Toward a Vision of Beloved Community

by Rev. Shirley Strong, M.Ed.

February 2007

Rev. Shirley Strong

I understand the term Beloved Community to mean an inclusive, interrelated society based on love, justice, compassion, responsibility, shared power and a respect for all people, places, and things—a society that radically transforms individuals and restructures institutions.

The term “Beloved Community” can be traced back to Josiah Royce (1855-1916), the 19th century American religious philosopher. It was a part of the popular theological vocabulary of Boston University’s School of Theology during the early 1950s, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a doctoral student there. Royce characterized the Beloved Community as “a spiritual or divine community capable of achieving the highest good as well as the common good.”

Royce believed that “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 held that each individual should strive toward this goal of the Beloved Community, and that the more individuals who joined the effort, the greater the possibility of achieving it. He believed that this would lead in time to the radical transformation of individuals.

King built on Royce’s ideal, especially during the later stages of his life. He came to believe that in addition to the radical transformation of individuals, there was a need for a “deep restructuring of institutions if the Beloved Community was to be realized.” An organizing principle for King’s thinking and work, this ideal was deeply rooted in two primarily principles:

  • The American dream of equality and justice for all
  • The biblical vision of the kingdom of God

Dr. King viewed all life as interrelated. He frequently remarked, “All men [women] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” He came to believe that what affects one person directly affects everyone indirectly, and to treat even a single person unjustly is an affront to all people everywhere.

Furthermore, King believed that the ‘oppressed’ and other persons of good will have much to say about how slowly or how quickly the Beloved Community will be actualized. He understood that this ideal would require a radical transformation of values leading to an emphasis on love and justice. More importantly, King believed that in the United States, the Beloved Community would require a radically restructured society. This would mean raising fundamental questions about an economic system that places the wants of the few above the basic needs of the many.

King did not believe that the realization of the Beloved Community would one day just automatically come to pass. Rather he saw it as an ideal that first must be envisioned, and then consciously and intentionally worked toward. It was King’s hope that in every succeeding generation, visionary people will commit their lives and resources to the achievement of such a community.

The principles that form the core of Dr. King’s Beloved Community ideal include:

  • The interrelatedness of all things
  • The solidarity of the human family
  • The equal moral status of the individual and the community
  • The realization that each of us lives eternally “in the red” (that is, benefiting from the contributions of others)

In his Personal-Communitarianism and the Beloved Community, Rufus Burrow, Jr. writes that King believed people must strive to be in community in a particular way. According to Burrow, King held that “…minimally, this must mean respecting each other’s personhood, sharing the bounties of God’s world, and intentionally working toward the development of the ‘Beloved Community’.”

An initial step is the establishment of a framework for the practical realization of the Beloved Community—one that leads to a conscious revisioning of a 21st century ideal that can hold “…all the people, all the faces, all the Adams and Eves and their countless generations.”

Many social activists have come to realize there is something missing in the struggle for justice and human rights. We have replaced a larger vision of Beloved Community with a less inclusive strategy of community-building and community organizing. In so doing, we have lost our connection to spirituality, in the sense of being connected to something greater than ourselves—something whose inherent outcome is the creation of Beloved Community.

The question for each of us to consider, as we rapidly move through first decade of the 21st century, is: What vision will we help to make a reality by “acting so as to hasten its coming”?