“The Beloved Community”: A Pulse Check

In the spring of 1963, African American children were laying their little bodies on the line in Birmingham, Alabama. Thousands of them, as young as six years old, strode out of schoolhouses to join in the marching downtown—several times during one of the most chaotic and brutal episodes of the civil rights movement.

During a surreal scene in May, elusive bands of schoolchildren skittered down streets almost playfully—chased by police with batons and dogs. Eventually they and many other nonviolent resisters were clubbed or smacked down by high-powered fire hoses or just dragged into paddy wagons off to jail. Breaking through the bedlam, through the singing and screaming and blaring of sirens, was what biographer Stephen B. Oates framed as the “haunting voice” of Dr. Martin Luther King:

We must say to our white brothers all over the South who try to keep us down: We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you…. Do to us what you will. Threaten our children and we will still love you…. Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.

King projected through his megaphone not only a resoluteness, but also a longing for what he limned on other occasions as “the beloved community.” This vision of social communion is usually gleaned from his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, but King invoked the concept as early as 1955. At the time he declared that the purpose of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was nothing less than “reconciliation … redemption … the creation of the beloved community.”

A Movement’s Theology

Before King came along, the theme had kicked around Protestant theology for decades, more or less as a shibboleth of theological optimism. King gave the idea a certain soberness, and as University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh notes, he infused it with moral urgency.

In his hands, the beloved community became the “realization of divine love in lived social relation,” in Marsh’s words—never fully realized but always an object of human striving. Marsh (his 2005 book is The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today) and other writers have shown how the motif threaded through King’s writings and speeches until the end. It gave the freedom struggle its theological trajectory.

King had rooted the principle partly in what he considered a fact of human existence, that we are social by nature, interdependent with one another. “The solidarity of the human family” were words he frequently spoke in this vein, Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zep observed in their 1974 book Search for the Beloved Community.

He could see the obstacles ahead. While battling legal segregation, King contemplated a future, subtler enemy: “spiritual segregation,” the mistrust and distance between blacks and whites that would continue to forestall a beloved community.

Not even racial harmony would usher in the great community, in his mind (as he made clear in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?). A further requirement was economic justice, a bridging of chasms between rich and poor.

Fast Forward

Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute released the results of an opinion poll casting light on simmering resentments in the body politic.

For instance, a (slim) majority of white Americans polled—51 percent—agreed with the statement, “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Among those who say Fox News is their most trusted source of information, 70 percent held the same view.

What lies behind this myopia might be hard to pinpoint. Economic anxiety? An African American president? Recollections of purely race-based affirmative action? Or simply, the unrealized dream of a beloved community.

King himself seemed to think this community would always be not yet. At times he made it sound like a spiritual construct to be made flesh in the Kingdom of God. He also wielded the phrase when preaching about the endless struggle against evil, in which God ultimately prevails, as Smith and Zepp pointed out.

Less cosmically, King had faith in the human capacity to approximate the beloved community, here and now. He saw the civil rights movement, spanning racial lines, as a microcosm of the ideal.

Detecting a Pulse

Where are the signs of such approximation today?

Earlier this year the New York Times ran an eye-opening series titled “Race Remixed,” which explored interracial marriage and the growing numbers of mixed-race Americans. Surely this is a mark of spiritual integration.

Beyond race, polls for over two decades have shown that lopsided majorities of Americans favor higher minimum wages for the poorest workers. Whatever one might think of the wisdom of such a proposal, the impulse is a moral one. It’s an instance of social solidarity, not economic self-interest. Boosting the bottom wage would give no direct lift to most wage earners.

There are, even in these polarized days, the glimmerings of a true political community, if not a beloved one. …read more

A Theology of Embarrassment

By some worldly measures, the mystic and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel was not very embarrassable. He had fled Poland just six weeks before the Nazi invasion there, and arrived in the United States in 1940 at a time when Jews, including his fellow rabbis, were trying hard to look and sound like other (preferably secular) Americans. Heschel contributed little to the effort.

