“We’re never going to get serious about anti-racism until we quit talking about the Beloved Community!” Or so said a colleague of mine a few years back at a board meeting where becoming an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural organization was being discussed. The colleague, who is of Latino/a heritage, was trying to make an important point: all too often, the notion of the Beloved Community is used as shorthand to denote an unachievable future where categories like race, gender, sexual orientation, or being differently-abled no longer are used to make a large portion of the world’s population second class citizens. As long as we seem like we’re working toward that noble goal, we’re pretty much off the hook for the failings of the not-so-beloved communities we inhabit in our daily lives. Take the notion of the Beloved Community off the table and we might just notice how little we’re actually doing to build the kind of world we claim to seek.

Now I have to admit that I was mildly annoyed by my colleague’s claim. After all, the Beloved Community is about all we Unitarian Universalists have left of the Kingdom of God: the radical concept put forth by Jesus that there was something accessible, within us and among us, that could put us in touch with the very nature of a loving and compassionate God. If we abandoned the notion of the Beloved Community, we would be cutting ourselves off from the roots of our liberal religious faith. What little that remains of our progressive Jewish and Christian heritage would wither away like a cursed fig tree, I fear, diminishing our presence in the American religious landscape.

Still, we do ourselves a disservice when we pay only lip service to the Beloved Community. And as much as I hate to say it, my colleague may have been right about that. When we toss the term around without really understanding the history of its meaning, we run the risk of diminishing its theological and cultural importance, making it about as consequential as singing Kum Ba Yah around a campfire at the monastery of St. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It would behoove us, as the learned clergy say, to get a firm grasp on the basic concepts of the Beloved Community, especially as put forth by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Which brings me to the Rev. Shirley Strong, Dean of Students at the California Institute for Integral Studies, and her truly excellent post on the history and meaning of the term, “Toward a Vision of Beloved Community.” To be honest, Strong’s clear and concise article taught me more about how and why Dr. King made use of the term Beloved Community than anything UU resource I’ve seen (though I’ll readily confess that haven’t seen them all). She even supplied me with this possible rejoinder to my colleague at the board meeting:

The principles that form the core of King’s Beloved Community ideal include:

  • The interrelatedness of all things
  • The solidarity of the human family
  • The equal moral status of the individual and the community
  • The realization that each of us lives eternally “in the red” (that is, benefiting from the contributions of others)

Goodness there’s a lot of theological and cultural meat to chew on there. Rather that doing away with the term to further our anti-racism work, I’d rather we pledge to be much more precise when using it. As far as I’m concerned, if it was good enough for Dr. King, it’s good enough for me.