Recently we have heard a lot about the ‘beloved community.’ This is a term which the late Rep. John Lewis referred to often in his speeches advocating civil rights for Black and underserved Americans. Lewis was educated for the ministry and took seriously the threads of justice he perceived in the Gospels and other New Testament writings. He became an ordained minister. Lewis is famous for his magnanimous peaceful resistance on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in1965 in Selma, Alabama, where he was beaten by law enforcement who attacked peaceful protestors who were marching to Montgomery, the state capital, on behalf of civil rights. Lewis found the concept of the ‘beloved community’ in the Gospel and Epistles of John the Evangelist where John describes the remnant of the Galilean believers of Jesus as faith-filled persons who forged ahead resisting the cruelty of Roman and Jewish officials.
So, what then is the beloved community today? It is a community of committed members who are deeply aware of the injustices in any system and who assist others who are struggling to secure their rights in that system.
The theology of the beloved community is fairly intricate and I will spare you the details but here are the simple facts you want to know: A beloved community of believers is a gathering of persons who place Christ at the center of their belief. They do this liturgically. They gather to pray without constrictions of liturgical rubrics. They pray in gatherings wherever they are welcomed. (I know of some who pray in a room set aside by Walmarts and Paneras.) They pray in their churches or in their family homes. The point is, a beloved community prays.
A beloved community serves others. As Congressman Lewis did, they march or protest or stand up against opponents in places of power. They do what they can do: they write letters to congresspersons, they serve on local political committees, they go to local town hall meetings, they write letters to the newspaper, they bravely talk to their neighbors. They join peaceful protests holding signs and walking in the cold or the heat on behalf of the unheard voices. They enlist others to help serve the hungry or to find shelter. They tutor the illiterate; they visit the incarcerated.
The beloved community shares meals together. They work to offer sustenance in whatever way they can. They embrace each other in friendship. The beloved community hosts believers and non-believers to their table. Christ is there in the bread and wine they share. Most parishes do all of this.
But here is the most challenging raison d’etre for the beloved community. It is centered on the promotion of justice! This is what attracted John Lewis to reflect on it. In one of my blogs last year I referred to John Dominic Crossan’s wonderful essay, “The Character of Your God,” in which he states, “It is impossible to have justice without compassion, but it is possible to have compassion without justice.” One can feel good having served in the food line for the hungry but not see the wisdom of raising the minimum wage. One can devise comprehensive mission statements for a parish or organization focusing on the underserved and still be blinded by the injustice that prevents the underserved from voting.
Crossan writes, “But compassion, no matter how immediately necessary or profoundly human, cannot substitute for justice, for the right of all for equal dignity and integrity of life.” His last line is powerful: “Those who live by compassion are often canonized. Those who live by justice are often crucified.”
I believe we all have to commit ourselves to a community of the beloved. Within the circle of the believers, we must work to expand into the margins and embrace those we find there. Too many are looking into the windows Pope John XXIII told us to open and they do not feel welcome to enter. We need to insist that our church leaders join us and be concerned less with formality and more with love and mercy and justice. We need to stand up to corrupt political leaders who seek their success by affirming the lies that keep the oppressed in bondage.
Crossan suggests a reflective reading of Psalm 82 which presents an agenda for the believer seeking the beloved community. I encourage you to take this short psalm line-by-line and let it speak to you. And, please, look for a community you can call ‘beloved.’
All of you, my readers, my Anonymous Angels, are in my daily prayers.
I meet you there in love.