Of the many lessons that life has taught me, none has been more powerful than what I have come to understand about the true meaning of "The Beloved Community."
The words, written by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce in the early 20th century were given their deeper contemporary meaning by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King challenged our society, founded and built on individualism, to change its focus to community. He challenged us to think of others before ourselves.
This profound paradigm shift, King believed, would be the salvation of our nation. It would enable us to have the inevitable differences and passionate debates that are an integral part of our Representative Democracy but, in the end remain together, healing those differences through non-violent confrontation, active reconciliation and deeply felt redemption. It would enable the nation to weather the storms of change because its people would remain tied to each other, strengthened by a mutual interest in the greater American community.
Parts of the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations are straight out of Dr. King's non-violent civil disobedience playbook. I've heard commentators say they are disorganized, have no leaders, no central message. I disagree. I think they are the message. Their very presence, as a collective, speaks louder than any one leader could. Right now, they are the essence of community, finding strength by focusing on their common interests without allowing their differences to tear them apart.
I believe they share the same interests that the framers of the American Constitution had. The demonstrators are challenging this nation to keep its promise of being a country whose citizens actually enjoy equality, actually enjoy liberty and the ability to pursue happiness in their lives. I hear them saying that they believe in this ideal and they are challenging us to run our businesses, and our government, in ways that prioritize community need over individual greed. If they are to turn their desires into reality, they will have to organize and leaders will emerge who are able to mobilize, motivate and grow a stable community capable of becoming the agents of the change they seek. To be effective they will have to develop an end game.
Dr. King was always thinking about the end game. He knew that the passage of laws protecting African American rights and equality would have to be seen, not only as a victory for an oppressed people but also as a victory for the entire nation. He saw black freedom and white freedom as intrinsically linked. Without mutual, black and white buy-in, and a belief that the changes wrought by the Civil Rights Struggle were best for the nation as a community, the laws that emerged would be mere words on paper. For those words to have real meaning we would all have to be willing to live them. Americans would need to be committed to losing some of their individualism to become part of a Beloved Community.
After Dr. King's violent death, I found it difficult to believe that non-violence could ever work in America as a weapon against an ingrained system of degradation and discrimination. That this man, who taught peace, would be silenced by a bullet was proof, to my 21-year old mind, that force should be met with force. It was a time of searing pain and distrust. It seemed that anyone, black or white, who dared hold America to its promise of equality ended up dead.
Turning the other cheek, responding to hate with love, patience and the gradualism it seemed to imply failed to resonate with me and many other young African American men and women living in urban areas. Police brutality was the norm and we were not willing to take it. Not since The Civil War was the American Union so threatened.
What I didn't understand back then, but now know, is the true power of community; that, to paraphrase the book of Isaiah, no weapon formed against the beloved community would prosper or, in Dr. King's words, "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
I believe this is a lesson that members of Congress continue to struggle with today. The American people are clear in their desire to see their representatives come together and find a way to achieve what is best for the nation. The American people want their lawmakers to act more in community with each other and less as individuals. The politics of intolerance and red meat rhetoric may make good sound bites and entertaining fodder for a content hungry, 24-hour news cycle but this gets us nowhere. This doesn't solve our problems or make a bit of difference in the lives of most people. I think the majority of Americans are turned off and embarrassed by the level of discourse and they should be.
Eventually, after finishing seminary, I gained a deeper understanding of Dr. King's sermons and speeches. More to the point, I became convinced of the power of community. I founded a church in Englewood, one of Chicago's poorest and most fragile neighborhoods, and named it Beloved Community Christian Church. The church, once the site of a Black Panther breakfast program for children, now stands in tribute to Dr. King's vision of the power of community. A social service center, a health center and an after school robotics program are also part of the church's mission to care for people.
This is some of the hardest work I've ever done. It is the work of turning ideals into action that facilitates meaningful change in the lives of people. On the days when my decisions are based upon putting community first, I usually get it right. On the days when I fail to see beyond my own wishes, things can go wrong. I, like most Americans, treasure my individuality but I have learned over the years to value community more.
As we prepare to officially dedicate the King Memorial, I can't help but think that Dr. King would understand the Occupy Wall Street Movement. I think he would be proud of the diversity of the marchers, their empathy and courage. Above all else, I think he would be encouraged to see the convergence of Community that they represent.