Belinda Carlisle and the Beloved Community – Jagged Rocks Post #3

PictureHanging on a banner in the sanctuary of First Unitarian Society of Denver, is the bold claim:  “Salvation in THIS Life.”

This is how this rock began.  I don’t know for certain if it was Nancy Bowen or Mike Morran who started saying it first – they’ll have to clear that up.  Either way, the first time I heard about the Jagged Rocks, this was number 5.

Unitarian Universalism is a this-worldly faith.  When we talk about being “saved,” we don’t mean to indicate our status somewhere else, or in some other life.  We mean right here, in this world, this life.

I confess that sometimes when I think about this jagged rock, I often hear Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth” in my head.  I was 12 when it came out, which for me was a stage of life with lots of slumber parties featuring lots of karaoke dance offs.  And let’s just say that I sang enough Belinda Carlisle that the lyrics and tune easily come back to me with any mention of anything resembling the main chorus….”Oooh baby do you know what that’s worth? We’ll make heaven a place on earth….”

Anyway…Some people don’t like or don’t understand the word “salvation,” but this hasn’t ever been a problem for me.  I am very confident we are in need of salvation – from a whole host of evil forces – poverty, racism, selfishness, individualism, violence, broken relationships, addiction…..Save me! Save us all!

Where I’ve struggled with this phrase is with the latter part of the promise: “in this life.” It feels too easily confused with “in this lifetime.”  And paired with “salvation” it becomes an awfully comprehensive claim to make.  As if everyone everywhere and every thing can be made all all right in our own time. But for a lot of the world’s people, things are not going to be “safe” for their entire lives.  There is just no way to make it so.  And making any claims that indicate we don’t know this only reveals our ignorance born of privilege, and seriously limits the reach of our good news / jagged rocks.

It reminds me of a time in seminary when a friend and I were sitting together during a break from a seminar we were taking on Exodus.  We got to talking about the black church.  He told me about things he wishes were different about what he considers his lifelong religious home.  And in turn, I confessed my own frustration with the theology that seemed so popular amongst people of color.  I said – why is it that the black church perpetuates this idea that humans are powerless and must wait for God to save us? I mean, doesn’t it just reinforce their powerlessness?

My friend looked at me in my privilege, and gently, lovingly even –  offered this wisdom:  When you can’t imagine anything in this world that’s gonna make things better, you better start hoping there’s something other than this world that could.

Salvation in this life? How about just – strength to make it through? How about – finding enough joy and love to be ok in the not-ok? Grace, sufficient for the day.  How about – there is more love somewhere? How about – a God powerful enough to make a way out of no way? That would be a big and very jagged rock.

So, after sitting with this for a while, I came up with this alternative claim:  “We are called to be and become the Beloved Community, which is possible through the use of and partnership with the transforming power of courageous love.”  Yes, I know, it’s not as pithy as “Salvation in this life,” but hopefully the wordiness is justified by its clearer meaning….and I am hoping by the next iteration we will find a way to convey the same meaning with fewer words.  Maybe you have some ideas?

Regardless, saying it this way, I’m aligning us directly with the Beloved Community tradition first coined by philosopher -theologian Josiah Royce, and popularized and deepened in meaning by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  This helps us locate ourselves in relation to a bigger story and call for justice. It helps us better name and claim our own story.  And, it also means, there’s a lot more to this claim than may be immediately apparent.

For some, this makes the term too jargony – so they have looked for other ways to convey the same basic idea.  I don’t mind that it requires digging to get the full meaning; I think the words themselves, without knowing any of the history, convey enough to get us talking.  You get the basic idea.  And then hopefully you dig in to learn more.

And in the learning more, you’ll discover, as The King Center website puts it “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.  In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.  Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred.”

The Beloved Community remains a “this-worldly” vision, but it seems pretty clear that we aren’t there yet.  There’s no confusing it with a claim about “in this lifetime.”

When I first heard the term in a Unitarian Universalist church, I heard it as a description of us – this place is OUR Beloved Community, right now.  At the time, however, I wasn’t really feeling like that church was all that beloved.  I knew too much about some of the in-fighting amongst some of the church leaders, and problems with the staff.  I had a number of many communities in my life, church was one of them, but honestly, it was the least “beloved” of them all.  I loved Unitarian Universalism.  I loved the possibilities. I loved us for trying.  But we were not there yet – and claiming that we were just triggered my BS meter and made me pull away even further.

These kinds of claims need to be carefully worded.  My guess is that my minister then was trying to help us act within our congregation as a way to transform beyond the congregation.  We must live into the vision within our congregation even as we know we are not there yet – within or beyond our church community.  We can’t wait to get it all figured out – here or there – we need to start acting as if we are the Beloved Community, and in our living make it so. (One of my favorite ways to describe faith by the way – to live as if something is true – make a leap of faith.)

And so let’s say we agree our faith calls us to be and become the Beloved Community….but how? I mean, to put it back in the original terminology – if we’re saved – saved by what? or by whom?

In theological terminology, this is what we call a question of soteriology, and delving into our response – “the transformative power of courageous love” – is going to require a whole other post.  For now, I will return to MLK for a moment to summarize this part of the rock:

“Love has within it a redemptive power.  And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative.  There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

On this 3 day weekend where we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s fitting to consider what exactly this jagged rock means to us in our lives today.  Our youth will be considering this in their conversation on Sunday, and many UU churches will be having some version of this exploration in their Sunday Services.  And, since this is the start of the 30 Days of Love, this is just the beginning of these kinds of important conversations and reflections.

As I am beginning my own 30 days of love reflections, here are the questions I’m contemplating.  I’ll post next on my response, and return to this whole idea of courageous love and its potential to transform…..

  • Where do I see glimmers of the Beloved Community in my life today?
  • Where do I catch myself feeling like it has to be all or nothing?
  • What can I do to help us be and become the Beloved Community? Is such a thing really ever possible to achieve? In this life? In any life? Where do I stand now on the “in this life” claim? Is there any way to rephrase this so it is both about the already and the not yet?
  • What saves me? What saves all of us? What does the transformative power of courageous love look like in my real life? How does it show up? How do I help it show up?

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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