1. Martin Luther King, Jr. from “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957
Our ultimate end must be reconciliation; the end must be redemption; the end must be the creation of the beloved community. We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving others for their sakes and makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.It is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.
2. Rebecca Parker, “Life Together,” from A House for Hope
The perils of religious community have left many liberals and progressives convinced that organized religious communities cannot be trusted; they pose too many dangers and break too many promises. They fail to embody what they profess and disappoint those who invest their lives in them. Such wariness about religious community puts liberals and progressives in sacred company. The Hebrew prophets condemned religion when its priests soothed the privileged but neglected the poor. In the book of Amos, the prophet declares, “Take away the noise of your singing, stop your ritual sacrifices. Instead, let justice roll down like waters!”
Sermon “What is Required of Us”
When he made these bitter declarations, Amos was speaking to his own people, the Isrealites. It was a time of prosperity, and wealth – at least for the ruling class. Not so much for everyone else.
Amos, like his fellow prophets, Isaiah, and Micah, was appalled at the ways the Israelites were interpreting their religion. He says, “I hate, despise your festivals and your sacrifices and burnt offerings.” None of the prophets could stand the empty rituals, the hypocritical prayers declaring peace peace when there was no peace.
From the Hebrew prophets’ interpretation, a righteous life meant taking care of the poor, the marginalized, the stranger among them – not just performing a bunch of rituals and acting “holy.”
If you read the details of the 613 rules given to Moses- you thought there were 10? – 613 commandments in fact – it’s pretty clear the prophets were right.
But then, as now, people were busy and don’t always remember so many things at once, and life gets distracting, and so another of the prophets, Micah, spoke more clearly and succinctly:
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In these three simple and beautiful phrases, Micah managed to offer a vision that remains even today both specific and broad enough that people of a wide variety of theological orientations and faith traditions use it as both a map and compass, an orientation for life, despite the passing of some nearly 3,000 years.
As an illustration of its appeal – my friend, a Unitarian Universalist minister about my age, has the phrase tattooed on her forearm; she talks about it as her personal mission statement. And, as you may have noticed, David’s usual benediction uses the phrase somewhat reworded – inviting us to “do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with all that is to you holy.”
On the other end of the theological spectrum, the chapter and verse of this phrase in Micah are the source for the name of the service arm of the Timberline Church – Serve 6:8. Chapter 6, Verse 8. Through Serve 6:8, Timberline provides financial assistance, food boxes, home repair, food preparation, and a variety of other supports, including having recently taken over the Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center, a resource center for the homeless. Through all of these services, and many others, Serve 6:8 does as they describe on their website “serve our community demonstrating God’s love in tangible ways with no strings attached.”
I find this work and mission so beautiful, and inspiring. And I am not a small bit jealous. I want to be a part of a faith tradition that makes such a big impact on my community, that connects my faith with this impact, and that creates clear and tangible way for me and my church community to care for those in the wider community.
And I want to be able to trust that underlying this good invitation is a foundation aligned with my own values and theological claims, which is to say, a foundation that seeks to dismantle rather than reinforce patriarchy and white supremacy, undo rather than teach heterosexism and homophobia, interrogate rather than affirm colonialism and American Exceptionalism, transform rather than overlook classism and ableism, and most of all, one that sees our lot as fundamentally bound up together, which is to say – none are saved unless all are saved, which means that we don’t just enact charity, we address the systems that keep people marginalized and othered, that we seek a transformation of ourselves, and a transformation of the whole. Where are the Serve 6:8s that are built on this kind of justice?
Unfortunately, as far as I know, they don’t exist. Nothing like Serve 6:8, with its degree of reach and local impact, with its force of volunteers and its level of funding, exists within such a liberal, progressive theological paradigm, Unitarian Universalist or otherwise. We have the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, sure, but that is internationally focused, and invites individuals to participate in a broad call, rather than a community inspired by the specific heartbreak and call of their own particular context, by their own covenanted community.
And I wonder why. Do you? I wonder all the time.
I have a couple theories. One – I think a lot of our people do this work professionally – we found and run and work at non-profits – which means we don’t feel the need, or have the time, or the energy to do locally-based justice work as a part of our faith community. Which also means we don’t see the need, or understand how we could tie their work to our faith commitments, our spiritual path, or our theological claims.
