Jan 15, 2024

Building a Beloved Community in a Time of War

Sermon for MLK Day from All Souls UU Kansas City
By Tai Amri Spann-Ryan / filmsforaction.org
Building a Beloved Community in a Time of War
2023 Armed Conflicts

Today, we remember the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is hard for me to think of Dr. King without thinking of unconditional love, catalyzed in his vision for what is known as the beloved community. At the time of his death, on April 4th, 1968, he was working on securing fair wages for not just sanitation workers, but all peoples living in poverty, through The Poor People’s Campaign, that mobilized thousands of poor people from the South, North, West and Midwest, where they created their own township next to the mall in Washington DC called Resurrection City. While the death of Dr. King certainly affected the movement, the reverberations of his legacy are still felt today. So what does it mean to consider the teachings and hopes of the beloved community today? And how do we build a beloved community in a world choked with war, collapsing with climate change, and almost gleefully reveling in hateful rhetoric?

To understand what it means to build the beloved community, I first want to examine its definition. In his 1966 article, Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom, Dr. King wrote, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Thus, his conception of the beloved community outlines two essential aspects. The qualitative change harkens back to the words of Gandhi, rather than expecting the world to change around us, we must be the change we want to see in the world. The quantitative change, looks at transformation of our relationship to numbers and amounts. Dr. King was very concerned with a world that judged progress by how much stuff or dollars have been accumulated. Both aspects are connected in that we cannot create a beloved community when we are more concerned with our  monetary profit than we are with the well-being of others.

While the beloved community is credited to Dr. King, who focused a great deal of his writings to its exploration and his activism to its creation, it was actually coined by a Harvard Philosophical Professor named Josiah Royce who believed that there was an ideal “beloved community” made up of all those who were dedicated to the cause of loyalty and truth. The perspective of Professor Royce was this, “My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” Prof. Royce, a white man, born in 1855 in California, was somehow able to tap into a wisdom seen also in Africa through the concept of Ubuntu, which means that I am because we are. It is also reminiscent of the teachings of the African Priest Malidoma Some of the Dagara Tribe who holds communal responsibility for the transgressions of individuals within that community. Meaning, in the beloved community, we are all one another’s responsibility, and as individuals, our purpose is to be in community with others.

I have been considering purpose frequently as of late. For one, in continuing my study and research for how to build the beloved community, the idea of purpose arises naturally, but also, my family and I recently celebrated the seven days of Kwanzaa and considering the seven principles, and one of our favorites is Nia, the principle of our divine purpose. I was in seminary in Berkeley, when I began to see clearly that for me, the idea of God only made sense when considered all of creation to be God’s body. It is hard to look out into the injustice and suffering of the world and understand this as something God would want. However, when I began to see the creation to be God’s body, asking a question like, “Why is there homelessness?” the answer soon became, “Because we, as God’s hands, have not created a world where all people can be housed.

When we live our lives as if we have some kind of divine purpose, we see that not only are we here to create a better world, but that that world is not possible unless we do so in conjunction with others. In the beloved community, no human is incapable of entering into this divine purpose, and at the same time, no human is capable of fulfilling their divine purpose individually. Dr. King harkened to this idea when he said, we are, “all tied together, all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of identity.” But there is another side to our being tied to one another. While Dr. King was hopeful, he was also a realist who saw through many of the illusions plaguing his time, as they plague our own. So while in constant pursuit of the beloved community, he also warned of another possibility when he wrote in a speech in 1964, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

I am what’s known as a blerd, or a Black nerd. Part of that means that I love science fiction, fantasy and super hero movies, like really love them. I love getting deeply immersed in their worlds and their possibilities. The other part of what that means is that I cannot do so without bringing my Blackness into their considerations. My thought processes look something like this, “Why is Batman cool? And, is Batman still cool if you’re a Black person bending the rule of law for the survival of self and to take care of your family?” I also bring my blerdiness to topics of social justice. Like, as much as I love speculative fiction, I also love the philosophies of Dr. King and those who inspired him and were inspired by him. And with this blerdiness, I ask, “How do the teachings of Dr. King apply to the current moment? And what does it mean when someone else uses the teachings of Dr. King?” For this reason, I am very wary of anyone who thinks that Batman or Dr. King are infallible, and why they think so.

For example, the number of times I hear that Dr. King did not care about one’s color of skin but the content of character is extremely problematic. Not just because of the number of times this ideology has been used to strip and deny equal rights, but also because it is a denial of something that I think is essential to understanding Dr. King and the beloved community. Dr. King publicly proclaimed his desire to ceaselessly search for the Beloved Community in his speech, Birth of a Nation. In it, he painted a beautiful picture of freedom and liberation. But he also was quick to point out that, “There is no crown without a cross.” As he wrote, “I wish we could get to Easter without going  to Good Friday, but history tells us that we got to go to Good Friday before we can get to Easter.” Anyone who thinks we get to live in a world where we are only judged by our character, doesn’t really understand that that doesn’t happen unless we deal with the legacy and harm of racial injustice, sexism, trans and homophobia, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation. I find it suspect when anyone preaches the beloved community without outlining what Dr. King called the Three Evils of racism, poverty caused by extreme materialism, and war and militarism.

I was raised as a pacifist in a Quaker household, in a Quaker community, in the Quaker stronghold of the Philadelphia region, to believe that there is no occasion for war. While I have never in my lifetime seen a war that I believed was worth fighting, I have also not found reason to judge most individuals who do. The fact of the matter is, when I meet an individual who has risked their life in battle, I respect them for living a life that I have not known. I see obvious genius involved in the military, and to deny it would feel disingenous. However, I also believe that peacemakers are vastly underestimated. For example, I grew up singing I Ain’t Gonna Study War No More, and I believe that there is a misunderstanding when people hear that song. You see, in the Black community, study has a double meaning. Of course, on one hand it means to learn and research, but it also means, to pay attention or give significance to. I can hear the voice of my mother clearly when I am throwing a fit over some item I really want but do not need saying, “I ain’t studyin’ you.” What she meant was not, “I’m not learning and researching you.” She meant, “I’m not paying attention to your tantrum.” It wasn’t that she didn’t see me, it was that she refused to see the greedy, petulant parts of me.

My father, is the most extreme pacifist I know. He does not believe in violence in any situation for any reason. Not even in self-defense. But I do not know anyone who knows more about the Civil War than he does. He has whole libraries dedicated to it, has visited battle sites, and has written books about it. But does he study war? No, he does not. He studies peace. He studies what can happen if war is no more. He studies the destruction that war brings in the world, because he knows that there is something better, a beloved community.

When I pour libations, I pour them for my ancestors and my lineage, those in my bloodline and those who have influenced my way of life. When we pour libations, we recognize that we are inextricably tied together in this regard. But I want us to consider a different kind of libation today. One that recognizes that war is a Good Friday in constant repetition. That war means there is not enough water on the planet to be poured out for all of these lives. And yet we try for even just a few of the worst atrocities happening in the world.

Libations for the worst wars just  in 2023 would include:

~ for the 29,347 in Ukraine

~ for the 18,275 in Palestine

~ for the 14,841 in Burma

~ for the 12,773 in Sudan

~ for the 8.017 in Nigeria

~ for the 7,874 in Somalia

~ for the 7,622 in Burkina Faso

~ for the 6,793 in Mexico

~ for the 5,802 in Syria

~ for the 3,965 in Mali

~ for the 3,846 in DR Congo

~ for the 3,514 in Ethiopia

~ for the 3,088 in Yemen

~ for the 2,169 in Pakistan

~ for the 1,950 in Haiti

~ for the 1,829 in Colombia

~ for the 1,425 in Israel

We say ashe.

The Beloved Community is an Easter Story. It’s what happens when we go through Good Friday. In order to get to envision this Easter, Dr. King had to go through his own Good Friday. After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, buses were integrated, only to find that Black people who no longer followed the segregation standards set the decades before had to face persistent violence, including gun fire from snipers. Dr. King, in depression and despair which plagued much of his activist life, was invited on a trip to witness the independence celebration of Ghana, the first African nation to break away from the British Empire, and the release from prison of their new prime minister Kwame Nkrumah. It was here that he witnessed a new possibility, a new age, a birth of not just a new nation, but a new way of being in the world. In his first speech after his trip he said, “Ghana has something to say to us. It reminds us of the fact that a nation or a people can break aloose from oppression without violence. [Nkrumah] says that after he continued to study Gandhi and continued to study this technique, he came to see that the only way was through nonviolent positive action. And he called his program “positive action.” And it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? That here is a nation that is now free, and it is free without rising up with arms and with ammunition. It is free through nonviolent means. We’ve got to revolt in such a way that after revolt is over we can live with people as their brothers and their sisters. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate them. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence are emptiness and bitterness. This is the thing I’m concerned about. Let us fight passionately and unrelentingly for the goals of justice and peace. But let’s be sure that our hands are clean in this struggle. Let us never fight with falsehood and violence and hate and malice, but always fight with love.”

