions made clear a deep conviction in these values and he applied them universally, not just for blacks. Our third Principle concerns itself with, “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.” Acceptance of one another is clearly a part of BC. In addition, I think it evident that the vision of BC was as much a spiritual and ethical goal as it was a socio-political one. The work towards BC constituted, I believe, part of Dr. King's personal spiritual growth. By inspiring others to join the movement he was encouraging their spiritual growth as well. It is this Principle that I want to return to in the latter portion of this talk. Principle 4 requires, "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." I think it is fair to say that Dr. King's life work was about truth and meaning through the liberation of his fellow human beings and the development of a more peaceful and just world. Principle 5 concerns itself with, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.” Dr. King was a great believer in our democracy. He was fond of quoting from the constitution:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the
Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American
was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men [sic], yes, black men and
white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness.
Here is an example of M.L. King’s appeal to conscience from a speech entitled, “The Trumpet of Conscience:”
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for
man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man
must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.
The foundation of such a method is love.
Our 6th Principle addresses, "the goal of world community with peace and justice for all." I don't think any more needs to be said about the parallel between Dr. King and this principle. To me this is the vision of BC. Our Seventh UU Principle is of course, “Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all apart.” Here are a couple of quotations that I hope will illustrate Dr. King’s deep and abiding adherence to this ideal. He said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Little enclaves of justice among the wealthy in affluent nations are themselves unjust amidst ongoing oppression. King believed as we do that we are all in this aspiration for a better world together. Speaking of the "solidarity of the human family" King said, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." Here is a final example of King's appreciation of the interconnected web:
Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally “in the red.” Recognition
of one’s indebtedness to past generations should inhibit the sense of self-sufficiency and promote
awareness that personal growth cannot take place apart from meaningful relationships with other
persons, that the “I” can not attain fulfillment without the “Thou.”
This is the sociological aspect of "the interconnected web, "addressing not only our bonds to our fellow human beings but indebtedness to those who have preceded us.
Because interpersonal conflict is pervasive and inevitable Dr. King did not feel BC would be an attainable goal without love and reconciliation:
Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the 'fight with fire' method ... is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that. Yes, love—which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one's enemies—is the solution to the race problem.
As Denise Hall explained to us reconciliation does not occur in the absence of forgiveness. Forgiveness is associated with the love of oneself and others and a necessity for the BC to exist. That is why I want to spend the remainder of my time talking about the process of forgiveness.
Forgiveness has been taught in every major religion undoubtedly because resentment and seeking revenge undermine spirituality and community, and sap energy that could be used for spiritual growth. Jesus taught us to "turn the other cheek." The Rabbis taught that the one who has done wrong to another must ask for forgiveness and the wronged individual is required to grant it. Buddhism also teaches us not to maintain resentment.
While there is broad acceptance among the world's religions of the need to practice forgiveness there is little in the way of practical guidance in religious texts on how to do it. Fortunately, about a decade ago at Stanford University a group of psychologists developed a methodology that appears to help people who choose to forgive. The Stanford Forgiveness Project creators define forgiveness as, "the feeling of peace that emerges as you take your hurt less personally, take responsibility for how you feel, and become a hero instead of a victim in the story you tell." Forgiveness involves letting go of the desire for punishment and thereby experiencing the sense of peace that follows. Contrary to popular misconception, forgiveness does not mean condoning what was done to you, nor is it letting others take advantage of you, or forgetting what happened, or even giving up on seeking justice. What forgiveness does do is allow us to heal from our past so that we can release our energy towards the present. It involves taking what was said or done to you less personally. The failure to forgive means often we bear resentment towards ourselves or others, or both. Without forgiveness we tend to blame others for our feelings which take power away from us. On a community level, the lack of forgiveness maintains division and conflict. It can destroy a community as was true in Northern Ireland and South Africa until reconciliation was achieved.
I remember when I was a high school student riding a crowded subway train in New York. I was standing facing the sliding doors as they were about to close and two boys on the platform spit in my face just at that moment. At first I was very angry, but then I realized they were not spitting at me personally, because they didn't know me. They were spitting at what I represented. I chose not to take it personally.
Dr. Fred Luskin who was part of the Stanford project taught in his book Forgive for Good, that there are three preconditions for forgiveness to occur once one has chosen to forgive. First, you must know your feelings about what happened to you. Second, you must be clear about what was said and/or done to you. Lastly, you must share what happened with a least one other person. Some are not aware of their feelings. Sometimes the anger and the hurt are so strong they interfere with remembering clearly the wrong that was done. Some people continue to rehearse their wounds and have trouble moving on. When we share the event with others it helps clarify our feelings and we can be consoled. It is not usually advisable at the early stages when our emotional wounds are raw to share our feelings with the person who has wronged us. By following the steps outlined by Dr. Luskin we can achieve a state of forgiveness.
Some of the benefits of forgiveness include: ending the status of being a "victim," freeing up space in our minds to move on. This makes it possible to have more of the people we want in our lives because energy is "freed up" to enable it. On the community level practicing forgiveness presents good role modeling to others. It also fosters a sense of harmony, allows for the group's energy to be devoted to its positive goals, fosters reconciliation, and moves the group closer to the vision of BC as Dr. Hall discussed. The Stanford group point to physical health benefits from forgiveness as well.
In the most recent issue of the UU World, Dennis McCarty wrote about "covenant" as the basis of UU congregational life. It was also a topic I spoke of when I addressed you about the meaning of membership in the spring of 2007. A covenant is a sacred promise we all make to each other that we intend to act justly and ethically towards one another and especially the less fortunate. We promise to do the best we can to make this world a better place for our grandchildren. We covenant as McCarty put it, "to life, to one another and to the future." Covenanting, making a sacred commitment to our fellowship and our world, is the foundation for BC. When we become members of the Fellowship we are covenanting to uphold our 7 Principles.
The UU Principles, as I hope I demonstrated, are virtually the same ones Dr. King promoted to improve ourselves and our world. I believe that this shared desire for BC, even if we haven't labeled it that in our Fellowship until now is in some basic sense why all of us are here. I feel we can further our cause if we keep Dr. King's vision alive by practicing forgiveness of one another and working for greater reconciliation both within and outside our congregation. As we focus ourselves on the BC during this year let us keep our "eyes on the prize,” on what we want for ourselves, our Fellowship and our world. Let us dedicate ourselves to this sacred work. Let us covenant to work towards BC here and now. May it be so.
Kornitzer, B. (2002) "The beloved community of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sermon delivered at First Parish Bedford.
Luskin, F. (2001) Forgive for Good. Harper: San Francisco, CA
McCarty, D. "The Tiger and the Lamb." UU World," Fall 2008.
Smith, K. L. and Zepp, I. G. (1974) The Search for Beloved Community: The Thinking of M. L. King, Jr. Judson Press: Valley Forge, PA.
Wikipedia. "I Have a Dream."