Unity or Beloved Community?
I am filled with joy about the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. I am relieved beyond words that Inauguration Day was peaceful and that we have two such gifted, well-qualified, and deeply principled leaders. And I am thrilled that we will once again have public servants who embody and model empathy, respect for all people, and deep devotion to the common good.
I loved Joe Biden’s emphasis on unity in his Inaugural Address. His words were a balm to the soul of a nation nearly shattered by years of animus, division and hate, and were personally deeply meaningful to me. But since the speech, I have heard questions about that message. Unity? With the white nationalists who attacked the Capitol? With those who have consistently suppressed the votes of people of color? With those who believe that the multi-racial reality of America is an outrage? With those who believed every lie that Trump and his minions told?
We do not yet know how Biden and Harris will balance their commitment to unity with their own deep convictions. In some circles, there is concern that “unity” may mean diluting their work for racial, economic and environmental justice. I believe there is a more complex practice of unity that does not require betraying our own beliefs. To chart a course toward a nuanced and elevated sense of unity, I hope they will take counsel from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday fell just two days before their inauguration.
Dr. King, of course, devoted his life to the fight for justice and dignity for all people, paying the ultimate price for his tireless work. His principles were not negotiable, even in the face of powerful resistance.
I imagine that if Dr. King were with us today, he would be exhorting us to hold fast to our truths and convictions, and to continue the fight until every American is treated with equal respect, dignity and opportunity. He would still be calling for a “radical redistribution of economic and political power…” and “a revolution of values.” He would still be crying out about the “evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism.” His proclamations might still sound as radical as they did in his own day.
But I feel sure that he would also be insisting that we bring a heartfelt commitment to love into our fierce and urgent struggle for justice. What is so powerful - and so challenging - about Dr. King’s teaching is this blend of the call for justice and his profound vision of beloved community. He insisted that “the 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 opposers 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. . . . ” (from “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956)
It is hard enough to work to create a truly just and equitable America. It is harder still to keep our work free of judgment and malice for those on the other side. It is so difficult not to abhor the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th, who appear so hateful, so violent, so oblivious to truth and to the principles of democracy. But Dr. King’s opponents also spewed animus and perpetrated lies. His ability to stay in touch with the humanity of his opponents was fundamental to his greatness.
I believe that Dr. King would be urging President Biden to work toward a vision of beloved community, based on the knowledge that all of us — regardless of political beliefs — are created in the image of God. We — all of us, without exception — are made of the same stuff, vulnerable to the same pain, and ultimately motivated by the same human concerns. We need one another. To be alienated from the larger human family is a recipe not only for social injustice but also for individual alienation and malaise.
We must work together toward the common wellbeing of all Americans, but not jettison our convictions in the search for a superficial unity. Rather, what we must seek is a deeper harmony, based on the recognition of our common humanity, at the same time that we fight for the ideals we hold dear until the work is done. May President Biden and Vice-President be granted strength, courage, and moral clarity as they pursue these goals.