The Beloved Community

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In the early 20th Century the American philosopher Josiah Royce coined the term “the Beloved Community” as an ideal of social harmony brought into being by those loyal to goodness and truth. Later, the notion of the Beloved Community became central to the mlkteachings of Martin Luther King Jr., who envisioned it as the ideal human community of love, solidarity, and justice that was “not yet” but that would eventually be actualized through our commitment to nonviolence and the sacredness of life.

It’s a beautiful notion — the Beloved Community — stirring in us a sense of hope that humanity is indeed evolving toward a promised land. And it is just this towardness — “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — that inspires us, encourages us, and gives us the strength to believe we shall overcome some day no matter how bleak things look at the moment.

I say “amen” to that. We need hope, we need the faith in ethical progress that this vision offers us. But because it’s a hoped-for ideal it can also feel a little abstract; because it’s “not yet” — while the dysfunction of human societies is in our face — we can doubt that it ever will be.

I’d like to suggest that we might understand the notion of the Beloved Community as not only a beautiful future ideal toward which we are called, but that it’s also a reality that’s here, now.

The Beloved Community is all around us and within us. It’s how our bodies function — the community of our organs and blood, nerves and bones, all functioning together in a wondrous wholeness. The air we’re breathing, the water we drink, the food we ate at our last meal, are testaments to the Beloved Community we are part of. Everything is working together; everything is hand-in-hand.

The trees on the hillside draw sustenance from the earth through their roots, from the air and sun through their leaves. When their individual lives end, they give back to the soil and to the bugs and birds the richness their bodies have collected. The Beloved Community. When we walk on a path through a forest and feel calmed by the beauty of the dappled light, we are welcomed into the Beloved Community of beauty. When we say “thank you” to a stranger at the grocery store, those words rise up from our gratefulness for a small kindness, and — for a moment — the ideal society we hope for is made real.

From age to age, mothers have cuddled and sung to and protected their babies. The Beloved Community. Every day the distant giant planet Saturn attracts stray asteroids that enter our solar system, shielding planet Earth from devastation. The Beloved Community. Scientists look for ways to produce clean energy, poets look for ways to express wonder, children laugh as they’re carried on their father’s shoulders. The Beloved Community. It’s here, and at the same time, it’s not yet.

When we perceive, even for a moment, how we are held in the community of life, how we are sustained within the vast web of all our relations, we gather strength to carry on and to serve the advent of the vision we dream of. Yes, the web of our relations can be torn — we see evidence of that every day — but with care it grows back.

Each act of kindness, selflessness, generosity, compassion, and communion heals and creates the Beloved Community. These acts, however inconsequential they may seem to us at the moment, are like seeds that contain within them our not-yet realized goal. As theologian Paul Tillich describes it in the language of the Old and the New Testaments, “the coming of the Kingdom of God [the Beloved Community] does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future. It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy.”

Our ancestors, for all their failures and wars and missteps, longed for what we long for, and succeeded in bringing us to life and to this recognition of the better world we are capable of. We can draw strength from this gift of our ancestors — it’s a strength that’s here, now. The generations of humans to come — our unknown descendants depending on us and cheering us on — we can draw strength from their encouragement too. It’s a strength that’s here for us, now.

Let us take heart in the Beloved Community, not only as a hopeful vision of the future, but as a vivid reality that arises "in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy." It's both a reliable compass that will guide us through the dangerous times ahead, and it's here, now, our good home.