The Beloved Community

Creating a society where people do not fear humanity or the government must be our ultimate goal.  This can best be accomplished by inclusion, by honoring the dignity of each individual, by integrating people into our community and decreasing their sense of isolation and peril.  Martin Luther King gave us this vision of a beloved community.  Kenneth Smith and Ira Zepp described this vision more fully:


Martin Luther King’s Vision of the Beloved Community

by Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr.

Dr. Smith is on the faculty at Colgate Rochester/Bexley Hall/Crozer in Rochester, New York. Dr. Zepp is dean of the chapel and assistant professor of religion at Western Maryland College. This article is adapted from their book Search for the Beloved community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King. Jr. (Copyright © 1974 by Judson Press, Valley forge, Pennsylvania.) This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 3, 1974, pp. 361-363. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Central to the thinking of Martin Luther King was the concept of the “Beloved Community.” Liberalism and personalism provided its theological and philosophical foundations, and nonviolence the means to attain it. True, King’s initial optimism about the possibility of actualizing that community in history was in time qualified by Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism. But the concept as such can be traced through all his speeches and writings, from the earliest to the last. In one of his first published articles he stated that the purpose of the Montgomery bus boycott “is reconciliation, . . . redemption, the creation of the beloved community.” In 1957, writing in the newsletter of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he described the purpose and goal of that organization as follows: “The ultimate aim of SCLC is to foster and create the ‘beloved community’ in America where brotherhood is a reality. . . . SCLC works for integration. Our ultimate goal is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living — integration.” And in his last book he declared: “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation . . .”

King’s was a vision of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice wherein brotherhood would be an actuality in all of social life. In his mind, such a community would be the ideal corporate expression of the Christian faith.

A Vision of Total Relatedness

Integration, as King understood it, is much more inclusive and positive than desegregation. Desegregation is essentially negative in that it eliminates discrimination against blacks in public accommodations, education, housing and employment — in those aspects of social life that can be corrected by laws. Integration, however, is “the positive acceptance of desegregation and the welcomed participation of Negroes in the total range of human activities.” But King did not believe that the transition from desegregation to integration would be inevitable or automatic. Whereas desegregation can be brought about by laws, integration requires a change in attitudes. It involves personal and social relationships that are created by love — and these cannot be legislated. Once segregation has been abolished and desegregation accomplished, blacks and whites will have to learn to relate to each other across those nonrational, psychological barriers which have traditionally separated them in our society. All of us will have to become color blind. As King said, desegregation will only produce “a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts apart. It gives us social togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness.” But integration will bring in an entirely different kind of society whose character is best summed up in the phrase “Black and White Together” — the title of one of the chapters of Why We Can’t Wait and the theme of one stanza of the civil rights movement’s hymn “We Shall Overcome.” Integration will enlarge “the concept of brotherhood to a vision of total interrelatedness.”

Behind King’s conception of the Beloved Community lay his assumption that human existence is social in nature. “The solidarity of the human family” is a phrase he frequently used to express this idea. “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” he said in one of his addresses. This was a way of affirming that reality is made up of structures that form an interrelated whole; in other words, that human beings are dependent upon each other. Whatever a person is or possesses he owes to others who have preceded him. As King wrote: “Whether we realize it or not, each of us lives eternally ‘in the red.’ ” Recognition of one’s indebtedness to past generations should inhibit the sense of self-sufficiency and promote awareness that personal growth cannot take place apart from meaningful relationships with other persons, that the “I” cannot attain fulfillment without the “Thou.”

King saw the participants in the civil rights movement as representing the Beloved Community in microcosm. The people who attended the movement’s mass meetings and rallies, joined in its demonstrations, and supported its aims in many other ways came from every section of American society. The educated and the illiterate, the affluent and the welfare recipient, white and black — men and women who heretofore had been separated by rigid social and legal codes were brought together in a common cause. Indeed, since King wanted to make the base of the movement as broad as possible, he frequently called upon whites for help in his various campaigns.

Justice for Everyone

After the March to Montgomery in the spring of 1966, several thousand marchers were delayed at the airport because their planes were late. As King tells it, he was deeply impressed by the heterogeneity yet the obvious unity of the crowd:

As I stood with them and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood [Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Harper & Row, 1967)’ p. 9]

In King’s view, the interrelatedness of human existence means that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He believed that denial of constitutional rights to anyone potentially violates the rights of all. It is the entire national community that is the victim of electric cattle prods and biting police dogs. Discrimination against 10 per cent of our population weakens the whole social fabric. Race and poverty are not merely sectional problems but American problems. It follows that the liberation of black people will also mean the emancipation of white people. King took seriously the indivisibility of human existence. “In a real sense,” he wrote, “all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” (ibid., p. 181).

