“Living in Beloved Community”

Rev. Julie Kain

I know that my perspective to the world was shaped in part by the portion of my childhood spent living just outside of Washington D.C., in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I mentioned last week how I would spend hours listening to the radio and there was indeed, in retrospect, a cultural musical explosion that happened during that era. But we also know it wasn’t just the music scene that was exploding with creativity. A new kind of interracial creativity moved through the whole of our American culture, which was in the throes of upheaval and transformation.

So there I was as a little girl with my best friend watching the TV during the Woodstock festival to see if we could find her parents somewhere in that mass of young people. I don’t remember a lot about her parents except that they worked in the inner city with a black youth community project and they had one of those huge strike posters of a clenched fist on their window in our suburban apartment complex.

In contrast my mother, who was several years older than her parents, worked in Washington DC at the Sheraton Hotel booking national conventions. She happened to be working the same hotel where my paternal grandfather Paul Kain had directed his jazz orchestra for many years in their ballroom, through the late 40’s and into the 50’s.

As a child growing up outside of Washington in the 60’s, I was vaguely aware of the social tensions of that time. Between the young people and their elders, between whites and blacks, and than also there was the oppressive concern about the Vietnam War. All of these were palpable social tensions that even as a young person I was impacted by.

And so perhaps when I was a little older I grabbed onto the notion of a better society that might be a possibility for us.

It was back in the day when musicals seemed to be much more popular than they are now. I happened to see the movie “Lost Horizon” a re-make based on the James Hilton book of the same name.

A small group of international travelers endure a plane crash in the Himalayan Mountains and stumble upon a sophisticated and peaceful society called Shangri-La. This is both a magical and mystical place which has also been known as Shambala in other stories. Each of the guests is warmly welcomed and each go through their own personal wrestling with the contrast between their modern, urban motivations and the simple way of life in community that they experience in Shangri-La.

I do believe this movie may have sparked my life long interest in the creative possibilities of community, in utopian societies and even in science fiction like the multi-generational series Star Trek, where our imaginations are encouraged to envision future human possibilities.

And so it was while I was in college, at a Quaker institution, and read the works of Martin Luther King Jr., I was deeply struck by the powerful notion of Beloved Community.

The term had actually been coined in the early 20th century by philosopher and theologian Josiah Royce who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. But of course today we know that the concept of Beloved Community was at the core of Dr. King’s message for our times. For King, the Beloved Community was not some sort of utopian vision but a realistic, attainable goal which he truly believed a critical mass of people could manifest with the proper background in nonviolent social change methods.

Inspired by the life of Gandhi, King asserted that because we surely live in an inescapable web of mutuality, we must learn to befriend our adversaries through nonviolent means, and that the natural aftermath of peaceful resolution is the creation of Beloved Community among us.

So this concept of Beloved Community is an awareness of our total relatedness in the solidarity of the human family, and that for us to live in peace with the diversity that we are, there must be a dedication to justice for everyone everywhere.

King’s stature is based not just as social reformer on the issue of race, but as a religious revolutionary championing the worth and dignity of the whole human family. We see this in his latter career when he was speaking out against war and against economic inequity. His, of course, was a global vision with a dream of sharing the wealth of the earth among all its peoples.

Now I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing the King Center in Atlanta for myself but they do have a beautiful website. And there you can find these important six principles of nonviolence which is the continuing work of Dr. King’s legacy for us.

The first principle is that nonviolent action is a way of life for courageous people. It seeks to win friendship and understanding, defeating not people but injustice everywhere. The next principle tells us that we need to be educated and transformed by the presence of human suffering, and then, that we should choose love always over the option to hate. And lastly – the sixth principle of nonviolence is that the universe itself is on the side of justice.

Did you know that Dr. King’s phrase “the moral arc of the universe is long but its bends towards justice” was adapted from the words of an 18th century Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker? Although a friend of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, Parker was ostracized by his fellow Unitarian ministers in Boston for his theology which transcended the Bible and for his fervent stand against war and slavery.

What Parker actually said was “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one and from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And so it is that Dr. King’s central concept of Beloved Community not only, in part, arises from our history as Unitarian Universalists, but that the creation of a Beloved Community is in its very essence at the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith. In the small volume called The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide, the first chapter on “Our Faith” is written by William Schulz, formally the executive director for Amnesty International, and a past president of our Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations.

In it he affirms that we have no creeds to determine membership in our faith but we do have covenants, the promises we make to and with each other. Despite our diversity of individual beliefs, we hold some faith affirmations, with which he says “a vast majority of us would be comfortable”.

They are: the notion that although we do not necessarily agree on what we think is holy, creation itself is.

We affirm that Life’s gifts are available to everyone not just the chosen or saved.

