Charles Marsh: " King’s hands, the idea of beloved community was invigorated with theological vitality and moral urgency, so that the prospects of social progress came to look less like an evolutionary development and more like a divine gift."

Charles Marsh: The next morning, the young Baptist pastor was the first Negro to board the bus at the corner of South Jackson and Key Street, a few blocks from his home.  "Is this the reverend?", asked the white driver politely.  "That's right," answered King, visibly nervous as reporters and photographers looked on.  "We are glad to have you this morning," the driver said.  "Thank you," said King, who then stepped on the bus and took a seat on the third row.  Smiley sat alongside King, and Ralph Abernathy sat in the next row in front of them.  "I rode the first integrated bus in Montgomery with a white minister and a native Southerner as my seatmate," King said.(1)

In Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr. came to new understanding of redemptive social relation: the beloved community.  In a "confluence of optimisms", where the Kingdom of God met the American dream, Christian hope would serve the cause not so much as an opiate but as a stimulant.(2)  When the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Montgomery Improvement Association and in opposition to segregated transportation in Montgomery, a church person was heard saying, "God Almighty has spoken from Washington, D.C".(3)  Although it would not be correct to say that the emerging "new world" of God was but the theological rendering of a political achievement, the federal government nonetheless delivered the goods on civil rights and made it tempting to regard the democratic process as an extension of the divine will fulfilling the promissory notes and prayers of black America.  King did not so much strike a balance between prophetic religion and the American dream as he imagined democratic possibilities from the perspective of Biblical hope. 

In using the term "beloved community", King borrowed from a discourse which had been fashionable in American philosophical and theological circles throughout the early and middle twentieth century.(4)  Most of these formulations, however, had the effect of reducing transcendence to some mode or modulation of human experience, or of describing beloved community as an inevitable historical achievement.  The influential philosopher Josiah Royce, spoke of beloved community as "a perfectly lived unity of individual men joined in one divine chorus", and gave voice to the essence of Protestant ethical religion; the beloved community shimmers with liberal hopes of human progress and perfectibility.  One speaks of beloved community by speaking of America in a loud voice, and all one needs to know of God is discovered in ethical religion, slightly adjusted for church-goers in capitalist economies.(5)

But in King’s hands, the idea of beloved community was invigorated with theological vitality and moral urgency, so that the prospects of social progress came to look less like an evolutionary development and more like a divine gift:  “God is using Montgomery as his proving ground.”  God remains from beginning to end the ultimate agent of human liberation, not only in America, but throughout all the nations and in creation.  The fading of the "old order" and the emergence of a "new age" is not written into the genetic code of American history as its manifest destiny; rather beloved community depends on a theological, one might say ecclesiological, event.  In other words, the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind radiates out from the fellowship of the faithful.  If “segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Jesus Christ," as King says, then reconciliation demonstrates to the world the truth that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Negro nor white) and that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth."(6)  Thus, the beloved community is the new social space of reconciliation introduced into history by the Church empowered by the “triumph and beat of the drums of Easter".  The beloved community is not shaped finally by a "religion of loyalty" (Royce), "the good life of personality lived in the Beloved Community" (Randolph Bourne), or even by the "social egalitarianism" of Jesus Christ (Rauschenbusch)(7); rather, the beloved community is established by the "great event on Calvary", by “the great event that stands at the center of our faith which reveals to us that God is on the side of truth and love and justice," as King explained in his Dexter sermon, "Paul's Letter to American Christians".(8)

(1)  King cited in Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights, p. 482.

(2)   John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishers, 1997), p. 126.

(3)   Cited in Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get there With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: The Free Press, 2000), p. 128.

(4)  See Richard Lischer, The Preacher King, and Ralph Luker's groundbreaking essay, "Kingdom of God and Beloved Community in the Thought of Martin Luther King, Jr.", in Lived Theology in America: The Promise of Reconciling Communities, edited by Charles Marsh and Tracy K'Meyer, forthcoming.

(5)  Josiah Royce, The Christian Doctrine of Life, p. 196.

(6)  King, The Papers, volume III, p. 462; King, The Papers, volume III, p. 17.

(7)  Cited in McCahharer, Christian Critics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000):, pp. 14-16.

(8)  King, The Papers, volume III, p. 328 (my emphasis).

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