A seventh African-American church has burned near Ferguson, Missouri, the latest in the sequence of violent acts that reminds us of the consequences when people claim and wield power to put other people in the places they have defined for them. Back in our shared cultural history as Americans, the early 20th century philosopher Josiah Royce looked at the similar violence of his time and articulated a way of justly relating to our fellow human beings that he called the Beloved Community. Some 50 years later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. again lifted up Royce’s Beloved Community in the context of the civil rights struggle. In the Beloved Community, power is shared so that discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice wane in the presence of a reality marked by economic and social justice, inclusion, and a spirit of reconciled love.
This concept is not new to those of us familiar with Jesus’ ministry and particularly with the Good Samaritan parable that Jesus shares in Luke 10: 29-37. In this narrative, Jesus answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And his response undercuts conventional definitions of relationship and obligation with deft, inclusive moral reasoning. In acting as they do, the priest and Levite assert the standard cultural view that they have not caused the misfortune of the beaten man and thus are not responsible for providing aid. They are not bound to aid him by kinship ties nor do they live immediately by him, so he is not their neighbor in this regard and they do not hold neighborly obligations to him. Thus, why put themselves at risk to help someone they are not required to pay attention to? After all, they are important people with significant religious responsibility. Dr. King updates Jesus’ response to the priest and Levite when he says, “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Perhaps what building this kind of community amounts to finally is that we need to learn how to share power in ways that empower others and honor our common humanity. In the Presbyterian Principles of Order and Government our wise forbearers marked “the human tendency toward tyranny and idolatry,” In other words, left to our own devices, we will claim a greater measure of power for ourselves, build hierarchies, and worship people and material things that help us to preserve that power at the expense of others. Insecure animals that we are, we will make the proposition all about us and not about those whom we have made the least.
Today I’ve been thinking about the Good Samaritan, Beloved Community, and what is truly essential for our lives together in human community. And what I have realized yet again is that establishing and maintaining Beloved Community is challenging, but more than that, it is continual. We must establish Beloved Community over and over and over again. This “better way” that Jesus shows us, requires us, first, to pay continual attention to the ongoing issues that concern our community as well as to attend to how the human relationships around us are playing out, and second, to affirm always that other human beings, our brothers and sisters, are indeed fully human and deserving of basic respect, and thus we do not have the right to define, by our speech or our silence, others as lesser than ourselves.
This is our collective calling as members of the Beloved Community, the covenant community. Do we really want to build and live in this community together?