We also believe that the beauty and blessings of Life’s creation are not manifest in only the miraculous, or otherworldliness, but in the simple everyday.

We believe as Unitarian Universalist that human beings are responsible for the planet and its future. Therefore our participation in social justice making is a religious imperative and obligation.

We believe that we are all held in Creation’s hand with all its burdens and radiant joys and therefore we need not be strangers or enemies with each other. Our only true enemies, he says, are “violence, poverty, injustice and oppression”.

We agree that though death confronts us all, we love Life even more, even though we eventually lose it. We believe an honorable and impassioned life extends beyond its death.

Although I was a devoted college student to the works of Dr. King, it wasn’t until I was in seminary that I learned his work was also inspired and influenced by yet another Unitarian, the philosopher of religion, Henry Nelson Wieman, long associated with the University of Chicago Divinity School. Wieman’s theology was informed by the mathematician Alfred North Whitehead and originator of what is called Process philosophy. Whitehead’s very elaborate metaphysical system was adapted by Christian theologians, including Henry Nelson Wieman, despite the fact that we are uncertain if Northhead actually believed in God. What he did believe in is the irrepressible creative impulse at work in our universe, constantly manifesting itself through innovation, change and transformation. This is where the term “process” comes in. The universe is in constant process and we are part of the universe.

King’s doctoral dissertation compared the conceptions of God in the thinking of Henry Nelson Wieman and Paul Tillich. It was through his influence from Wieman that King incorporated the notion that our direct experience in life, also known as Empiricism, informs both our experiences as religious beings and offers the vehicle for divine expression in the world. King believed along the lines of Wieman that our human creativity, also known as “creative interchange” in the language of Wieman, is the central force of God’s justice making activity in the universe.

Wieman and King agreed that creative interchange happens only in the context of community. And so we come now to our lives as Unitarian Universalists. Like King’s lofty six principles of nonviolence, we have our own Principles and Purposes we aspire to live by. Through our continuing efforts, we live in a context of Beloved Community, not only the dream of King but of so many of us.

Have we created the Beloved Community once and for all and for all of us? Surely not as we know all too well. But our daily commitments truly help the critical mass that’s needed to build it.

Our UU congregations are here to challenge us into the daily expressions of our faith. They’re here to support us in our personal transformations and crises, as well as to support us in our work and living in the world.

This weekend on Friday night and yesterday, the accurate prediction of my church newsletter column came to pass… We didindeed enjoy a fantastic New Minister Workshop with the delightful facilitation of our Mid-South District Executive, the dear Eunice Benton.

Around the room this morning you will see the notes we generated to document our community conversation of where we’ve been in the past and where we’d like to be heading in our future together.

The workshop and the beautiful memorial service for Victor Musial were both celebrations of ‘Living in Beloved Community’. We have so much for which to be grateful!

In closing, I’d like to share with you a statement written by the late Process theologian Bernard Loomer, a one-time dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was written upon his joining the UU church in Berkeley in his retirement, along with his wife, Jeanne. I was honored to have Jeanne Loomer and Huston Smith’s wife, Kendra, also a member of the Berkeley Church where I served my parish internship, together, light the chalice at my ordination ceremony. Our UU world is a small one at times – Kendra Smith happens also to be the daughter of Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman, who I spoke of earlier.

This passage is found in the last chapter of another small volume called Our Chosen Faith.

Unitarian Universalist church is … “a living testimony that we live in the context of a mystery that far transcends our reason.

We are born in mystery and we die in mystery. A sense of value without sensitivity to mystery is one way of reducing the meaning of life for us. It is for enabling us to seek and to find some ultimate source of value and meaning.

Our trust in this source outruns out knowledge. This reality is to be worshiped for its own sake, because it is worthy of our trust.

In this relationship of truth and worship, the church (or fellowship) is a reminder that we live in terms of covenant and not in terms of a contract. It is for seeking as well as speaking the truth in love. It is for increase of stature, the enlargement of the spirit, and the greater freedom of the self.

Freedom is not an end in itself; it exists in order to enrich our communal life. {Our joining a free church congregation encourages us} to actualize our most creative possibilities.

It is the critic of our limitations and our pretensions. It is for understanding and being understood. It is for confessions, for repentance, and for the compassion of mutual forgiveness.

It is for reminding us that we are all members of the web of life, that no one is an island, and that no one person is an individual outside the context of that web.  The web includes more than the present; it includes the past.

Church is an important agency by which great traditions become living presences within the community. It is the communal celebration of our elemental joys and sorrows, of our gains and losses, of great meanings. The church is for taking these elemental qualities and values of everyday life and of weaving them into the vary litany of the community.

I am grateful for this kind of church. I am proud to be included in its membership.”

I hope that you too can feel proud of our living in a Beloved Community.

May it be so.