His approach to human existence led King to believe that in seeking to eliminate racial injustice, the civil rights movement was making a far larger contribution to the national life. Integration is usually associated solely with the struggle for racial equality, but King conceived of it in a much broader way. He envisioned a future society in which persons would not be malformed as a result of racial hatred or economic exploitation. That is, King was not concerned about justice for blacks as opposed to justice for whites; he was concerned about justice for everyone. And he made perfectly clear what he meant by that:

Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. . . . Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World of Asia, Africa and Latin America will no longer be the victims of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy and disease [“Honoring Dr. Du Bois,” inFreedomways, VIII, s (Spring 1968), pp. 110-111].

Plainly, King’s vision of justice included all the world’s poor — blacks, whites, browns and reds: North and South Americans, Africans, Asians and Europeans. Economic justice, he held, is a right of the entire human race. He was aware too that securing this right for all would require elimination of the structures of economic injustice characteristic of capitalism.

Alleviating Economic Inequity

King’s views on this entire question grew out of his early championship of an egalitarian, socialistic approach to wealth and property. “A life,” he wrote, “is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.” He repeatedly condemned the United States’ economic system for withholding the necessities of life from the masses while heaping luxuries on the few. One of our major goals, he declared, should be to bridge the gap between abject poverty and inordinate wealth. To this end he began, during the latter part of his life, to advocate a variety of economic programs, including the creation of jobs by government and the institution of a guaranteed annual minimal income. He was impatient with phrases like “human dignity”’ and “brotherhood of man” when they did not find concrete expression in the structures of society.

The point is that King believed it was God’s intention that everyone should have the physical and spiritual necessities of life. He could not envision the Beloved Community apart from the alleviation of economic inequity and the achievement of economic justice. Harvey Cox has aptly pointed out that King combined with this emphasis two traditional biblical themes: the “holiness of the poor” and the “blessed community.” In the movement King led, blacks were the embodiment of “the poor” and integration represented the vision of “the holy community.” Cox explains:

It is . . . essential to notice that the two elements, the holy outcast and the blessed community, must go together. Without the vision of restored community, the holiness ascribed to the poor would fall far short of politics and result in a mere perpetuation of charity and service activities’’ [On Not Leaving It to the Snake (Macmillan, 1967). P. 133].

Pilgrimage to the Promised Land

In speaking about the possibility of actualizing the Beloved community in history, King attempted to avoid what he called “a superficial optimism” upon the on hand, and “a crippling pessimism” on the other. He knew that the solution of social problems is a slow process. At the same time, he was confident that, through God’s help and human effort, social progress could be made. He said in a definitive passage:

Although man’s moral pilgrimage may never reach a destination point on earth, his never-ceasing strivings may bring him ever closer to the city of righteousness. And though the Kingdom of god may remain not yet as universal reality in history, in the present it may exist in such isolated forms as in judgment, in personal devotion, and in some group life. . . . Above all, we must be reminded anew that God is at work in his universe. lie is hot outside the world looking on within a. son of cold indifference. . . . As we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us. Evil dies on the seashore, not merely because of man’s endless struggle against it, but because of God’s power to defeat it [Struggle to Love (Harper & Row, 1961). p. 64].

Thus, though acutely aware that the Beloved Community is “not yet,” but in the future — perhaps even the distant future — Martin Luther King believed that it would eventually be actualized, and already lie saw approximations of it. That is why he worked unceasingly for the realization of his dream and never lost hope that “there will be a great camp meeting in the promised land’ His hope was rooted in his faith in the power of God to achieve his purpose among humankind within history.


Sowing Seeds of Hope Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

Sowing Seeds of Hope                                                                                                                                                                              Susan Lea Smith                                                                                                                                                                                  Cedar Hills United Church of Christ                                                                                                                                                 January 20, 2013 (as preached on the occasion of Martin Luther King Sunday)

Today we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who loved God and his neighbors with all his heart,might, soul and mind,  who picked up his cross on his people’s behalf and behalf of all of us, and who sought to follow Jesus until the day he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

Dr. King led the civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and 60s and taking Gandhi’s approach of non-violent resistance to evil, he led boycotts, marches, sit-ins and protest of every sort.  But he was more than a civil rights leader. He was a tireless advocate for peace, nuclear disarmament and an end to the war in Vietnam.  And he fought for economic justice at every turn.  Indeed, Dr. King was in Memphis fighting for economic justice, supporting the city’s garbage collectors strike when he was shot dead on that sad day in April.

Dr. King was not only an activist: he  inspired us through his remarkable speeches and sermons.  He was indeed a modern day prophet and an absolutely consummate preacher!  Now prophets have two unique tasks.  The first is speaking the truth in love – diagnosing the true ills of a people and then prescribing a cure even if that requires telling them uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. The second is sowing hope that these difficulties will be overcome.  The emphasis prophets give each task depends upon the circumstances of their time and place: they proclaim what the people need to hear

In today’s Scripture, Isaiah, a prophet of long ago, spoke at a time when his people most needed hope.  He spoke at a time of hardship, confusion, and despair.  He assured them that by remaining true to the inclusive message of liberation and compassionate justice, their loving God would bring them honor among nations and prosperity. Through these words, Isaiah did his best to sow seeds of hope.

Likewise, Dr. King’s clarion call to justice and his hope-filled vision of the future gave courage and hope to those of us who fought beside him, facing arrest, fire hoses, police dogs, cross burnings and death.   But he supplied hope not just to those who struggled along with him: he offered an inclusive hope of racial equality, peace, and economic justice for all.  And he promised that one day we would achieve those dreams, we would indeed reach that mountaintop.  And from that mountaintop, our whole society would see the gospel vision, the Kingdom of God that, with God’s help, would come to pass on earth.  Quite simply, Dr. King sowed seeds of hope—far and wide.

Since the morning of December 14th, 2012, when I spent hours praying in this sanctuary…since December 14th,  a day that like Pearl Harbor day will live in infamy, I’ve considered how Dr. King would have responded to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and the larger problem of gun violence.

Dr. King abhorred violence in any form and, like Gandhi, was sorely disappointed on those occasions when his followers succumbed to that terrible…terrible temptation to use violence against evil.  So there is no doubt in my mind that Dr. King would have been at the forefront of the battle against gun violence.  But I am less certain which strategies he would have used to counter the power of the NRA with Congress and an antagonistic Supreme Court.

Perhaps Dr. King would have simply urged us to keep pressure on our legislators, writing letters, attending town meetings and talking to them at the legislature.  I have it on impeachable authority that this strategy is very important right now.

Perhaps Dr. King would have led us in marching on Washington (and the state capitols of our great nation) to demand effective regulation of such weapons.

Perhaps Dr. King might even have urged us to commit non-violent civil disobedience, to do radical, risky things—things that I fear I lack the courage to do.  I can imagine that he and his closest followers might have stormed into gun shows where semi-automatic weapons are sold to convicted felons and people suffering from dangerous mental illnesses – and, like Jesus, upset the tables of the merchants of death.  But I think he would have refrained because, however tempting, that sort of action would exacerbate fear.

Though I am not certain about his strategies for direct action, I am certain he would have shared another dream – a dream that not one, single more American child will die by bullets from the barrel of a semi-automatic weaponHe would have shared that dream.

He also would have sought to sow seeds of hope for all Americans, seeking to create an inclusive vision even for those who grasp most tightly onto their semi-automatic weapons – suspicious of humanity and afraid of their government.  For you see, the job of a prophet is more than telling people what they are doing is wrong or what they ought to be doing.  A prophet must illuminate a vision of the kingdom of God and reassure us that we, with the help of God, can bring that kingdom to earth.

Forces of darkness are telling Americans that we need semi-automatic weapons to resist foreign invasion, crime, governmental tyranny, and social disorder when the apocalypse comes. They bombard our friends and neighbors with a message that our country is on its way to ruin and our government is somehow responsible for that ruin.  They seek to have us desperately worship the false idol of those weapons, trusting in firepower, rather than our God.  They truly are engaged in a battle for the American soul.

Sadly, Dr. King is not here to fight the battle against gun violence.  Only you and I can fight this battle.  But the same Spirit of loving compassion and justice that nurtured, called and guided Dr. King, the voice of God that spoke so clearly and strongly to him, remains.  That Spirit now calls us to do our part to assure America is no longer a society where deeply disturbed people have ready access to weapons of mass destruction.

In her sermons over the last few months, beginning with the one before Sandy Hook when she read a list of recent mass shootings, the Rev. Mary Sue Evers has provided a prophetic voice about gun violence.  Have we been listening?  Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?  I hope and believe we do.

But today I ask even more of you, of us, than she has asked.  For we must address not just the symptoms, but the disease that makes people hold onto their guns so tightly: their profound fear of our society and our government. Dr. King taught us that the antidotes to fear are self-awareness, courage, love, and faith. So, to combat the disease of fear that grips those who cling onto semi-automatic rifles, to help them fight their fear– each of us must serve as a prophetic voice, intentionally, consciously, sowing seeds of love, of faith, of hope among our friends and neighbors.

To be such a voice, we must be careful about how we address the various flaws of our society.  Whenever we talk about problems in apocalyptic terms, whenever we use rhetoric more extreme than our positions, and whenever we blame the flaws of our society on corrupt government and mindless bureaucrats, we play into the hands of darkness and we foster more fear, cynicism, and despair.

I confess that I’ve said such things, I’ve used that sort of dark rhetoric— and I suspect that many of you have as well.  We ought to be more careful.

We ought to take care not to feed apocalyptic nightmares by suggesting that somehow the sky is falling: the global economy poised on the brink of collapse or that any other problem from nukes in Iran to global warming is about to destroy life as we know it.

We ought to take care not to act, or overstate our position, in ways that create more fear instead of less.  If we moderate our actions and our rhetoric, we can foster dialogue: if our issue is with death-dealing semi-automatic weapons, it is good to reassure owners of ordinary hunting rifles that we do not support banning their weapons.

We ought to take care not to foster contempt for our government by suggesting that our democratically-elected government is somehow illegitimate.  Each time we engage in such dark rhetoric, we reinforce the darkness. Leave the darkness to the darkness.

So, what should we say?  What might Isaiah or Dr. King say in these confusing and troubling times.  Preach the good news and sow seeds of Gospel faith: trust in God’s abundance, mercy, and justice, and foster that trust in others. Lift up the victories and sow seeds of hope—celebrate the states that are acting on this issue and celebrate that our President is prepared to lead the battle against gun violence even through it carries political risks.  Tell stories of compassion, justice, and love.  Let me share just one little story—an almost unbelievable story—right now.

In my last sermon, I recounted how directly experiencing God, the Spirit that is love, during my stay in India has led me to experience the same exquisite joy whenever I serve as a conduit of that love to others.  I gave one small example – my Wal-Mart moment, when the Spirit moved me to pay the bill of a woman at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart who had her credit card declined.  Her plight flooded me with compassion in part because I’m sure her teenage daughter was absolutely mortified!!!  My Wal-Mart moment indeed freed me to share God’s abundance with others whether they just need an ear to listen, money for gas or groceries, or a hot home-made meal.

 Well, today I’d like to finish that story.  About two years ago, I found the tables turned.  One night, I was standing at the Safeway checkout counter with my son Nathanial, who had just returned from college.  He still eats like a teenager –those of you who have had teenagers can imagine what my grocery bills are like when he’s home! That night, when I zipped my debit card through and punched in my PIN, the system declined it.  I was embarrassed and anxious about Nathanial finding out how tight money was.  As I turned to talk with him, the woman behind me in line just handed her card to the clerk and paid my bill – more than $240.  When I asked where to send the money to repay her, she smiled and told me not to worry about that – she had enough money. That woman’s loving act was a simple, vivid illustration of how God’s love indeed fills the entire world and how trust in God enlivens, enriches, and simplifies one’s life.

The truth that we can proclaim to our friends and neighbors is that amazing things happen when we act out of loving compassion and when we trust in God’s abundance, mercy and justice.  If Dr. King were here today, I believe he’d remind us that we are all called to act with loving compassion.  We are all called, in whatever way we can find, to light a candle, to be a force of light chasing away the darkness.  Quite simply, we are all called to be prophets and to take on the task of sowing seeds of hope.  I pray that each of us will respond to that call. Amen.

Obama’s gun proposals supported by the majority of Americans

Polls show Obama’s proposals are supported by the majority.  Visit our polls page

What do you think?

Happy New Year

Make this year truly meaningful.  Make a New Year’s Resolution: I pledge to do something each day (or 7 things a week) to reduce gun violence.  Share a story on gun violence on FB, sign a petition, write a letter to a government official…every day.  Make a pledge that honors those children’s lives and that will truly bring hope to our nation.


The answer to ethical questions for Christians must begin with the Scriptural teachings of Jesus.  Not necessary what would Jesus have done, but what a faithful follower of Jesus should do.  Huff Post Religion had a blog post on that this week.  It comes to the only conclusion that a faithful Christian can reach, IMHO.  But I would go further.  Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple.  It is time to turn over the tables of semi-automatic weapons in the temple of the NRA (otherwise known as Congress).  The NRA and gun manufacturers have created a systemic evil that can only be addressed by concerted action by Christians (and other people of faith) to banish it.  The time to act is now.

