A Beloved Civilization: King’s Dream and Covid-19
By Rev. Dr. Richard Rose
I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
Covid-19 has caused global humanity to take a time out. Many have used the time to reflect deeply on where we are as a human race in relation to the world we inhabit. There are many ways to view the significance of this covid event on planet earth and hindsight’s 2020 vision may allow us to see the year 2020 more clearly than we can today. At the time of this writing several cities around the country are experiencing protests because another black man was killed by police on American soil. Today we view these events from within the midst of the storm. While hindsight may be clearer, we cannot use the future reality at this time to analyze our situation. The past, however, can be helpful. Seeing “now” in light of yesterday, may provide some understanding that is insightful for this moment.
One of the inspirations in my life was my fifth-grade teacher Mr. Missick. Mr. Missick referred to us as mathematicians and he taught us to look for patterns in life. This Covid-19 global pandemic event follows an interesting pattern that can be seen in the Biblical tradition. For our task, I will use the quotation above by Dr. King to illustrate the pattern that is being revealed. In order to accomplish this task the reader is asked to enter into a particular way of understanding the world. The hope is that by seeing the world from that standpoint, we will gain insight into the nature of “now”. I will be using the language of the Christian Biblical tradition to bring forth the issues at hand. In this context, I will use the vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to crystalize the position.
Just hours before Dr. King was assassinated at a church in Memphis, Tennessee, he spoke these words: “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.” Here the Promised Land is understood to be King’s vision of the Beloved Community. The notion of the promised land in the Biblical Tradition has its origin in a promise God made to the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. The story of Abraham is believed to be dated prior to the 6th century BCE. The essence of the promise states that because of Abraham’s faith in God, he is seen by God to be righteous. God would then reward that righteous behavior with a land “flowing with milk and honey” for his decedants. When doing an analysis that seeks to draw implications from one historical period to another, it is important to align the symbolism and analogies that are used in each period. The idea that the promised land would be a land flowing with “milk and honey” was added to the narrative during the exodus from Egypt by Abraham’s decendants prior to entering the land of promise. We will see the importance of these images and the pattern they represent when we examine Covid-19.
There are two related ideas, found in the text, that need further examination. What we see is that faith is related to righteousness which is related to a promise of God. This pattern is important because it established the conditions required for entrance into the land of promise. When we look at the promise, it can be taken literally or symbolically. A literal interpretation gets us into problems that make a literal interpretation difficult to understand. The symbolic understanding can provide us layers of meaning that allow the language to function in multiple ways. When “flowing with milk and honey” is understood to represent prosperity and well being, the notion provides a sense of understanding and even agreement on the part of the hearer. It is within this contextual understanding that I compare the Promised Land to Dr. King’s notion of the Beloved Community.
The Beloved Community
As twenty-first century Christians, we take seriously our heritage as agents of God engaged in the struggle for spiritual and social liberation throughout the world. Our experiences in America have taught us many lessons about God’s grace and love for us as God’s children. With the mindset of heirs, we recognize and affirm the many ways God has engaged humanity and freed them from oppressive social conditions throughout history. The story of Moses and the liberation of the Hebrew people is perhaps the best-known ancient example of God’s concern for suffering humanity. The Church sees the Exodus event as a foreshadowing of the role Jesus will play in salvation history. We understand ourselves to be a part of the legacy given to the Church and expressed brilliantly in the public life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s prophetic vision and words of inspiration have given us a platform on which to proclaim the Good News for this age.
The King Center, founded to promote King’s philosophy of nonviolence, clarifies his notion of the Beloved Community. 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.
There are three points drawn from the King Center statement that will guide our position: nonviolence as central, our relationship to the land or environment and our relationships with each other.
Nonviolence is the first principle and stands at the core of King’s notion of the Beloved Community. The philosophy of nonviolence is grounded in the idea that all of life is interconnected. As a result, what happens to one, happens to everyone. In fact, if I produce hate and anger, eventually it will make its way back to me. If, on the other hand, I promote love and trust, those traits will be put into the mix of human interaction as a positive force. The depth of this notion is centered in the nature of nonviolence as a means of cooperation with God’s plan for the Beloved Community. King writes,
It is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. ... For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.
We should not miss the pluralistic nature of this statement. King understood God, as ultimate reality, to be a transcendent presence. That reality was not limited to or limited by theological pronouncements.
