“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

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