Some words about Dr. King, Part 2: The Beloved Community

In Part 1, I said that Dr. Martin Luther King sought not to defeat his opponents, but to be reconciled with them. Dr King said, at the successful conclusion of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956: “(T)he end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

There is something deeply radical about that approach to conflict. The website of The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change describes the Beloved Community in more detail:

For Dr. King, the Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, the Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is 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.

… All conflicts in the Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.

This was and is radical because it comprehensively challenges practically every aspect of the traditional American character. It seeks cooperation rather than competition, brother- and sisterhood rather than domination of one by another, nonviolence as opposed to the use of physical power. Dr. King again:

There are certain things we can say about this method that seeks justice without violence. It does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding. I think that this is one of the points, one of the basic points, one of the basic distinguishing points between violence and nonviolence. The ultimate end of violence is to defeat the opponent. The ultimate end of nonviolence is to win the friendship of the opponent. It is necessary to boycott sometimes but the nonviolent resister realizes that boycott is never an end within itself, but merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor; that the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption. And so the aftermath of violence is bitterness; the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community; the aftermath of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. This is a method that seeks to transform and to redeem, and win the friendship of the opponent, and make it possible for men to live together as brothers in a community, and not continually live with bitterness and friction.

I have found in my own life that an awful lot of conflict and enmity springs from ignorance — and I mean that literally rather than pejoratively. I have a friend, a Carmelite priest, who has remarked that whenever he encounters deep rage in someone, there is almost always a deep hurt beneath it.

There was a kid in one of my younger brothers’ classes who was a notorious bully, who made the lives of my brother and his friends very unpleasant in eighth grade at St. Dominic School. At a retreat toward the end of the school year, the class was invited to share things in their life that burdened them. The bully — I’ll call him Chris — told a story that none of his classmates had previously known about. It was a story of a father who came home regularly from the bar and punched Chris and Chris’s mother, and was also verbally abusive to them both. And suddenly everyone saw Chris’s behavior in a new light. They suddenly saw him, not as the villain of their fears, but as the frightened, bewildered kid he actually was, who was suffering terribly through no fault of his own.

I suspect that if we Americans dig beneath a lot of the disagreements that divide us, we will find that many are founded on misunderstanding and ignorance, and could best be resolved by listening to one another without judgment. We need to listen to one another’s stories. Whenever I have done that, I have never come away hating someone. I have always come away with more respect for the person I’m listening to.

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  • Ronald King

    Matt, I agree with everything you’ve written here. In my former life as a psychotherapist my prejudices were revealed and challenged on a daily basis. I was trained to treat a diagnosis but I was taught more about empathy and understanding human suffering by those who sought relief from their suffering. Their symptoms revealed how they attempted to cope with the history of their pain and they taught me how to understand the language of their symptoms in order to develop the vocabulary necessary to express their pain in a way which would develop compassion for themselves and improve their ability to relate this pain to others. It is critical to develop this ability early in a child’s development and some schools are attempting this with programs directed towards learning intrapersonal and interpersonal skills which encourage the formation of compassionate relationships.

  • Julia Smucker

    I see a paradox, perhaps a contradiction, in the first quote here from the King Center. It disclaims that the Beloved Community is not the Peaceable Kingdom – understandably anticipating accusations of unrealistic utopianism – but then immediately describes a vision of human decency that ends up sounding a lot like it. But if we can put aside the cheap dismissal, maybe King’s vision of the Beloved Community actually is one of what a realization of the Peaceable Kingdom might actually look like.

    • Ronald King

      Julia, As I read your comment it occurred to me that there is no possibility of utopia as long as death exists. So debates about a utopia seem irrelevant.

    • Mark VA

      Nicely put, thou Empress of dichotomies, paradoxes, and sundry binaries!

      I think the Beloved Community and the Peaceable Kingdom can be contemplated from many points of view. Here is one (if it’s dark, then wait a while, the Sun shall soon rise):

      • Julia Smucker

        Then ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day…

        I know that’s not quite seasonally appropriate, but I guess it’s a hopeful couplet in any season.

  • Mark VA

    This may come in handy as well: