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“Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” – the King Center

“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.” – bell hooks

I gave a platform talk in July, 2017, about Beloved Community.  That is now almost 4 years ago.  At that time, I wrote the words below, excerpted from that talk.  With calls for “unity” at the national level, and lots of discussion about what “unity” really means in a nation still divided by race, class, gender, and many more dimensions, it’s appropriate that we revisit the dream of Beloved Community, as our theme for the month.

Beloved Community - Jone Lewis, July 2017
I’ve had lots of opportunities in our political world to be in touch with anger recently.  So rather than talk about “how awful things are” I realized I needed to talk more about “what is the vision” and “what can we do.”  A vision of a world of equality, inclusion, peace, compassion, justice.

And in pondering that vision, the phrase that kept coming back to me was “beloved community.”

It was a phrase I heard a lot in my early years, as part of a family that was involved in and followed closely the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Dr. Martin Luther King said it this way in July of 1966:

“I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end or that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.”

Now, we have learned since 1966 that “brotherly” is not as inclusive as we need to be, either.  The vision of inclusiveness that is the vision of beloved community has continued to expand.

Eight years earlier, in 1958, when organizing to break through segregation enforced by law to disadvantage people of color, King said it this way – and I’ve slightly updated it to include not just men:

“Desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step toward the ultimate goal which we seek to realize. Desegregation will break down legal barriers, and bring [people] together physically. But something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of [people] that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right. In other words, our ultimate goal is integration which is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living. Only through nonviolence can this goal be attained, for the aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of the beloved community.”

Having lived through that era, and the reaction to it in the late 1960s and 1970s, I love the reminder in this quote of what “integration” originally meant to King.  My own experience is that for many liberals, “integration” came to mean simply ending the legal ways that segregation is enforced.  Or, even more pervasively, “allowing” people of color to participate in the white world – jobs, housing, education, arts, religion, etc.  But still keeping the white world, white culture the supreme goal and end.

Beloved community to King was the name for what is something different.  I’m going to borrow a description from the City Year project which includes work here in New York City as well as in many other locations.  Not to promote that project, but because their phrasing of this explanation is better than any that I tried to put together:

Among Dr. King’s most compelling visions is that of a Beloved Community – a community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

Remember that phrase.  It is central.  A community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

The description continues.

Dr. King knew that the goal of social change is not tolerance alone, or even the recognition or enforcement of human or civil rights, or an improved economic condition. These are necessary but not sufficient steps in the path to human progress. We cannot rest until we have bridged the divides of prejudice and mistrust that lie within the human head and heart. Invariably, these final, resilient divisions are social and personal. Dr. King reminds us that reconciliation is a both a process and a final destination. The road to the Beloved Community is the difficult road of reconciliation among people who have been in conflict and negotiation. The Beloved Community is reconciliation achieved – a profound human connectedness, a transcendent harmony and love among all people.

That, to me, is the vision of Beloved Community – and the vision, as it turns out, of Ethical Culture.

Ethical Culture began in another time of massive social change and unrest, and began in New York City, at a time when there were few public social programs, and massive numbers of poor and immigrant families coming to the city, including the beginnings of the Great Migration from the American South.  Black families were leaving as the hopes of Reconstruction transformed into Jim Crow segregation. Many European immigrant families were fleeing xenophobia or violence, including anti-Jewish violence especially in Eastern Europe.

And the original idea of Ethical Culture was as a place where we’d move beyond divisions – even religious divisions.  In the original call for the first Ethical Society, Felix Adler, then 24 years old, held out a vision of “diversity in the creed” – a place for the “believer and the infidel.”  A place where individual freedom of thought would be respected and encouraged – but where, beyond that, there would be “unanimity in the deed” – a unity around the need to make change in the world.  A place where we’d build a community for adults and in which to raise our children, that would teach and practice ethical living.  A community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

The idea of “beloved community” goes back to the time of Felix Adler and the first Ethical Culture Societies. By the early 20th century, we had three Societies in New York City – two in Manhattan, though one of those would later die out, and one in Brooklyn.  Our Riverdale Society was founded in another wave of change, after World War II.  In the late 19th and early 20th century roots of the movement that we come from, ours was one of many forms of progressive religion at the time. Within Christianity, many preached what was called a “social gospel” – the idea that whatever kingdom was preached by Jesus, it was “at hand” – here and now.  When I was in graduate school, I had a very pietistic Christian professor who scandalized some of the Christian students by regularly saying, “Every time you see a homeless person on the street and decide whether to pass them by or do something else, the kingdom of heaven is right there.”  That same professor, a devoted Christian, also said, “Whatever it was that Jesus was, so was Gandhi, and so was Martin Luther King.”

Ethical Culture, instead of living within the Judaism or Christianity of those days, chose to create a new form of religion based on purely ethics, not beliefs. Ethical Culture chose to build community with “the believer and the infidel,” and with people from many backgrounds, including many of those who were newcomers.  A community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

Core ideas of Ethical Culture, as well as of beloved community include the idea that in our differences every human being is unique and the related idea every human being has worth and an inherent dignity. Social injustice is when those universal human qualities of worth and dignity and uniqueness are suppressed, to the detriment of the well-being of the individual.  Our well-being depends on human worth and dignity and uniqueness being able to flourish.