But it’s more than that: After Rebecca Parker acknowledges that our discomfort with religious institutions aligns us with the Hebrew prophets, she goes on to describe how:
“As a result, liberal and progressive people of faith are more at home alone than in company with others.” (This is what Fred Muir has described as the iChurch phenomenon of Unitarian Universalism; a church that prizes individualism above all)
“Many liberals, consciously or not, seem to prefer that their religious institutions remain weak, underfunded, or distracted by endless attention to “process” and checks on the exercise of power. Too much money, power, or organization, it is feared, will lead to corruption.
“One friend of mine, a United Methodist lay leader and community activist quips that liberal religion teaches that you can do anything you feel called to as long as you do it alone.”
What a lonely, frustrating, and unavoidably heartbreaking path we sentence ourselves to. I mean, we care so deeply about justice!
It reminds me of a moment in seminary when my professor, a Native American activist and theologian, asked us – a group of liberal seminarians – if we believed “power” was a bad word. There was a general sense of like – well, obviously. It’s not, he said. Power is neither good, nor bad – in and of itself. It is how power is used that is good, or bad, moral, or immoral, just, or unjust.
Despite the historical trend, I am convinced that it need not be this way. I am convinced we can transform our understanding of what is required of us, detach it from the grip of individualism,and the idealizing of a bunch of individual paths and commitments of those who “happen to hang out together,” and the fear of a powerful religious institution – because it will be power used for our vision of the good.
The key to such a transformation – what you might call – our salvation – lies in Beloved Community.
When I first heard the term, I was a relatively new Unitarian Universalist attending a church where there was pervasive bickering and back-stabbing behind the scenes; when the minister called the church our “Beloved Community” from the pulpit, I nearly let a “Ha!” slip from my mouth. I didn’t know anything about the concept, the tradition he was pointing to – I only knew the words “beloved community” felt like a mismatch to what I was experiencing, and thus more support in my own history of religious institutions not living up to their promises.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was attending an annual conference put on by our District, where I realized “Beloved Community” wasn’t just a fancy way to say “the community you love.”
It turns out, the term dates back to the late nineteenth century philosopher Josiah Royce, who described it as the highest ideal of human community, achieving the highest good, and the most common good. Then, in the mid-twentieth century a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., after hearing about it in seminary, started preaching Beloved Community as our ultimate ends. The ultimate end for churches, for activists, for any human beings who cared about justice, and about that question of what the Lord (or Love) requires.
As the King Center website describes it, “Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.” There’s no poverty, hunger, or homelessness; no racism, or bigotry – instead there is an “all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.
Love and trust triumph over fear and hatred. All conflict can be resolved peacefully and should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.”
In short, Beloved Community is a humanistic, this-worldly vision of the Kingdom – or what we might call the Kin-dom of God.
Since King, progressives of all kinds of have taken up the concept of Beloved Community, and continued to enrich and deepen its meaning, recognizing it as an idealized expression of our own covenantal tradition.
As an example, his book, The Prophetic Imperative, Unitarian minister Richard Gilbert describes the Beloved Community as “an image embodying human hopes and standing over against human finitude in judgment of the social order. Its basic characteristic is human solidarity.” He goes on to assert that the Beloved Community is “the highest common denominator for Unitarian Universalists and thus an appropriate symbol for us.”
Beloved Community can be for the local liberal church, that shared understanding of what it means to “do justice” – not as a bunch of individuals on our own paths, but on a shared path, together. It is who we are – at our core.
Which brings me to my 5 Guideposts for discerning what is required of US, based in my understanding of Beloved Community. It’s 2 more answers to than Micah gave, but still fewer than the 613 in the covenant code, so hopefully still simple enough for us in our congregation to use as a tool, and a reminder, as we discern our way forward, together:
- We are the Beloved Community. Despite my skepticism when I first heard it – maybe despite yours today – Beloved Community begins with us – this congregation. You, and me. It begins with the ways we treat each other, and our staff, and the community around us. It’s in the way we show up as friends, neighbors, family members, and the ways we transform ourselves and transform the world. A church is a microcosm of the values it espouses, or at least it is supposed to be. When it is isn’t – well that’s why we end up with all our cynicism and skepticism about religion in the first place. But luckily, as James Luther Adams would say, we go to church topractice being human. All of this, is practice. We’re practicing. And in our practice, we help each other be better humans. We help each other be the Beloved Community. Small groups and regular worship, shared service both within and beyond the congregation, our recent covenant of right relations work – all of these are our practice.
