The Rights of Reconciliation
The Beloved Community by Charles Marsh
The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil
Rights Movement to Today
reviewed by Heather Ferngren Morton
During the final days of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed a victorious if beleaguered group of protesters at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Though the Supreme Court had recently declared segregation of public transportation facilities illegal, King reminded his audience that a mere legal victory was not their ultimate goal. “The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption,” he said. “The end is the creation of the beloved community.”
In The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today , University of Virginia professor Charles Marsh chronicles the Civil Rights movement, beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to argue that sustainable, transformative social justice in America has been rooted most often in Christian faith. He shows how the movement in many respects failed to achieve the beloved community King envisioned, but contends that, in a “parallel history,” Christians across the country have worked in pockets of poverty for decades to realize that vision.
Hate Well Met
Marsh, author of the award-winning God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, analyzes key moments in the Civil Rights movement to make his case for the centrality of religious conviction. A robust, “theologically specific” faith transformed King from a comfortable middle-class minister, preoccupied with respectability and content to maintain the status quo in Jim Crow Alabama, to a courageous young activist who called his fellow protestors to “meet hate with love.”
A radical faith led the white Southern Baptist preacher Clarence Jordan to found Koinonia, a cooperative farm in Georgia where Christians in pursuit of racial reconciliation took vows of poverty and practiced the common purse. And an “exuberantly faithful” and eclectic Christianity inspired the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which excelled at grassroots mobilization among the poor.
According to Marsh, the movement fragmented when Civil Rights leaders lost their theological grounding and their footing in religious communities. Moreover, by the mid-1960s, other movements—black separatism, opposition to the Vietnam War, and women’s liberation—replaced a single-minded focus on nonviolent racial reconciliation. By 1967, as the war increasingly came to dominate the national psyche, King worried that America’s soul had become “totally poisoned.”
The vision of beloved community did not die with King’s 1968 assassination. Yet from looking at the secularist left that emerged from the 1960s counterculture—more academic than activist, more concerned with theory than with the mundane realities of social reform—one might think it had.
In the latter half of the book, Marsh tells an alternative, more hopeful story. That story begins with John Perkins, founder of Voice of Calvary, whose decades-long work with Mississippi’s poor has “charted a new course for building beloved community in America.” No single character in Marsh’s book better exemplifies the kind of “radical Christianity” to which Marsh calls his readers than Perkins.
When his leadership in a 1970 boycott of local white businesses culminated in an all-night jailhouse torture by the local police force, Perkins’s faith was brought to a crisis. In a hospital bed, seething with hatred, he came face-to-face with the Cross of Christ, a symbol of his Savior’s profound suffering and ultimate forgiveness of his persecutors.
“The image of Christ’s suffering for the world worked its way into the center of his thoughts, fears, and humiliations,” Marsh writes, “and Perkins came to a new understanding of his life’s work. Hereafter, all that he would believe about his life’s purpose hung on the astonishing prayer of Jesus, ‘Father, forgive these people, for they know not what they do.’”
Waiting & Working
Perkins’s example has inspired many Christians to a particular type of community building: one that is holistic, interracial, and locally based. Marsh writes about other examples of believers who have devoted their lives to racial reconciliation and work with the poor: Mark Gornick in Baltimore and Harlem; Amy Sherman in Charlottesville, Virginia; Gene Rivers in Boston; and Russell Jeung in Oakland, California.
Their stories are stirring and challenging, and have in common a belief that their work for justice and mercy is building the kingdom of God. As Sherman puts it, “The Kingdom of God has begun. . . . We wait and long in our still-broken world for its consummation. But while we wait, it is the task of the Church—Christ’s Body—to continue to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, and to witness to it, to serve as foretastes of it.”
Activists on both sides of the spectrum could co-opt portions of Marsh’s book for their own political ends. The Right, for example, could use it to bolster support for the faith-based organizations that President Bush champions, and the Left to point to the Democratic party’s roots in religiously based social reform.
Marsh, however, ultimately is not interested in politics, but in the Church’s faithfulness to building the kingdom of God on this earth. “The pursuit of beloved community is not finally about the redemption of America’s soul, nor even about the achievement of interracial community,” he writes. “To the Christians in our story, it is rather about bearing witness to the Prince of peace in a violent and suffering world.”
Marsh talks a great deal of this Prince of Peace, Jesus, and does so, for the most part, with biblical faithfulness and personal warmth. Yet readers may take issue with his use of some liberal and neo-orthodox theologians and such occasional ambiguous statements as, “Truly the scandal of the cross is not that some may be saved from perishing, but that all have been redeemed.”
In the final analysis, however, the book’s message stands above some of the theological battles that plague our churches and challenges Christians of all persuasions—Catholic and Protestant, progressive and conservative—to identification with our Savior. The Beloved Community is, in Marsh’s words, “a story about authentic Christianity and costly discipleship in the world,” and it is the kind of story that American Christians should hear more often.
For when the Son of Man returns in glory to judge the nations, Christ tells his disciples in Matthew 25, it is those who have cared for “the least of these”—the poor, the sick, the naked, the imprisoned—who will inherit the kingdom. Marsh reminds us that God’s kingdom isn’t something that will begin at the final judgment. It is all around us, here and now, and its work awaits our energy and devotion.
Heather Ferngren Morton works as an editor for a public policy research organization in Washington, D.C. She and her husband are members of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
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“The Rights of Reconciliation” first appeared in the October 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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