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The Beloved Community of Avatar, Invictus, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Last week was a great one for going to movies – I managed to get to Avatar and Invictus. Watching them, I considered the differences: one is fiction, the other fact; one set in the future, the other in history; one swimming with color and art, the other mired in darkness and racism. Yet they share the same message – that of connectedness with the world and each other. And since we are also honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week, I like to think that Dr. King’s courageous life and non-violent message was a common thread in the minds of Mandela, James Cameron, and Clint Eastwood.

Pondering the connection, I remembered one of Dr. King’s most powerful (but too infrequently quoted) speeches. Delivered in December 1956, the message of “The Challenge of a New Age” is as important today as it was back then. In it, he sets before us three challenges:

“First, we are challenged to rise above the narrow confines of our individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. The new world is a world of geographical togetherness. This means that no individual or nation can live alone. We must all learn to live together, or we will be forced to die together….

A second challenge that the new age brings to each of us is that of achieving excellency in our various fields of endeavor. In the new age doors will be opening to us that were not opened in the past, and the great challenge which we confront is to be prepared to enter these doors as they open….

A third challenge that stands before us is that of entering the new age with understanding good will. This simply means that the Christian virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness should stand at the center of our lives…. This love might well be the salvation of our civilization…[for] 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 love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Is that not also the message of Invictus and Avatar? Is not the “beloved community” what we all yearn for?

It was the philosopher Josiah Royce*, founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term “beloved community” in the early twentieth century, but it was Dr. King who made it a byword for hope, self-restraint, justice, and love. And while Dr. King certainly knew the writings of Dr. Royce, most of us believe that he got his vision, his courage, and his words from the Bible. The “beloved community” is an idea often associated with Jesus, especially in the Gospel of John.

But what is the “beloved community”? Is it something that might happen in heaven after we die? Is it the same as the “kingdom of God”? Can we learn the message of tolerance and care from Avatar before we try to bomb our way to conquest, or is the “beloved community” just a placebo for hope without action, for feeling good without doing anything? In short, is it for real?

I truly hope so and certainly believe so! And I have been blessed to witness it on at least three different occasions in the last decade.

The most recent were the weeks in the two different orphanages in Nepal, where I was privileged to witness courage and kindness woven together to create a beautiful tapestry of new possibility. Since I have already written about that trip in this blog, I will leave that image to go back to 9/11. I was one of a team of trainers who spent the previous summer working for New York Port Authority in the World Trade Center, but I was fortuitously called away to help another client during the first two weeks of September. Thus, I was just west of Newark Airport on the morning of 9/11, when six of my colleagues and thirty of my Port Authority friends lived through the horror that has changed our world forever.

But what does 9/11 have to do with the “beloved community”?

– Statistics tell the story: of almost 25,000 people working in the World Trade Center that day, only 3,000 were killed. Seven out of every eight managed to get out safely. Seven out of every eight people walked down forty, sixty, almost eighty flights of stairs, and made it out. Seven out of every eight people groped their way down crowded stairwells that, for the last twenty or so minutes before the tower fell, were pitch black and filling with smoke.

How did they do it? Some of my friends made it down by holding hands and singing (until the smoke got too bad) and then by sharing handkerchiefs and words of encouragement. Three men worked together to carry down a young woman and her special motorized wheelchair from the 69th floor. Another nine took turns carrying down a quadriplegic from the 75th floor. There was very little screaming, except when a tremendous explosion – and the sudden loss of the emergency lights – sent many people tumbling. (This was the crash of the other building, although no one knew it at the time.) Throughout the ninety minute ordeal from the time the plane hit until the building fell, yells of “fireman coming up” and “make way, victim coming down,” meant that everyone squeezed to the sides to let others through. Of all of the dozens of people I spoke with and the hundreds of pages of newspaper stories that I read, there was not one report of anyone bullying his or her way through. People walked deliberately, but orderly, quick to make way for those in greater need.

The person I most remember was a woman named Victoria. She never made the news media, but she told me that she fell to her knees and began praying when the plane first hit. After seeing God directing the angels to protect her, she heard the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” She got up and proceeded to lead a group of about 25 people down from the 62nd floor by singing praise music and gospel songs.

I went back to Port Authority shortly after the bombing to help them regroup. The difference between working conditions in August and October was marked. We were in makeshift offices in a hastily remodeled warehouse, with ongoing threats of anthrax, concerns about more attacks, and the reminders of ongoing memorial services – as many as five a day. But the affection between the Port Authority employees was palpable. For one month, I worked with people who were not ashamed to show their unabashed love for each other. For one month, I lived in a beloved community.

The other time was January 2001, during a trip to South Africa with the Wesley Seminary choir. We were sponsored by two churches in adjoining suburbs of Cape Town. One was a black township called Langa, and the other a white village called Pinelands. On our last night, a half dozen of the white families from Pinelands came with us to worship at Langa. It was the first time that any of them had set foot in a black church, and they were unprepared for what they found. No pipe organ. No Books of Worship. Just spontaneity, fellowship, and joy! After the service and the goodbye reception, some of us were milling around in the parking lot. One of the older black women came up to me, gave me a powerful hug, and said, “When we and you and them (meaning the folks from Pinelands) are here in church, singing and dancing, and praising God together, I think that maybe, just maybe, that heaven has come down to earth.”

As tears welled up in my eyes, I could only agree and hug her more deeply. We were in community and we were all beloved. If it can happen even in the “decade of fear,” then surely we can take the message of Jesus, Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Invictus and Avatar and spend the next decade working on creating a beloved community, learning to live together before we die together.

* Dr. Josiah Royce is one of the most important American philosophers, an idealist in the tradition of Hegel. He was professor of English at University of California Berkeley and of philosophy at Harvard. He emphasized will over intellect and believed that religion was the basis of human loyalty, which is the cohesive principle of ethical behavior and social norms. He argued that the highest good is achieved by “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.” A diverse thinker, he also made contributions to psychology, social ethics, literary criticism, history, and metaphysics.

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