What is beloved community?

Lisi Wolf

Beloved community is a community in which everyone is cared for, absent of poverty, hunger and hate. The term was first used by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation who popularized the term and invested it with deeper meaning. As explained by the King Center, “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which …racism and all forms of discrimination will be replaced by and all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”  Here is a link to Dr. King's 1957 speech on Beloved Community: Martin Luther King Jr. 'Birth of a New Nation' April 7, 1957 - YouTube.

Our Approach to Building Beloved Community

Reject Hate, Not the Hater.

Every parent and teacher knows that when we criticize a child, we want to focus on the disapproved behavior without conveying that we disapprove of the child herself. By separating the child’s behavior from the child’s essence, we let the child know that we believe in her essential goodness and worthiness, and we believe in her potential to grow into a better person. The same principle is true for how we relate to adults. Dr. King put it this way:

But I'm talking about agape. I'm talking about the love of God in the hearts of men. I’m talking about a type of love which will cause you to love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. We've got to love.

~ Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in “Give Us the Ballot” (1957) 

The goal is relationship, not victory.

For Dr. King, it was vital that we not see people who behave unjustly and cruelly as hopelessly and incurably evil, but rather as capable of transformation, growth and redemption.

By separating the actor from his behavior, Dr. King was expressing the hope that a future was possible in which the racist and the victim of racism would have a new relationship rooted in mutual respect and love. That’s why the way in which we fight injustice is centrally important. The goal is not the defeat of the unjust, it’s their transformation, and the reconciliation of the hurter and the one who is being hurt. Here is how Dr. King put it:

The aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of non-violence is the creation of beloved community, so that when the battle is over, a new relationship comes into being. The end is reconciliation. The end is redemption. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

~ Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Power of Non-Violence” June 1957

American democracy at is best is rooted in our ability to respect each other across difference. Liberals and Conservatives might disagree passionately about a particular policy. But, ideally, our disagreement does not lead us to lose sight of the humanity of our opponent. We have lost sight of this ideal today. We no longer seem capable of disapproving of our fellow citizen’s behavior without demonizing them and declaring them to be incurably evil. This failure has led to a dangerous level of division and animosity in America today. That’s why we need Dr. King’s vision of Beloved Community now more than ever.

Blacks and Jews are two groups who have experienced the pain of demonization repeatedly through out history. So, we have a powerful motivation to avoid this trap when we are disagreeing with each other. Because Black and Jews have a strong foundation of commonality, there is good reason to believe we can overcome whatever tendency we have to let our disagreements boil over into contempt and demonization. If we Blacks and Jews can raise our ability to disagree in an atmosphere of mutual respect, not only will we help each other. We’ll model something of vital importance to all relationships in America.

How We Tell the Story Matters

We each have a story we tell the world about who we are and how we want the world to perceive us. As we grow and change, our story evolves, too. The way we tell our story can determine whether we will grow closer to people or more distant from them.

In the Biblical story of Joseph, Joseph rose to the top despite having been sold into slavery by his own brothers. He could have told a story about how great he was, and how he succeeded in spite of the deed of his evil brothers. That narrative would have guaranteed eternal animosity. Instead, Joseph attributed his suffering to God’s desire to place him in a position to save Egypt and his own family from starvation. This narrative opened the door to reconciliation with his brothers. In the same way, the narratives we choose can perpetuate hatred or lead to new possibilities in our relationships.

The story others tell about us can make us feel included and valued, or despised and belittled.

When we are marginalized in our community’s story, we will feel excluded from our community. When the story of Black suffering is invisible to the larger American community, Blacks themselves will feel invisible and marginalized. When previously unknown stories of Black contributions to America are highlighted, Black Americans will feel more valued and included. If Black Lives Matter, their contributions will matter.

For 2,000 years, the Christian world told a story about the Jews that marginalized and belittled them. In 1962, the Catholic Church changed the story dramatically by declaring that the Jewish people were no longer to be held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. This new narrative caused a sea change in the relationships between Jews and Christians.

Mutuality and Reciprocity

In healthy relationships, each of us contributes equally. This doesn’t mean that the relationship is transactional, or that we have to contribute in identical ways. But, if a relationship is to thrive, each of us needs to feel that our contribution is of equal value. For the Black-Jewish relationship to thrive, we need to have an honest conversation on what mutuality could look like for us.

Though the Black and Jewish experiences in the world have a lot in common, in America our experiences have been very different:

  • Blacks came to America in chains to be oppressed. Jews escaped oppression to find a haven in America.
  • Because of our very different histories, Jews gained access to the tools of achievement much more quickly than Blacks have.

For the Black-Jewish relationship to thrive:

Jews have to become more sensitive to how important self-help and self-determination are to Black dignity. In our eagerness to be helpful, we cannot underestimate the value of Black independence. Thus, in our joint action, we stress the importance of supporting Black-led initiatives.

Blacks need to understand that Jewish economic and political success does not shield them from hatred. Therefore, Black allyship and friendship is very meaningful to Jews because being valued as fully human has often been denied even when Jews are successful in tangible ways.

It is our hope that getting to know each other more fully will reveal as yet hidden ways in which we can work together and be helpful to each other.

I have been inspired by the on-going dialogue between Black and Jewish clergy here in Seattle…Together we have been to the top of the Mountain of God.
Rabbi James Mirel
Being part of the Jewish/Black Clergy Bible Study has been spiritually and intellectually rewarding for me. The (selected text and) opportunity to be paired together and study the bible from two rich faith traditions is simply awesome. The theological interpretations shared have been fascinating and extremely relevant when reflecting upon social issues of our time. Two historic marginalize groups finding common ground with the hope of individual and community spiritual transformation to help shape a better world is what I had hoped when joining this group. Together we are learning and continue to develop our respective hermeneutics with the collaboration of rabbi and theological scholars in this space. Onward… striving to uplift the beloved community!
Cynthia Bynum