Martin Luther King Jr.‘s search for a `beloved community’

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c. 1996 Religion News Service

(RNS)-He is celebrated as a civil rights leader, a social reformer and a great orator, a towering figure of 20th-century pacifism and political leadership.

But the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was also a theologian, a title often forgotten each Jan. 15, on the anniversary of his birth.

Yet it was King’s theology-especially a pathbreaking concept he called the “beloved community”-that shaped his life and made him one of the prophetic voices of his age.

Nearly three decades after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, scholars say the nation needs to embrace his theological ideas if it is to overcome the social and racial ills that continue to plague it.

“It’s a very xenophobic, mean-spirited time,” said the Rev. Calvin S. Morris, academic dean of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

“Dr. King’s theology talks about inclusion, not exclusion,” added Morris, former executive director of The King Center, an Atlanta organization that works for non-violent social change. “It talks about welcoming the stranger, not turning and shutting the door on the stranger.”

King’s “beloved community”-the idea that all people are inherently good and equally deserving of justice and peace-was a unique synthesis of Christian ideals and civil rights principles, set against an emerging cultural backdrop of religious ecumenism and globalization.

“We have inherited a large house, a great `world house,’ in which we have to live together-black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, (Muslim) and Hindu-a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest …” King wrote in 1967.

Forged in an era of sharp racial and religious divisions, King’s theology of a “beloved community” sprang as much from his experiences as a civil rights leader and minister as from his university studies. As scholar Paul Garber once put it, it was a theology shaped “on the run,” one woven into sermons, articles, speeches and the occasional book from notes made on airplanes, in hotel rooms and on infrequent vacations.

“Theology occurs where people are in struggle,” Bishop John Hurst Adams, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said in an interview. “We (King and I) were schoolmates for three years at Boston University, so we did some theological study together, but that was not where his theology happened.”

King’s theology underpinned his civil rights work and was developed at a time of legally-and often violently-enforced racial segregation. Homes and churches were being bombed and civil rights workers murdered. More generally, America’s ethnic and religious communities lived with little interaction.

“The ultimate aim of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” King wrote in 1957, referring to the civil rights organization formed out of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott movement, “is to foster and create the `beloved community’ in America where brotherhood is a reality. … Our ultimate goal is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living-integration.”

King drew his “beloved community” from the classical Christian concept of the Kingdom of God, in which all of the created world dwells together in peace and harmony. He re-fashioned the Kingdom of God into the notion that a personal God cares for and directs the creation and that Christian love, including the love of enemies, binds all peoples together.

Most importantly, however, King believed that the “beloved community” was achievable through the power of redemptive suffering, exemplified in Jesus’ cross, and the nonviolent struggle against the evils that created poverty and racism.

From his academic training at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pa., and Boston University School of Theology, King forged a unique message that he exported from the ivory-tower world of academia to the streets of 1950s and ’60s America.

Noel Erskine, associate professor of theology and ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and author of “King Among the Theologians,” said King’s theology stressed the need to relate Christian faith to concrete action.

King believed a theologian “must be committed to struggle to change the world as well as willing to lay down his or her life in the quest for justice for the oppressed,” Erskine said.

That means, Erskine added, “that issues of economics, justice … poverty-these issues must be brought from the periphery to the center of theological attention.

“If you love each other and respect each other, then this has to be translated into economic terms. … We can’t have islands of poverty in an ocean of plenty,” he said.

King used to say he could see glimpses of the “beloved community” in the integrated mass protests that he led.

But in the years after his death, King’s theology was largely eclipsed by court rulings that failed to advance the cause of school desegregation, political attacks on affirmative action, erosion in commitments to integration among whites, as well as by the Black Power movement and renewed black nationalism.

Scholars and friends of King say his theology must be renewed as the nation seeks to deal with a new generation of racial and social issues.

“When we think of the violence that’s threatening everything we hold dear, his non-violence approach, which emerges out of respect even for the enemy-I think we will have to turn to that,” said Erskine, who has taught a course on King’s theology with the civil rights leader’s widow, Coretta Scott King.

In some quarters, King’s ideas already are being kindled anew.

For example, the Congress of National Black Churches plans to call for a day of reflection and prayer on the anniversary of King’s assassination this coming April 4. The coalition of eight historically black denominations will issue an “inclusive religious community appeal for nonviolence and peace and justice in our society,” said Adams, the congress’ founder.

Morris pointed to a new ecumenical effort called “Call for Renewal” as a latter-day manifestation of King’s ideals. Led by evangelicals, Catholics, black church members and mainline Protestants, the initiative seeks to promote what it calls “biblical virtues of justice and righteousness.”

“These are people who both are concerned about personal salvation and personal renewal, but they’re also concerned about societal … renewal,” said Morris, “and that’s certainly a part of Dr. King’s philosophy.”


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