- Actually we’re not, and nor is the world, Beloved Community. Our culture teaches us to accept things that are actually unacceptable – all the time. And so part of our work in the church is about seeing with new eyes. To live in this world, we learn to accept the fact that a 2 year old can shoot her mother in Walmart with a legal gun. We find ways to walk past that homeless teenager on the mall. We learn to find it “normal” that some people have mutliple multi-million dollar homes and other people have no home at all. We get used to the degrading comments about women, or gays, or people of color we hear in our work places, or our families. But these things are not normal, and we shouldn’t have to act as if they are. As Martin Luther King said, there are some things where it is right to be mal-adjusted. So we need our church to be a place that can remind us that this is not the world we were meant for. We need church to be a place where we can confess our heartbreak and confusion and our vulnerability. We need to be able to let down our walls and our coping mechanisms and begin to remember life like it’s supposed to be. And then gain the tools to create that world. A cycle of action-and-reflection is really helpful for this; theory can’t save us, talking can’t save us – if it could we really would already be the Beloved Community; but action without grounded reflection can’t save us either. We need both. For only when we understand the heartbreak of the world and connect it to the aching of our own hearts and our real lives, can we really understand how we need to act, and why.
- This means we need spiritual practice, and we need a constructed theology. Sustained open-heartedness requires feeling connected to something greater than ourselves. A greater love, the interdependent web, the spirit of life, God. And sustained waking up requires meaning-making around this something-greater. We need constructive, positive theology, not just the stuff we know we don’t believe. We need to know the words we’d want said at our bedside, or at the bedside of the one we love, and we need to have a sense of how and why we keep going in the face of loss and disappointment. And then we need to tell each other about all these things, because we’re gonna need to be reminded. A lot.
- Luckily, Beloved Community is all about relationship. From a position of companioning, we are invited to walk along side one another; unlearning the dehumanizing patterns of racism, classism, sexism – dehumanizing patterns for us all – and establish new habits and patterns of partnership. Hearing each other’s stories, rather than responding to issues; working together rather than taking sides; responding to the felt needs rather than the headlines; resisting what my colleague the Rev. Deborah Holder calls – the “marbles under our feet” of the next big crisis which so often come to us these days in the form of the activist email list. Unsubscribe! there’s no relationship in the email list. This relational foundation means Beloved Community does not compete for resources, but collaborates towards more for everyone. Simply put, in the Beloved Community paradigm, we don’t do stuff that others are already doing well. We strengthen our ties, help each other out, offer the unique gifts we have, and rejoice in the working together. Which brings me to….
- We have to get clear on what it is that only we can do- and do that. This one builds on all the other 4, all of which teach us where we are needed and called. This is – from what I can tell – the kind of work that led to our participation in FFH, and the creation of our ESL tutoring program over 2 years ago. Getting to our answer for the future is what our Appreciative Inquiry sessions will be about in the next couple of months – which is why we are asking everyone to sign up for 1 of the 6 sessions – it’s that important that we need all of us involved. My own bias about our specific call is geared toward the local. Very local. Our own neighborhood even. As an example – following a tradition that Marc had started many years ago, and encouraged by our Caring Team, I went and visited many of our neighbors before Christmas, to say thank you for being a good neighbor and to introduce myself. It was moving, important work. More than one greeted me with tears in their eyes, and most were happy to be invited to a church with a “lady minister.” I thought of one of my teachers, Kay Northcutt, who has a debilitating disease that keeps her mostly home bound, and who tells of being regularly visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses, but she told a gathering of UUs a couple years ago – she was never visited once by a Unitarian. Why? She wondered. Did we not believe we should bring our love out into the world? Bring our love to the homebound, the lonely, the yearning hearts of all kinds, hungry for a world of connection and kindness, a vision of Beloved Community?
If we are to live up to all that is required of us – these 5 guidelines are a place to begin:
1. Being the beloved community;
2. Educating ourselves on all the ways we and the world are not yet Beloved Community,
3. Committing to spiritual practice and shared theological construction,
4. Putting relationships at the center of our work
and 5. Getting clear on what only we can do and to follow through –
and these 5 are my sense and hope for how we will fulfill the promise we make to ourselves each week when we say Love is the spirit of this church. Because what we mean is Agape Love.
In this path, I believe we can get over our fear of the powerful liberal religious institution and instead become its champion. We can release our good news into the world knowing it is worthy of our very best resources – our money, our time, our testimony, even our door-to-door – because it is a vision of the world that we believe in – it is our shared vision of Beloved Community.