What Would Jesus Say to the NRA?
Posted: 12/24/2012 4:43 pm

by Shane Claiborne

….  From his birth in the manger as a homeless refugee until his brutal execution on the Roman cross, Jesus was very familiar with violence. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Jesus’ coming to earth is all about a God who leaves the comfort of heaven to join the suffering on earth. The fact that Christians throughout the world regularly identify with a victim of violence — and a nonviolent, grace-filled, forgiving victim — is perhaps one of the most fundamentally life-altering and world-changing assumptions of the Christian faith. Or it should be.

So what does that have to do with the NRA? Underneath the rhetoric of the gun-control debate this Christmas is a nagging question: Are more guns the solution to our gun problem?

Everything in Jesus’ world, just as in ours, contends that we must use violence to protect the innocent from violence, which is the very thing Jesus came to help us un-learn through his nonviolent life and death on the cross. Surely, we think, if God were to come to earth, he should at least come with a bodyguard — if not an entire entourage of armed soldiers and secret service folk. But Jesus comes unarmed. Surely, we think, if God were about to be killed he would bust out a can of butt-kicking wrath; but Jesus looks into the eyes of those about to kill him and says, “Father forgive them.” The Bible goes so far to say that the wisdom of God makes no sense to the logic of this world, in fact it may even seem like “foolishness” (or at least utopian idealism).  When soldiers come to arrest and execute Jesus, one of his closest friends defensively picks up a sword to protect him. Jesus’ response is stunning: He scolds his own disciple and heals the wounded persecutor. It was a tough and very counter-intuitive lesson: “The one who picks up the sword dies by the sword … there is another way.” …

Many Christians have begun to speak of Jesus as an interruption to the “myth of redemptive violence,” the assumption that we can use violence to get rid of violence or that we can destroy a life to save a life. The myth of redemptive violence has many ugly faces. It teaches us that we can kill those who kill to show that killing is wrong. It teaches us to live by the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” a law that Jesus firmly spun on its head, saying, “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth … but I tell you…” There is another way. Killing to show that killing is wrong is like trying to teach holiness by fornication. The cure is as bad as the disease.

At one point Jesus even weeps over the violent world he lived in, lamenting that “they did not know the things that would lead to peace.” The fact that Jesus carried a cross rather than a sword has something relevant and redemptive to offer our violent-possessed world. After all, the Bible has a lot to say about loving enemies, and “Thou shalt not kill,” but doesn’t even mention the right to bear arms.

… What would Jesus say to our nation…:
10,000 people die from gun-related homicides each year, that’s one Sandy Hook massacre a day, every day
There are nearly 90 guns for every 100 people
There are more than 51,000 licensed gunshops (and 30,000 supermarkets)
Guns that can shoot 100 rounds a minute, and are only designed to kill, are still legal
Other than auto accidents, gun violence is the leading cause of death of young people (under 20)
$20,000 a second is spent on war

… [Jesus] consistently taught that we can disarm violence without mirroring it, and that we can rid the world of evil without becoming the evil we abhor. So let us recommit ourselves to Peace this Christmas season and new year — in honor of Jesus, and in honor of the holy innocents.

Full post:

Five more myths — beyond the canard that gun control doesn’t work

Five myths about gun control

In this Washington Post piece on December 21, 2012 (apocalypse past), Robert J. Spitzer — distinguished service professor and chair of the political science department at the State University of New York College at Cortland and author of four books on gun policy, including “The Politics of Gun Control”–tackles five myths about control:

  1. gun control is a losing battle for Democrats (the NRA has not been able to elect pro-gun candidates and gun control is not that salient an issue);
  2. guns are deadliest as murder weapons (no, guns facilitate far more suicides than homicides);
  3. American schools have become shooting galleries (no, schools are remarkably safe and getting safer);
  4. gun control laws are incompatible with our Western heritage (gun control laws have been around as long as guns have);                                and most significantly,
  5. the Second Amendment was adopted to allow rebellion against government (no, it was adopted to allow armed state militia to suppress insurrections!!!). 

For the full article, visit:  Spitzer is available at

Yes Virginia, Gun Control Does Work

Despite the massive loopholes in the 1994 assault weapon ban, it still helped — according to the only official study that Congress permitted and according to an October 2012 Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Study.

JH School of Public Health Study

National Institute of Justice Study