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Beloved Community: The Now and Not Yet

Rev. Christine Robinson has a great little post up about the phrase "beloved community" and why it's problematic to use that to describe a church. Like her mom, I can get cranky about the whole thing, but my crankiness lies in the misuse of what is, to me, such a breathtaking and profound concept.

Martin Luther King, Jr., someone whose words I study in great detail, is the one we often think of as originating the term, but he learned about it through the writings of Josiah Royce.

Josiah Royce (right) with close friend William James. 
Royce was a philosopher, studying Kant, Hegel. I imagine he would have enjoyed Koestler's theory of the holon, because he saw humanity as being both individuals and part of a greater "organism" that was community. As King's belief about Beloved Community would be rooted in agape, Royce's philosophy stemmed from what he called loyalty, and by that he meant, "the practically devoted love of an individual for a community.” (The Problem of Christianity, Royce, 1913)

For Royce, Beloved Community was a goal. It was the best of everyone, working for the best of all humanity, and encompassing all of humanity. It starts with a community loyally working toward that end, ever expanding -- "the enlargement of the ideal community of the loyal in the direction of identifying that community with all mankind." 

Missional Christians will often talk about the Kingdom of God as being "The Now and Not Yet." On the more theologically conservative side, the "not yet" refers to another world happening after this one; for those more liberal, "not yet" is the dream of what our earthly civilization has the potential to be.

Beloved Community was both the now and not yet for Royce. It is something that we can make real in our own lives, in our current world, even as we accept that the work will not be complete in our lifetime. But even as we acknowledge the idealism of the world we yearn for, we still take concrete steps to create it, analyzing what we do and promote for how it will further the vision. “Every proposed reform, every moral deed, is to be tested by whether and to what extent it contributes to the realization of the Beloved Community…When one cannot find the ‘beloved community,’ she needs to take steps to create it and if there is not evidence of the existence of such a community then the rule to live by is To Act So As To Hasten Its Coming.” (Royce)

For Martin Luther King, Jr., Beloved Community was the result of agapic love lived. Even on this, you can see the interweaving of Royce's view that ultimately, humanity is one organism.
"Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. 
Agape is disinterested love. It is a love by which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes...Agape makes no distinction between friends and enemy; it is directed toward both... 
Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. ….In the final analysis, agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers." (An Experiment in Love, MLK, 1958)
Beloved Community is not held within our church walls. As soon as you begin to think like that, you have moved into the exact opposite of beloved community, because in creating that definition of community, you have necessarily created otherness. There is the community inside our walls, the people who think like us, act like us, look like us. And there are the people who are not part of that community, the "others." This is not Beloved Community. Royce distinguished between small "communities of grace" that were loyal to the greater cause of the universal Beloved Community and those who were insular, often "predatory," in their loyalty to their own.

Universalism is naturally woven into Beloved Community. Universalism is universal salvation; salvation for everyone, unconditional. Those who strive for Beloved Community want a realized eschatology where everyone is saved from poverty, from disease, from injustice.  As Rev. King said in a speech honoring Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois,
Let us be dissatisfied until every man can have food and material necessities for his body, culture and education for his mind, freedom and human dignity for his spirit. Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent, sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized...Let us be dissatisfied until our brother of the Third World Asia, Africa, and Latin America-will no longer be the victim of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy, and disease.  (Honoring Dr. Du Bois, MLK, 1968)
Let us be dissatisfied. Let us strengthen our church communities so that they may be communities of grace, outward-facing, living in the Beloved Community of now, creating the Beloved Community of not yet.


  1. I'd like to just observe that I find this post wonderfully dissatisfactory. Or will, but not yet.

  2. Having just gone through the Mark Hicks Beloved Conversations curriculum at my church, I so strongly have the sense that we must support each other within our congregations, but must do the work ourselves "outside" our churches. I engage this work at the edge where I might go through discomfort - but do it knowing what can come of this work - and that the UU congregation will be there to support me through the growing journey of being human. That is WOW UUism! Thanks for this, Rev. Joanna! Right On!

  3. I appreciate your article, including the references to Josiah Royce (a new name to me, to be honest, but I agree strongly with what he stood for).

  4. Thanks for this post! I just linked it in my Facebook stream. . . Prepping for a session on the Beloved Community next week and diving more deeply into the Roycean connections/roots.

  5. I am late coming to this post although I have been studying Josiah Royce for some time. I think his concept of the"invisible church" can be helpful.The phrase dessribes groups of people working for a cause that is supportive of universal loyalty (loyal to loyalty) even if the group does not think of itself as a church. The members might all be atheists. An example might be a medical team or a group of scientists working on clean energy.The role of the visible church is to serve as an exemplar of the beloved community. When it fails to do so, as it often does, then it is failing in its purpose.

  6. Thanks for helping to make readers more aware of Josiah Royce and how his seminal thoughts can nourish the work toward a universal beloved community. Royce is a national treasure, but mostly a buried treasure.


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