Dr. King was never studying war and violence, though he knew it intimately. He was studying the creation of the Beloved Community laying out the roadmap. I had the opportunity to study this roadmap as a pastor in Oakland where I studied the 6 Principles of Kingian Nonviolence through Oakland’s East Point Peace Academy with Kazu Haga. I want to note here, that this is nonviolence without a hyphen, which means it is not the absence of violent strategy, but rather it is a way of life, of being with one another in our relations, not simply in the relations of victims and oppressors, of the powerful and the powerless. These 6 Principles look like this:

  1. Nonviolence Is A Way of Life For Courageous People. Meaning it is not the easy way out but requires soul force and practice.

  2. The Beloved Community Is The Framework For The Future. Meaning, our objective is reconciliation.

  3. Attack Forces of Evil Not Persons Doing Evil. Meaning, we are not reacting to people but to actions and holding out the possibility of transformation in EVERY individual.

  4. Accept Suffering Without Retaliation For The Sake of the Cause to Achieve A Goal. Meaning, through non-avoidance of suffering we signal our commitment to our opponents and our potential allies and accomplices, which may end up being one in the same.

  5. Avoid Internal Violence of the Spirit as Well As External Physical Violence. Meaning, a nonviolent approach must be taken in all aspects, including in our dealings with one another and ourselves.

  6. The Universe Is On The Side of Justice. Meaning, we must walk in the faith that humans and all of creation has a moral compass that points towards truth and justice.

These principles are very difficult to uphold, but I want to deal with this last one because I think in today’s climate, it is the most applicable. This question of whether or not the Universe is On The Side of Justice, and whether or not the Beloved Community is possible in a world filled with war, requires a deep understanding of Good Friday. Two of the greatest teachers in my life have aided me in my understanding, and I’d like to end by sharing these lessons with you. The first teacher was Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk. After the assassination of Dr. King, he wrote that he fell into despair thinking, “They killed Martin Luther King, they killed us. I’m afraid the root of violence is so deep in the heart and mind and manner of this society. They killed him. They killed my hope. I do not know what to say. He made so great an impression on me. This morning, I have the impression that I cannot bear the loss.” But Thich Nhat Hanh also had a deep understanding that who we are extends far beyond this life and eventually came to the realization that, “When you lose a loved one, you suffer. But if you know how to look deeply you have a chance to realize that his or her nature is truly the nature of no birth, no death.” He committed himself to creating the Beloved Community that Dr. King described and I had the opportunity to witness this community through his retreats for People of Color at Deer Park Ministry where he led us through the understandings of the power and transformative nature of suffering through racism.

The other teacher’s lesson I want to share is from the Chinese-American activist I studied with in Detroit, Grace Lee Boggs. There were two things I remember Grace saying with the most frequency, this first was definitely to constantly ask one’s self what time is it on the clock of the world. The second, was that the chinese character for crisis is also the character for opportunity. Grace would say that the crisis of our world, the violence, the inequality, was an opportunity that could only be met by growing our souls. She never defined what it meant to grow our souls, she merely said it was something we’d have to do if we want to create the Beloved Community, quoting often from Dr. King’s radical revolution of values from being a thing-oriented society to a people-oriented society.

So how is the work to build a beloved community possible in this world of so much tragedy? Because the tragedy, the crisis, the Good Friday, the mud is essential. It is only out of hardship and our ability to stop avoiding suffering that we begin to reach out for freedom and liberation. One illusion we must confront is that it is only the slave that need seek freedom. But the slavery of others makes slaves of us all, and in this world of war and strife, we need the beloved community, we need freedom more than ever. Freedom from what? Freedom from the demonization of those who think and believe differently from us. Freedom from corporate greed and economic exploitation. Freedom from social media distractions. Freedom from the fear of nature. Freedom from fossil fuels. Freedom from using violence to solve our problems. Not only do we need freedom, but we deserve freedom, and we ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around. Why? Because the universe is ALWAYS on the side of justice.


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