At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the professor would show up at 7:00 a.m. morning services donning a prayer shawl and tefillin—two small leather boxes containing scrolls with passages from the Torah (he wrapped one box around an upper arm, the other, around his forehead). During prayers he swayed back and forth while the other professors “sat stiffly, dignified,” his biographer Edward K. Kaplan noted. Heschel sported a yarmulke and grew what eventually turned into a conspicuous white beard with a surfeit of tousled white, wavy hair, as though he were vying for the lead role in a movie about the ancient Hebrew prophets.

Heschel did have, however, a sense of what he termed “ultimate embarrassment.” As he saw it, this is the feeling all people of faith should have, when they stand in awe of a God who is just and righteous, who demands more of them and their world.

I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life…. There are slums, disease, and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas.

These words were penned by Heschel in 1965—the same year he strode with Martin Luther King in the front line of the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. Susannah Heschel, a noted religious-studies scholar at Dartmouth, says her father (who died in 1972) looked upon embarrassment as the beginning of religious faith, but not the end.

“Embarrassment is the impulse that must lead to an awareness of being challenged,” she comments in a superb new collection, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, which she edited as part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series published by Orbis Books (a Catholic publisher).

Less Than Mortified

Heschel’s theology of embarrassment resonates politically at a moment when poverty appears to be metastasizing in America. This month the Census Bureau reported that more than 46 million Americans were struggling below the official poverty line of $22, 314 a year for a family of four. At 15.1 percent it is the highest poverty rate since the early 1990s.

Conservatives used the data to proclaim the failure of Obamanomics and trumpet their agenda of unceasing tax-and-regulation-slashing. Liberals reasserted the need for a raft of social-welfare policies including extended unemployment insurance (an existing policy that the Bureau said had kept a few million other Americans out of poverty).

Analysts and partisans responded quickly to the news, but were scarcely mortified. There seemed to be little pause for reflection, little soul-searching about our collective failure over decades to lift all boats, even in the midst of rising economic tides.

One analyst who has scaled the subject with both urgency and humility is Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times correspondent David K. Shipler. During the 1990s boom, Shipler began a long search for understanding. He traveled to African American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and all-white towns in rural New Hampshire, to malnutrition clinics in Boston and sweatshops in California, and many points in between.

The result was the best book on poverty I’ve ever read, next to Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic The Other America. Shipler wrote in his 2004 book The Working Poor:

Working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households.

Such balance (“unwise spending”) might seem less to the point now, as more Americans fall into poverty for reasons completely beyond their control. Just the same, Shipler achieved a tone and spirit that would elevate any conversation about this continuing American scandal. The closing words of his remarkable reportage were, “It’s time to be ashamed.”

Across time and celestial space, one could almost hear Rabbi Heschel intoning those same words. …read more

Obama’s “Gig,” and Ours … A Discernment

Polls show that confidence in President Obama’s leadership is slipping among Americans, even as he struggles to regain his voice with an ambitious new jobs plan. According to various commentators, the president has seemed unable to stick with his own program, to stake out a credible vision of his presidency, to decide he’s one thing and not another.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Obama, like many of us, doesn’t really know or appreciate his “gig.”

That is a thought engendered by my friend Andy Boynton, dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Boynton talks about the importance of “knowing your gig,” what you’re all about as a professional and where you’d like to be going in your career. (He developed the concept together with me and Bill Fischer in The Idea Hunter).

In this rendering, a gig isn’t something done by a musician on a Saturday night. It is far broader in scope. It’s closer to one’s personal brand or professional identity, even to the sense of vocation many people seek to nurture. The function of a gig is to steer people toward ideas, projects, and proposals that are right for them.

How does a politician or anyone come to a thoughtful understanding of his or her gig? I’d suggest taking a cue from those who help young people discern their callings in life.