The second idea that deserves our attention is the idea that the people of the earth should share equitably in its resources. Here we see the practical connections and a place for a metrics to determine measurable outcomes of the global vision. It is in this area that we can creatively develop practical projects with persons or organizations that are committed to fair and just land practices. Because the earth is extremely vast, with regional as well as local topologies and demographics that vary widely, there are no one size fits all solutions. Consequently, each local and regional land mass is encouraged to be responsible for its resources. Not only is individual responsibility emphasized, but also care of neighbors is emphasized. Mahatma Gandhi expresses the idea as Oceanic Circles: In this structure composed of innumerable villages, they will be ever-widening never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an Oceanic Circle whose center will be the individual always ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals never aggressive in their arrogance but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units.
To modern ears this sounds tribal, but the advances of technology will allow us to connect in ever-widening ways with people and projects that transcend our physical land base. It will be in those networking relationships that the final set of principles drawn from the Beloved Community are emphasized.
Finally, through love and trust the relational component of the philosophy is emphasized. Beginning with human relationships, this notion must be extended to all life forms and the earth itself. As a religious philosophical thinker, King experienced mystical connections with nature and understood nature to be an extension of God’s sovereignty. But, during the 1950s and 1960s, the urgent need was to establish proper human relations. That is also a good place to start today. King’s hope in proper human relationships was built on his understanding of God. King was introduced to Personalistic Philosophy during his Ph.D. studies at Boston University. Personalistic Philosophy holds that the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality. King writes, “Personalism’s insistence that only personality – finite and infinite is ultimately real strengthened me in two convictions: it gave me a philosophical grounding for the idea of personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.” A person’s humanity is affirmed by acknowledging the dignity and worth that is at the core of every person. We have seen that within the notion of the Beloved Community, improving human relations takes center stage. Based on what we have seen, we can imagine the direction in which King would have taken these ideas in light of the ecological crisis facing humanity in this generation. Covid-19 requires us to consider King’s ideas in light of its presence on the global scene. Covid-19
A Symbol for A New Beginning
There was an eerie but reassuring feeling in my home this year during the season of Passover, which takes place during the week Christians remember Jesus’s sacrifice. The three events, Covid-19, the Jewish Passover and the Resurrection story came together in April 2020 with remarkable similarities. Those similarities reminded me of Mr. Missick’s council to pay attention to the patterns that life brings your way. The pattern I observed falls in line with the apocalyptic tradition found throughout the Bible. The apocalyptic claim is that God will intervene in historical affairs in order to align the social order with God’s plan for creation. Once God has moved, the righteous will be allowed to inhabit and cultivate the created order in accordance with a sustainable plan for harmonious relationships.
In order to see the plan develop we begin with a quick look at God’s record of liberation during Israel’s most challenging time, slavery in Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh. The Exodus story serves as a model of God’s concern for humanity by providing a means of escape from conditions that prohibited their total freedom. We note that Pharaoh’s refusal to grant the request of Moses to free the Hebrew people resulted in a series of plagues, the final plague being the angel of death. The instructions given in order to prepare for the Passover event reveal deep spiritual insights. Families were to gather in their homes and choose a lamb to be slaughtered. It was to be eaten quickly, and the blood was to be used as a sign of protection. All this was to be done so they would be ready to escape Egypt after the death angel, the final plague, had passed.
This story has powerful implications for us during this time of physical separation from one another as we experience the visitation of the Coronavirus. As the Hebrew people were required to separate themselves to prepare for the Passover, we too have been given Stay-At-Home and Social-Distancing orders from our government. Covid-19 can be seen as a symbolic angel of death, similar to the death angel in Exodus. Covid-19 is an invisible substance that causes an effect in the physical world. Whether we refer to the virus as a good or bad substance is not our concern. Asking that question is like asking whether or not the plagues in Egypt were good or bad. Our broader concern is the opportunity the Covid-19 event provides for a New Beginning.
The quote used to begin this essay showed that King anticipated that the opportunity for a New Beginning would be present within the near future. While King was not certain about his future, he had confidence in God’s cosmic involvement for the establishment of equality in America. Could Covid-19 and the social unrest we are experiencing today be an opportunity to create the Beloved Community that King Dreamt about? In this final section we will consider King’s central ideas of nonviolence and a personal God in relation to the environmental and social crisis we face today.
