by Rev. Laura Barclay
Dr. Charles Marsh, director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia and son of a Southern minister, brings us this scholarly, yet practical analysis of the Civil Rights Movement and the concept of The Beloved Community in bringing about the kingdom of God on earth. Marsh profiles Dr. King’s early ministry and calling into civil rights work in Mobile, AL, with the community involvement that ensued and led King out of his pastorate and into the struggle. He follows Charles Sherrod and the rise of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a religious fellowship that embodied kingdom work, only to abandon its vision to infighting and radicalism. He follows former pastor Clarence Jordan’s work with the interracial, intentional farm of Koinonia Community in Americus, GA. Marsh then tells the story of John Perkins, whose brother’s murder at the hands of local police led him to flee to California and outside the church, only to come back to and through the church toward intentional community in Jackson, MI, and out into the world as one of the most respected faith-based organizers and religious leaders in America.
These men all had their grounding in Christ. They were open and accepting of people of other faiths and no faiths in their organizing, but they always identified their reason for doing the hard work of justice with their organizations as the historical event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection made real in the church. They believed that we could not allow our brothers and sisters to be beaten, killed or excluded because of the witness of the Christ. If Christ is in us, then we cannote be separate from our neighbors. This underlying message of love made the leaders of the religious movement of the civil rights struggle committed to non-violence against even those that cursed them (37). The intentional relationships they made as King listened to the imprisoned African Americans sharing his jail cell, or that Jordan made in the black church in Louisville during his seminary days, or that Charles Sherrod formed during his work with fellow members at SNCC meetings, or that Perkins made working on intentional community in Jackson transformed these men into dynamic disciples for Christ. They listened with their hearts open and reflected the concerns of their harassed and broken neighbors. Their firm belief that all are created in the image of God matched with their seminary training helped them to focus these relationships through the lens of the body of Christ.
Marsh shares these stories to make a point—the church is not necessarily the beloved community, the kingdom of God, though it has been that during certain times in the past. The church can foster and encourage the kingdom, but it can also fail to be on mission in the world. It can submit itself to the concerns of the state and one’s selfish desires—slavery, war, oppression, economic inequality, discrimination, etc. The church can and has in the past forgotten its prophetic voice and the call to nurture the kingdom of God. However, the church is globally an incredibly diverse body that points us toward right ways of being, lifting us out of our single ethnicity congregations into a universal Christ-moment that allows us to be open to the communion of all creation (215). Marsh notes that we must be cognizant of where God is breaking through in the world and to go follow that Spirit. This can and should lead us out of the church doors and into the community to build relationships and participate in the world as Jesus’ disciples, but it should also leave us connected with the church, as King, Sherrod, Perkins, and Jordan were. If we believe God created all in the image of God and that God reigns everywhere, not just behind the walls of church, this should not be a radical proposal (214).
Near the end of the book, Marsh shares examples of intentional religious communities that have organized for better neighborhoods from Jackson to Philly, and encourages readers to join their efforts. He notes that the students coming into our university system today who hear his stories of the beloved communities that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement--the hymns sung at the SNCC meetings and the glory given to God during the marches for the victory in the Montgomery Bus Boycott--become inspired and commit themselves to Habitat builds, organize multiracial prayer groups, advocate and empower single mothers and undocumented immigrants, and many other endeavors. Let us foster their zeal and excitement to help their brothers and sisters, and let the light of God shine in the darkest of places. May those students in the past and present who commit to loving and empowering their neighbor inspire us to let our light shine as well, and show the people of God to be “a light among nations” (Is 60:1-3).
If you are interested in learning more about racial reconciliation, check out upcoming Racial Reconciliation Workshops in Charlotte, NC, (July 13) and Wilmington, NC, (July 29) at the following website: http://www.cbfnc.org/Congregations/UpcomingEvents/RacialReconciliationWorkshops.aspx