Michael Himes, a Catholic priest and theology professor at Boston College, has come up with some useful tools of self-reflection for those purposes. In several papers and presentations he has outlined three key questions people can reflect on, when choosing a profession or even just a job or some other role. Those questions are:

1. Is this a source of joy?

2. Is this something that taps into your talents and gifts–engages all of your abilities–and uses them in the fullest way possible?

3. Is this role a genuine service to the people around you, to society at large?

Himes has a pithier version of this discernment:

1. Do you get a kick out it?

2. Are you any good at it?

3. Does anyone want you to do it?

Such a process of theological reflection could help someone decide whether to be, for example, a politician. That would be a calling. But the process could also guide a person toward a certain way of being a politician, a particular way of adding value to local or national politics. That would be a gig.

A Place in the Political Universe

At the beginning of his administration, most people would have guessed that Obama had a gig.

He seemed to have a passion of sorts for social and economic justice, tempered though not eclipsed by a genuine desire for common ground. He was pretty good at crafting the message and selling it to broad swaths of the American public. And people were in the market for his brand of policy solutions (and still are, if polls on job creation and taxes on the wealthy are any guide).

Naturally, this picture grew a little murky as Obama grappled with the inevitable opposition. Governing is messy business, especially when the votes in Congress aren’t there. Political compromise is both necessary and honorable.

Still, it was easy to lose track of Obama’s essence as he commendably engaged Republicans in dialogue and curiously debated on their terms. This happened most recently during the debt-limit crisis, as the president’s focus turned altogether to deficit reduction rather than jobs.

It’s as if he had discerned his place in the political universe, his passion for economic fairness, and had become slightly embarrassed by it. Or had never really owned it.

This is just one track of analysis. Maybe Obama conceives of himself, above all, as a post-partisan, post-ideological politician. It’s an interesting possibility, but it would probably fall shy of a gig, since there isn’t much of a constituency at the moment for that way of being president.

But what would happen if Obama had a more-palpable sense of his mission and purpose as (let’s say) one who advocates a strong public sector? Would his popularity rebound? It’s not as simple as that, but at least Americans would have a sharper notion of who he is and who he isn’t.

They would know he’s the guy who stands in a long political tradition that uses government machinery to help lift the economy out of a deep ditch. He isn’t the guy who, at such a moment, proposes the biggest rollback of government spending power in American history, as he did in the debt-ceiling negotiations with GOP leaders.

We wouldn’t all agree with him, but we’d know his gig. And many of us would think more of him as a leader. As we might, depending on what unfolds in the coming months. …read more

About William Bole

William Bole is an American journalist who writes about ideas, particularly as they stir in social movements and take shape in the lives of extraordinary people. Much of his writing is situated on the borders between religion, ethics, politics, and intellectual life. He also crosses frequently into other fields of interest, especially education and management.  … read more

Evil Acts, Sacred Places

Auschwitz, Pearl Harbor, the World Trade Center, the Murrah Federal Building of Oklahoma City—each one marks out a distinct space in the timeless realm of evil. And yet, in the eyes of traumatized communities, these and other killing grounds also become sacred. They demand a collective response that is scaled to their sacredness, to their transcendent claims on human memory, meaning, and ritual.

This is one way of sizing up the contention surrounding the 9/11 Memorial and Museum that opens this Sunday at the World Trade Center site.

Nearly 3,000 people perished as the Twin Towers crumbled on September 11, 2001, and the remains of more than 40 percent of them have not been identified. Many families of those victims have pushed for a common burial place at Ground Zero, a monument not unlike the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.

They thought such a tomb, there for all to see, could serve as a dignified final resting place for their loved ones. Instead, the remains will be stored in a room behind a wall in the underground 9/11 museum that will open together with the above-ground memorial. The words of Virgil will be inscribed on the wall: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

Some 9/11 relatives say they’ll never go there. In essence, they argue that the remains repository—seven stories below ground in a museum that is considering charging for admission—has not been scaled to the sacredness of Ground Zero. They believe the storage plan is a desecration of the whole site.

Designers of the memorial, as well as other 9/11 families, disagree.

