As Unitarian Universalists, we often speak of the concept of Beloved Community, especially in relation to our social and racial justice work.
Our understanding today of the Beloved Community was introduced by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but American religious philosopher Josiah Royce was actually the first to use the term in the early 1900s. Royce believed that “Every moral deed, is to be tested by whether and to what extent it contributes to the Beloved Community…When one cannot find the ‘beloved community,’ then one needs to take steps to create it and…To Act So as To Hasten Its Coming.”
In the 1950s, then Rev. King was a doctoral student at BU’s School of Theology and encountered Royce’s idea of Beloved Community, further developing and refining it for his own ministry. Expanding beyond Royce’s idea of radical personal transformation, Dr. King also believed in community transformation – the need for “deep restructuring of institutions if the Beloved Community was to be realized.”
The ideas of both of these theologians are perpetually aspirational. They are goals which give us a direction in which to move, a focus to strive toward – but we cannot necessarily expect to reach them quickly. The work of building and sustaining community relies on the power of humanity – even, and in spite of, our flaws and fallibility.
Henri Nouwen presents this to us in the idea that “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives…That person is always in your community somewhere; and in the eyes of others, you might be that person.”
In these words, Nouwen is actually inviting us to an even greater hopefulness. He tells us that to stay in community we have to believe that everyone’s better selves exist and will eventually show up. He does this by reminding us that as we pat our backs for being gracious with our differently opinioned neighbors, that to our neighbors we are the annoying ones!
By adding us to the mix of the unwanted, he says that beloved community requires us to believe not only that others are worth our effort but also that we will be worth the effort in the eyes of others.
It’s an insight that we must not miss.
We often move away from community, not just because others let us down, but also because we doubt that others will show up when we let them down.
We keep our community at arm’s length, not just because it is hard to build, but also because we don’t trust that it will be there for us.
This is our reminder that the work of beloved community is bigger than we usually expect.
It’s not just about building a better world; it’s also about building up each other’s faith. We are in a struggle not just against the conflicts between us, but also the doubt within us.
What’s most important to know about Beloved Community is not just that we can create it, but that we can count on it.
I look forward to seeing you on Sunday,