But not only our individual well-being.  Ethical Culture has from the beginning asserted that we are not about simply “self-culture,” the ever-increasing flowering of individual human dignity, worth, and uniqueness.  We also assert that such flowering does not depend entirely on the individual, but on the social network of relationships.  And that the well-being of the social network, and the well-being of every individual within the social network, also depends on the flourishing of the human dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual within it.

Felix Adler also asserted, and it has been part of Ethical Culture’s historical understanding, that groups of people will differ, and that such differences are essential to the well-being of the whole of humanity.

We are different individuals, with different group identities and influences.  And where we meet together in a community to seek the highest – that is the creation of what some would call holy ground.

A community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

Ethical Culture, and this vision called the Beloved Community including in King’s later vision, were both born as a resistance to the greater culture that emphasized material wealth and greed for individuals, for the larger society, an unspoken and often unconscious assumption that certain people mattered more than others did, and for the nation, empire-building both expanding the borders of the USA and expanding control over territories beyond those borders.  Ethical Culture and Beloved Community were conceived as resistance centers to what more recently is summarized by the phrase “domination culture.”

But not just resistance centers.  Communities with a vision of how to live differently, and willing to practice that vision in our own life.  Laboratories to figure out how to resist the pull of domination culture, yes, but also how to build something different and positive.  An Ethical Culture. A Beloved Community.

We need microcosms that try, now, to live out that larger vision, both as refuges from the larger, domination culture, and as laboratories figuring out how to both resist domination culture and build ethical culture, beloved community.

So, yes, the vision of ethical culture and beloved community is to take on social change.  Social change means recognizing and enforcing human rights, means working for improved economic justice, and means becoming a more inclusive, fair, and just society.  We know today that this also means working to reverse human-caused climate change, which threatens the poor and marginalized communities more and first.

But even beyond that – ethical culture and beloved community call on us to find ways to, in the words of the quote I used before, bridge “the divides of prejudice and mistrust that lie within the human head and heart.”

Social injustice doesn’t only operate on a material level, it operates on a deeply personal level.  Social injustice creates multi-generational psychological trauma. And trauma requires deeper healing than simply changing the material conditions going forward.

If those material conditions don’t change, the trauma continues, so it is definitely part of the agenda of beloved community, of ethical culture, to change the material conditions that oppress and suppress some people.

Many of us with commitments to social justice are supporters of other organizations, and often work for them as volunteers or staff members.  The many ways people here at this Society and others work to change the world actually astounds me. From research to activism, from writing to organizing to protesting to raising conscious children to teaching to fund-raising to sustain activism to legally challenging unjust laws and practices to bringing compassion to the world through your professions – you are as individuals doing quite a bit to change the world.  So we could all be doing the work of justice in our own ways.

Yet we come together in community.  To resist the status quote, but also to figure out what comes after the status quo.  To serve as a microcosm, a laboratory, of building what we want to replace the status quo: an ethical culture, the beloved community.

So the term “beloved community” applies to a local community where people “meet to seek the highest” and learn and experiment how to reconcile even with our differences and difficult histories between individuals and groups.

The vision of an Ethical Society, living out a vision of equality, inclusion, peace, compassion, justice.

And the term “beloved community” also applies to the vision for the larger world that we are building towards.

The vision of the world, a world of equality, inclusion, peace, compassion, justice.

The Beloved Community is reconciliation achieved – a profound human connectedness, a transcendent harmony and love among all people.

In our connectness, we also value differences between us as individuals, between us as members of various identity groups.

But differences can be used to separate as well as unite. Specifically, we live in a world where differences are exploited in the interests of the few in order to polarize and separate us.

I believe that the work of building a more ethical culture, of building towards a beloved community, requires both thought and action.  Another core concept of Ethical Culture is “deed beyond creed.”  Unanimity in deed, or I’d say solidarity in deed, even with diversity in creed, and other diversity.

Some are more anxious for action, some are wanting to focus more on education and reflection.  Our Sundays tend to be about reflection and education.

Action without reflection is potentially a nightmare. If we have false assumptions without correct information, if we have no vision in mind, if we have not thought through what we do, and will not evaluate to learn from what works and what doesn’t.

Reflection without action is potentially a daydream.  Without action, whether individual or group, our reflection and education doesn’t mean much.  We can critique the dominant culture without having any effect on it, if we don’t also act.  And that action, in the context of beloved community, is about here in this place and this time, as well as in the wider world.

Action without reflection is potentially a nightmare. Reflection without action is potentially a daydream.  We need, instead, active reflection and reflective action.  We need to pair them as partners.

And beyond that – if we really do accept that the well-being of each depends on the well-being of others in our interconnected whole, and the value of difference makes the interconnected whole richer, then reflection done with others is more valuable than individual reflection, more productive of valuable information.

What does it take to build Beloved Community?  A willingness to be one’s self, and to honor the selfness of everyone else.  To meet difference with curiosity and not react simply in argument or denial of difference. A commitment to seeing the world including our community here through a lens of vision. A community in which we each reflect what it is that we can do to build a more resilient, stronger, more compassionate community here – and practice the skills and behaviors we want to take into the wider world, to build Beloved Community there, too.

A community in which people of different backgrounds recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.

An Ethical Society, living out a vision of equality, inclusion, peace, compassion, justice.  And doing our part in building a world of equality, inclusion, peace, compassion, justice.

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