We begin this section by defining ecological civilization:
Ecological civilization is a term that describes the final goal of social and environmental reform within a given society. It implies that the changes required in response to global climate disruption and social injustices are so extensive as to require another form of human civilization, one based on ecological principles. Broadly construed, ecological civilization involves a synthesis of economic, educational, political, agricultural, and other societal reforms toward sustainability.
The need for a new type of civilization is clear when one considers the current state of our global and domestic affairs. The unrest fills almost every hour of our 24-hour news stations. At the time of this writing several cities around the country are experiencing protests because another black man was killed by police on American soil. In the city of Minneapolis, where the most recent killing occurred, many buildings are ablaze. Covid-19, and the imposed health and financial hardships, has turned the temperature up on many of our social inequalities in terms of communities of color not having the resources to adequately deal with the pandemic. The forecast for the near future is that little will change on the social or economic scene; many believe things will become worse before the quality of life begins to improve on a national scale. Looking at the broad categories which are addressed within the Ecological Civilization platform, there is much within the philosophy of King that can provide wisdom when addressing these issues “now” or for this age.
In King’s final book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, the final chapter is titled World House. In that chapter he acknowledges the interconnected relational nature of our world and the chapter’s title helps us to remember the planet is our home. In this chapter King acknowledges the rapidly changing landscape of his time by quoting Alfred North Whitehead. King affirms Whitehead’s claim that they were experiencing “a major turning point in history when the pre-suppositions on which society is structured are being analyzed, sharply challenged and profoundly changed.” So, while King was in-tune with the profound nature of the age in which he was living and the nature of the change before the world, he realized the first item that had to be addressed was the area of human relations. What King shows is that when proper human relations are the first items of social business, one gains perspective on how to address the other issues that arise within the platform. The challenge is that each of the following fields can be seen as a distinct discipline with their own set of presuppositions about what is good theory: education, politics, agriculture, and sociology. However, when seen through the lens of proper human relationships, the interrelated nature of the disciplines becomes clear. Seeking societal reforms require that educational, political and agricultural decisions also be made consciously, with a certain set of common values. When this occurs these systems are working harmoniously as one.
King identifies a method to be used for making public policy decision that will help humans within society to gain a relational stance that will serve them well moving forward. Part of the challenge with Western societies is the artificial privilege given to some individuals in relation to others in the society. When public policy is driven by selfish interest, the policy is bound to be unfair. Being able to build a society on the values of fairness and equality become necessary for a social system that can be sustained. At this point we can see that Kings distinction between just and unjust laws is insightful. He writes,
A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
Personality is seen here as that which contributes to making a person whole. When policies are aimed at building up the whole person, quality of life is placed before any groups agenda which would serve as an advantage. It is through the philosophy of nonviolence that the proper action can be established in real life situations. King was not able to work with the principle of nonviolence or ahimsa as long as Mahatma Gandhi. In the life of Mahatma Gandhi we see the principle of ahimsa is extended to all forms of life. All of life seen with personality would be similar to the Native American idea that all the materials of existence are our relations; it seems King would welcome this way of thinking.
It is in this context that the Beloved nature of King’s Dream meets the nonviolent dimension of Gandhi to address issues of sustainability by creating a New Civilization. A major paradigm shift will be required in our thinking for Civilization to move in this direction. Have the events of 2020 helped us to See our situation as humanity more clearly? Or, are we hoping to fix this right-quick so we can get on to the next challenge? If the Covid-19 time out is telling us anything, it is to Stop, Look, and Listen to your heart in this moment. Are we ready to build the Beloved Civilization, one Beloved Community at a time? It is time.
 Martin Luther King., Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. ed. by Clayborne Carson (New York: Warner Books, 1968), 365.
 A literal interpretation of Promise Land would not allow King to make the reference in the first place.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “An Experiment in Love” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King., Jr. ed. by James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 20.
 Mahatma Gandhi, Selected Political Writings. ed. by Dennis Dalton (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1996), 150.
 In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. the editor includes a paper written by King where is reminiscing about his days at Crozer meditating on and communing with nature. In the essay King agrees with Henry Ward Beecher “Nature is God’s Tongue.”