As I drove across Vancouver Island today, I was listening to the radio and hearing stories about the last days of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the 50th anniversary of this death– a milestone that gives us opportunity to pause and reflect on the message behind the man — a message so challenging to the status quo that his life was repeatedly threatened and eventually taken away from us.
I surmise that if you asked most Americans who MLK was, they would identify him as a civil rights leader who advocated for equal rights for Black americans. While certainly this definition is true, it is incomplete because King’s work was not just about lunch counters and water fountains– it was about power and injustice.
No doctrine of King’s illustrates this most poignantly than his vision of “the beloved community”. First coined by Josiah Royce, the founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, this term was popularized (although not sufficiently) by King. For those unfamiliar with the term, the King Center defines the beloved community as:
“a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries , instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”
Sign me up! This vision gives us a powerful picture of what we should strive for and aligns closely with what many other prophets and teachers have described, including Jesus’ notion of the “kingdom of god”.
This radical vision cannot be addressed without thinking about King’s triple evils: poverty, racism, and militarism. Much has been written about King’s legacy on racism and areas of progress and lack thereof. In these past years alone we have seen plenty of evidence that this exists– from police shootings of unarmed black men to white supremacist rallies.
We also must not forget the other two evils. Where do we stand there? In 2017, the gap between the rich and the poor hit one of its highest levels ever in the United States— and the policies of the current administration have further favored those who possess wealth and influence. We remain entrenched in a militaristic mindset– fueled by increased vitriol between nations and a general movement toward nationalism that threatens the progress of the previous decades. King would remind us to call these things what they are– evils– and to recognize them as the ultimate threats to building a beloved community.
And so the challenge is before us. What kind of community will we create? While few of us have broad ability to influence whether we keep troops in Syria or pass tax policies that entrench individuals in poverty–we all have the opportunity to contribute in more localized contexts.
Think about this?
Poverty. Does it exist in your neighborhood or town? Are people hungry or homeless? Why? Do we accept these disparities as a fact of life? Do we give a pittance to charity to show our sympathy? Or do we act compassionately to eradicate what is unacceptable based on the standards of human decency. King called a great nation a “compassionate nation”.
Racism: Are there people in your community who are excluded from the mainstream? These slights may not be overt discrimination, but simply a lack of connectedness. How can you break down the barriers? — by inviting the immigrant family to your next cookouts? by taking time to get to know the new person on the street? These little things can make a big difference.
Militarism: How do we settle our differences? What about your local police force? Are they engaged in community policing or embracing militaristic methods? Do the words we use on social media or at the football game reflect the beloved community or a militaristic approach to the world?
These are simple, little actions that we can all take action on. Of course, we must also use the power of our voices, our votes, and our purchasing to fuel larger, more systemic change. By dogged persistence and unwavering diligence, we can continue the progress, honoring Dr. King’s legacy and moving us closer to the beloved community of which he inspired us to dream.