Creating the Beloved Community

When Jesus talked about the importance of loving our neighbor, someone asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told the story we now call the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

A traveler was walking on the road to Jericho, and was attacked by bandits who robbed him and beat him and left him on the side of the road. A priest was walking down the road, and saw the man and went over to the other side. A lawyer also ignored the wounded man. But a Samaritan traveling on the same road saw the man, and was moved to compassion. He bound his wounds, and brought the man to an inn, where he continued to care for him overnight, and then paid the innkeeper to care for him as he went on his travels. Then Jesus turned the question around—“Who do you think was neighbor to the man?” The one who showed him compassion.

This story is made compelling by its social context. In the time when Jesus told the story, Samaritans and Jews generally held each other in contempt. They were enemies. Maybe something like Republicans and Democrats these days, only worse. Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of the story, and that certainly must have ruffled feathers. The story was a challenge to the lawyers and priests and their narrow definition of the circle of compassion. The story was a challenge to be neighbors with the people we don’t like, the people on the other side. To treat those neighbors with compassion.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.” 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.

I want to acknowledge that in our age, it is easy to feel hopeless about this vision. It is easy to think of it as an idealistic dream of the sixties. Cynicism has risen, the right wing has fought back against the hopes so hard fought for by Dr. King and others. More and more we see a new individualism and polarization, an abandonment of the poor and vulnerable by those in power. The opposition has become more crafty and deceptive.

But, on some level, that makes no difference at all. The vision of nonviolence is not based on winning, though a victory for good fills us with joy. The vision of nonviolence is based on faithfulness and hope. As Dr. King said,

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

And so, in the midst of the conflict and trouble of our age, may we find the strength and courage to be practitioners of love. In the midst of selfishness and greed, may we find generosity and vision. In the midst of rancor and division, may we remember that we are all one people. May we behold and believe in the possibility of Beloved Community, and work steadfastly to open the doors that all may enter there in. May we always remember, as Dr. King reminded us,

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

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Quotes from Dr. King from “Facing the Challenge of a New Age, December 1956, in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and “Where Do We Go From Here,” a 1967 Speech.

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Love Your Enemy: What?

For much of my life I have been intrigued with the words of Jesus about loving our enemies. It is one thing to love those who are open to loving us. But it is a different challenge to love those who seek to harm us.

We read in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that Jesus said, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well…” and then “We once were told, ‘You are to love your neighbor’ and ‘You are to hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies.”

According to the Biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar, these phrases are two of three passages that are the most likely to be the actual words of Jesus, rather than edited or added by a later commentator or preacher. They are at the very heart of his teachings. They are also among the most misunderstood.

The injunction to “turn the other cheek” has fostered a kind of doormat approach to conflict. Christian preachers have used this teaching to admonish those who were suffering to simply endure, rather than try to make a change. Until very recently, most ministers or priests would tell a battered woman that she should remain with her abuser, and suffer abuse as a Christian virtue.

But Biblical theologian Walter Wink says this is not what Jesus meant by loving your enemy.  He has offered a new insight into this passage by looking more closely at its cultural context. Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” As we hear it, this saying does seems to counsel surrender. But let’s try to hear it as his listeners might.

First century Palestine was a right-handed culture, even more than our own. A blow from the right hand would normally fall on the left cheek. So, if someone wants to strike me on the right cheek—as Jesus is referring to—he has to do it with the back of his right hand. This kind of blow was intended to humiliate, to put an inferior in his or her place. It was a blow that masters gave to slaves, husbands to wives, Romans to Jews.

Dr. Wink suggests that “By turning the other cheek, the person struck puts the striker in an untenable spot. He cannot repeat the backhand, because the other’s nose is now in the way.”

The only target is now the left cheek, which would have to be hit with a fist. But in that culture, only persons who were equals would fight with fists. “…By turning the other cheek, the oppressed person is saying that she refuses to submit to further humiliation. This is not submission, as the churches have insisted. It is defiance.”

Of course, this turning the other cheek was “no way to avoid trouble; the master might have the slave flogged to within an inch of her life. But the point has been irrevocably made: the ‘inferior’ is saying, in no uncertain terms, ‘I won’t take such treatment anymore. I am your equal. I am a child of God.’”

Jesus was not just giving people a new commandment. He was revealing a new option, a new tool. Our instinctive impulses are fight or flight, but he showed a third way to engage with an enemy that simultaneously offers and demands respect and equality. It is surprising, and it is creative. Don’t respond with violence, but don’t accept humiliation either. Don’t be a doormat, but choose equal human dignity for each person.

MLK March 2011

MLK March 2011

See also: Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Power of Nonviolence

Martin Luther King Jr.Today, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I appreciate this holiday for many reasons, but especially because it gives us a chance to consider the power of nonviolent action to bring justice to our society. There are times when it seems like oppressive powers are taking over, when greed and hate are overwhelming. It helps my soul to recall those courageous people who came before us, who, even facing insurmountable oppression, were able to harness the power of love to make change. Dr. King is one of the greatest witnesses in our country to such fearless and powerful love.

Nonviolence has often been misunderstood, stereotyped as passive, or weak, or a tool for those who were afraid of violence. But this could not be further from reality. Dr. King described the fundamental principles of nonviolence in an article in Christian Century magazine, in 1957. He challenged that stereotype, and asserted that nonviolence is not for cowards, but requires strong courage. It is an active resistance to injustice, and the nonviolent resister is just as firmly opposed to injustice as one who might use violence. The method is passive physically, but active mentally and emotionally and spiritually.

A defining characteristic of nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his or her friendship and understanding. King wrote, “The aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. …The end is redemption.” Nonviolent action is directed against evil, not against the persons who are caught in the forces of evil. He said, “..the basic tension is not between races. …The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice.”

Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe itself is on the side of justice. For Dr. King, this faith was rooted in his religious conviction that all people are the children of one God, and loved by God. But he also pointed out that this trust in the power of justice did not require a belief in a personal God. It might also arise out of a heartfelt awareness of the unity of all people, or the interconnected web of all existence. Faith that the universe is on our side gives strength to the nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation, and continue in the struggle through the dark times before the victory is assured.

Nonviolence avoids not only external violence, but also internal violence of spirit. It is based on the principle of love. “To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world,” King wrote. “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.” He goes on to explain that he is not talking about romantic or affectionate love, but agape love—a redeeming spirit of good will toward all.

Perhaps the most challenging part of nonviolence is this requirement that we love our opponent, that we love our enemy. Someone once said to me, “We shouldn’t even use that word, enemy. We are all one family.” And we are all one family. When we know that each person is part of us, we don’t want to think of anyone as an enemy.

The dictionary defines enemy as “a person who feels hatred for, or fosters harmful designs against another.” By that definition, my enemy is someone who hates me, or who seeks to harm me. We live in a world where, however much we love, others still will hate us or seek to do us harm. So for me, it feels more honest to acknowledge that internal tension—that tension between love and harm—when we say that nonviolence demands that we love our enemy.

Quotes from “Nonviolence and Racial Justice” and “The Power of Nonviolence,” reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.