They point out that inside the concealed room, medical personnel will continue the task of identifying remains—a meaningful activity. And they say the above-ground memorial, including a plaza with waterfalls and two reflecting pools, will constitute hallowed ground. Bronze panels around the pools will bear the names of all 9/11 victims.

Translating the Sacred

What stirs little contention is the understanding behind the misunderstanding, the theology behind the politics. By and large, the dissenting families and the memorial’s creators agree that this tract of unspeakable evil is in fact sacred ground and ought to be handled as such. They clash only on the particulars of how to flesh out the sacredness.

For instance, on its web site the 9/11 Memorial and Museum acknowledges the volatility of questions about how to return the unidentified remains to “the sacred ground of the World Trade Center site.”

From one perspective, this is not the most intuitive theology. In a traditional formulation, a place becomes sacred when God intervenes to demonstrate his wondrous ways; it becomes a point of entry into the divine world. This would be a dicey reading of the horrific events that transpired ten years ago. It would also be a strictly religious one.

There is, however, another way of parsing this theology.

Simply put, sacred space is fraught with special meaning. It opens the way to a transcendent truth and reality that is qualitatively different from the surrounding ordinary space. This is more or less the approach taken by the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade in his 1957 classic, The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion.

In Danger of Defilement

In addition, such a space is easily desecrated. The insightful religious studies scholar Edward Linenthal underscored this in an interview conducted by Kim Lawton of the PBS television program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, aired on the first anniversary of 9/11.

My definition of a sacred place is a simple one. Any place that’s capable of being defiled is by definition sacred. You can’t defile ordinary space. Any place that for a group of people is so special that a certain way of being there would be an act of disrespect means that that place is charged with a particular kind of meaning.

A belief in the sacred appears to be part of the common theological sense of most Americans. That a single space could encompass both evil and the holy is also not perplexing to them.

This perspective brings together people ranging from relatives of firemen who fell on 9/11 to architects of the new memorial. It could also pull them furiously apart when some interpret “a certain way of being there” as a desecration of that holy ground. …read more

The Peace Front

Religious groups stake out a wider role in violent conflicts.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a cadre of young Muslim men hijacked planes and, perhaps with visions of black-eyed virgins in Paradise, crashed them into the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center, acting supposedly in the name of their religion. Within hours of these atrocities, Top 40 radio stations across the United States began playing John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine,” which supplied what many saw as a soundtrack of hope and harmony in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The lyrics longingly envisioned “all the people, living life in peace.” But with a disquieting relevance to the suicide attacks, Lennon had also pondered, “Imagine there’s no heaven…and no religion, too.”

Since then commentators have fleshed out this contemplation of a religion-free world. “Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11…no Crusades…no Israel/Palestine wars…no Taliban,” wrote the prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins five years after the towers crumbled. This past December, 30 years after the ex-Beatle was gunned down by a deranged fan, the comedian and television personality Bill Maher, alluding to religious strife in general, sent a message to his fans on Twitter: “Remember Lennon said ‘Imagine NO religion.’ Honor what he wrote—it holds up.” These and other secularist screeds have tapped into a larger feeling that religion usually is a cause of violence rather than an agent of peace helping to resolve and heal conflicts. …read more

Ten Years After

Filipino General Raymundo Ferrer: In the midst of a U.S.-backed war against Islamic extremists, he wields the soft power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working on—of all things—a book about forgiveness and international politics.

I was at my desk at home, and spoke briefly by phone with a Georgetown University colleague who said she had just overheard something about a plane crash in Lower Manhattan. Oblivious to the scale of the catastrophe and the cascading irony of my theme, I kept my head down and dug into case studies of political forgiveness around the world.

That I might be onto an idea whose time had passed almost as soon as it arrived did not set in until the next day when I heard from friends who had seen or been close to the horror in my hometown. They were, as they had every right to be, unforgiving.

Did it make sense to continue talking about forgiveness as a geopolitical option, as I and many others did? A decade into the war on terrorism, is forgiveness a useful way to think about international relations and conflict resolution?

A Political Theology of Forgiveness

The answer depends on your concept or theology of forgiveness.

There is the pietistic view that assigns forgiveness to the realm of personal faith. In this spiritual milieu, forgiveness is an unconditional act. It happens when one person musters the inner strength to say to another, “You’re forgiven,” or otherwise buries the hatchet, once and for all.

This concept of forgiveness does not travel well from faith to politics. No one should hold her breath waiting for such a sweeping, unilateral act of mercy involving extremely fractious groups. And it’s easy to miss the real story, when forgiveness is understood in that literal fashion.

Then there is a political theology of forgiveness articulated by such thinkers as Donald W. Shriver, Jr., in his 1995 book, An Ethic for Enemies. In his rendering, forgiveness is not a single act; it is a process with a range of transactions that look to a new political future together.

Truth—the acknowledgment of wrongdoing or misguided thinking—is one such transaction. Another is the decision to steer away from revenge and retribution.

There should also be clear signals of a desire to eventually repair the fractured social relationship. In the years leading up to 9/11, such strategies helped transform conflicts in places ranging from South Africa and Rwanda to Northern Ireland and South Korea.

Conditionality is a must, in the politics of forgiveness.

For instance, at the end of white minority rule in 1994, South Africa’s black leadership offered amnesty to human-rights violators—with one stipulation. Those perpetrators had to publicly divulge the truth about atrocities committed under the apartheid system. Without conditionality, forgiveness loses a vital link to justice and restitution.

Enter Islam

What has altered this picture distinctly since 9/11 is the challenge of Islamic extremism. Is forgiveness an improbable way to conceive of a response to such a worldwide threat? Perhaps, but some practitioners of conflict resolution have found ways to begin reconciling locally with radical Islamic movements.

Among the most unlikely of them is General Raymundo Ferrer of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, whose command covers most of Mindanao, the nation’s second-largest island. The Filipino military has waged counterinsurgency campaigns against Islamic rebels in the southern islands since the 1970s, working hand in glove with the United States military since 9/11. During this past decade, however, Ferrer began to realize that an absolute reliance on hard power was foolish and misguided.

In his rethinking, the notion of a final military victory by the Armed Forces became far-fetched. He began repairing ties with long-aggrieved Muslims in little ways. For example, Ferrer ordered his troops to point their guns down and smile at Muslims when passing them on the street, as political scientist Maryann Cusimano Love describes in a case study published earlier this year by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

Ferrer himself began striking up conversations on the sidewalks near his post in Basilian, Mindanao, meeting the locals, among them a Catholic social worker who wasted no time linking him up with interfaith peace activists. These are Christians and Muslims who had begun holding grassroots interreligious dialogues between members of their communities years earlier.

They, in turn, encouraged him to sign up for “peacebuilding” training conducted jointly by Catholic Relief Services, the American-based international aid organization, and the Mindanao Peace Institute, a Mennonite-Catholic collaboration. Ferrer did so in 2005, in the face of resistance from both fellow generals and church human-rights activists who distrusted the military.

Soft Power

Since then the general has sent his colonels to classes in “nonviolent communications,” mediation, religion and culture, reconciliation, and other peaceable subjects.

Love’s case study throws light on the possible utility of forgiveness—understood as a way of reconstructing social relationships, piece by piece. Stemming from his acknowledgment of misguided thinking, Ferrer’s overtures were  essentially signals of his commitment to rebuild relations with Muslim populations. Those are transactions of political forgiveness.

Together, the Filipino government and Islamic rebel movements have made strides toward reconciliation, but this story continues, partly due to the splintered nature of those insurgencies.

Approaches involving truth telling, forbearance from revenge, and empathy have entered into the toolkits of many religious and secular peacemakers around the world. Whether these initiatives multiply will depend in part on leaders like a Filipino general who is not afraid to wield the soft power of forgiveness and reconciliation. …read more

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