[Note: This is part two of a planned three-part series on taking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. seriously as a theologian. You can find Part I, as well as an introduction to the series as a whole, here.
Like that first post, this post comes out of Johnny Bernard Hill's class on King at Louisville Seminary, my alma mater. It also, however, comes out of my conviction that eschatology, Christian doctrine concerning "the end," can be understood as a political theology. That is, in laying out their beliefs concerning God's anticipated future intervention in history, Christians give creative voice to their deepest political ideals, giving themselves freedom to dream of God's intention for creation and human community unsullied by the corruption of sin. Thus studying eschatology is not, ultimately, a distraction from the concerns of this world in the here and now, but rather an entering deeply into creative expressions of very pressing worldly concerns.
That is certainly the case for King's eschatological vision, which he called the Beloved Community.]
The Beloved Community was how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated his understanding of God’s eschatological vision for humanity and human communities. At times King spoke of this as an actual community that could go into existence in history, though like any eschatological vision, King saw this community as being principally in the “not yet” rather than the “now.” In fact, it is not clear that the “not yet” is ever destined to become “now.”
John J. Ansbro argues that aspects of King’s articulation of the Beloved Community indicate that he thought that it could never completely become “a historical reality.” His understanding of universal human sinfulness, in line with Niebuhr’s Christian realism, meant that humans could never completely overcome our innate moral limitations to allow ourselves to inhabit a historical community guided purely by selfless agape love.
This begs a question, even before the content of King’s understanding of the Beloved Community is engaged: Of what good is an eschatological vision, if it will never come into fulfillment in history?
The first way to answer this question might be to dispute its premise. King may share Niebuhr’s dim view of human nature, and he may believe, again, with Niebuhr, that left to itself humanity will never overcome its innate moral limitations (though one should be careful with such language, that paints all of humanity in a single hue, giving all of humanity a single nature). But humanity (whatever is meant by the term) is presumably not left to itself. For both King and Niebuhr there is a God who works in history with humans. And a part of any eschatological vision is the assumption that God has not only plans for creation, but also the capacity to intervene in the created order in history, to create new history. When King speaks of the Beloved Community as though it were a vision for a future social order bound to come into reality in history, he may have this impending divine intervention in mind.
But assuming that God’s literal establishment of the Beloved Community in concrete history is not inevitable, the question above remains: Of what value is an eschatological vision that is not bound to come into existence in history? What purpose is served by dreaming fantastic dreams of a promised future that is, in fact, neither promised nor to come in the future? Is it merely a phantasmagoria offered to delight and distract?
Black Liberation theologian James Cone offers some help in answering this question by arguing that it is the job of eschatology not so much to predict the future as to “challenge the present order."
“If contemplation about the future distorts the present reality of injustice and reconciles the oppressed to unjust treatment committed against them,” he writes, “then it is unchristian and thus has nothing to do with the Christ who came to liberate us.” Proper eschatology, good eschatology, Christian eschatology, in Cone’s view, does not do this. Rather than focusing attention on the promised future, it uses language of the promised future to draw attention to present injustice.
It is in this way – in its ability to draw attention to and to challenge injustice in the present – that eschatological visions of the future “become present,” (ibid). Thus, while the vision of the hoped for and promised future may never be perfectly instituted in history, it comes into history by standing in contrast with the present situation, and by empowering those who are oppressed to challenge their oppression, to root out social evil. Christian eschatology is thus always made present when Christians use it to impact the present.
So, what of King’s eschatological vision? What of his Beloved Community? Did it and does it challenge the present social order? Did it and does it drive Christians – especially in oppressed communities – to strive to change the present social order? How is it – even if it is neither inevitable nor likely to become fully real in history – becoming present in the present? Where, in other words, is King’s Beloved Community today?
This is where the content of the Beloved Community must be engaged. As a human community guided exclusively by agape love, the Beloved Community challenges all forms and sources of division within the broader human community. Emerging out of the segregated South, the principle form of division King’s vision challenged was racism. But while King’s public career began in the arena of combating systematic segregation on the basis of race, his understanding of what divided humans from each other was more nuanced than that. Racism, as King understood it, was just one of many axes of oppression that divided humans from each other. In the American South (as well, in a slightly more subtle way, in the North) racism was the most visible source of division, with Jim Crow segregation being the very law of the land. But racism participated with other social evils to pit some human communities against others, perpetually dividing humanity.
King made deep connections between racism, poverty, and militarism. His understanding of the Beloved Community challenged the way these social evils worked together to divide the human community. To this we could today add other social evils that King was either blind to, actively participated in, or was simply unconcerned about: sexism and misogyny, heterosexism and homophobia spring first to mind. Each of these social evils serve to pit some humans against others, forcing harsh dichotomies of rich v. poor, Black v. White, nation v. nation, male v. female, straight v. gay.
King used his vision of the Beloved Community, God’s eschatological vision for humanity, to challenge white supremacy, to challenge economic oppression, to challenge segregation, to challenge the war in Vietnam, to challenge the military industrial complex. He used powerful prophetic rhetoric to frame the social problems of his day in manageable terms, turning the oppression that was and is all too normative on its side, and to open up a point of attack against it.
The Beloved Community – whether or not it was or is destined to become a concrete historical reality – stood as a vision for human community in sharp contrast to the social evils of King’s day. Thus, to find the Beloved Community today, one must look for challenges to contemporary social evils. Some of those evils are almost identical to the one’s King strove against. In offering his “Report Card on Black America,” for instance, Michael Eric Dyson finds that Blacks in America still face many obstacles related to institutional racism. These obstacles are certainly more subtle than overt segregation, but they play themselves out in many of the same areas. Jim Crow was designed to deny equal education and economic opportunities to Blacks, and today Blacks as a group still fare poorly relative to the general population in those areas. For instance, Dyson notes that as of 2004, the median Black household income is only 61% of that of Whites. And even that income is in peril, with middle class Black families all too often falling below the poverty line within a single generation.
Some of this is due to inequalities in educational opportunities. While Black academic achievement has been on the rise in the 41 years since King’s assassination, Blacks are still less likely than their White peers to complete high school and college. Dyson attributes this to “a pernicious trend toward subtle resegregation of schools across the nation as more and more public and primary schools in urban areas are drained of upwardly mobile whites and affluent blacks who seek private educational opportunities.” This may be neither as intentional nor as damaging as Jim Crow, but it still points to a persistent social evil.
King’s vision of the Beloved Community challenges this with its understanding of the interconnected and interdependent nature of the world. Pockets of humanity cannot cordon themselves off from the rest of the human community, hiding behind the provisional security their wealth affords them. Nor can they quarantine whichever parts of the human community whose claims to fundamental rights and even whose very existence they would want to deny. They cannot so easily disentangle their fate from the fate of those they push to the margins of society. The world simply isn’t structured that way.
As an ideal, the Beloved Community – though it may never come to fulfillment in history – points to a concrete truth: everything is connected. Race is connected to poverty. Poverty is connected to violence. And oppressed communities respond to their oppression too often with violence, a violence made inevitable by the original violence of oppression. King saw the race riots of his day through this lens, and it applies no less today. Persistent inequality, persistent division, gives rise to a violence that revisits those who try to disconnect themselves from the rest of the human community. King’s Beloved Community as a social vision is the antidote to this. And, even if it never comes to fulfillment in history, it is still a more pragmatic social vision than one that would pit human communities against each other, competing for social interests divided against each other.
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