By Layton E. Williams 10-18-2016

Nestled in the mountains outside of Asheville, N.C., is a couple of square miles of heaven. Or at least that’s what many Presbyterians will tell you in reference to Montreat Conference Center, which has for many years served as a hub for Presbyterians to seek retreat, community, and refuge.

Contrary to this relaxed culture, there was a sense of enthusiastic agitation in the crisp fall air of Montreat on Oct. 10, when 450 mostly-Presbyterian Christians gathered to hear Melissa Harris-Perry speak. Harris-Perry, the Wake Forest professor and editor-at-large of Elle magazine, who was controversially fired from her MSNBC show last February, was at Montreat to offer the opening keynote for DisGRACE — a conference dedicated to confronting the intersection of faith and racial justice.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has earned a reputation for justice-oriented progressivism in recent years, namely for its shift toward ordination of LGBTQ persons and same-sex marriage. But the denomination is still overwhelmingly white and many leaders are calling for a reckoning with the institutional racism at work in the denomination. The DisGRACE Conference is one such attempt to respond to that call — the program included several days of workshops and keynotes addressing everything from micro-aggressions in the media to the intersection of LGBTQ identities and racial justice.

By Monday evening’s keynote, participants had already been thoroughly warned to expect and embrace discomfort through the week. Harris-Perry reiterated this disclaimer as she took the stage, telling her audience that, in particular, she wanted to “problem the understanding of Beloved Community held by progressive Christians” — that is, to complicate both the notion that progressive Christians know what Beloved Community is, and that their current vision for it is as large as they believe it to be.

“Beloved Community” is a term first coined by American philosopher Josiah Royce in the early 20th century, later popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in reference to his goal of communal justice. It has since become a popular phrase in progressive faith circles, emphasizing radical inclusion fully liberated from the prejudices and discriminations of this broken world. Often, churches describe the work of justice as “building the Beloved Community.”

Citing both her Unitarian Universalist tradition and her upbringing as a child of a white Mormon mother and black academic father, Harris-Perry said, “I believe in a God that wants me to ask a lot of questions.” She noted in particular how her family — which also includes black and white half-siblings — challenged many people’s assumptions about what constitutes one’s “people.”

She turned this challenge to the Christians in the room, and progressive Christians in general.

“Liberal rhetoric suggests that your Beloved Community stops at the rim of the basket of ‘deplorables,’” she said, referencing Hillary Clinton’s comment about Trump supporters.

Harris-Perry also warned progressives to not isolate Trump’s recorded references to sexually assaulting a woman from a larger culture of misogyny — one as old as our country.

In fact, the 14th Amendment’s emphasis on place of birth in establishing American citizenship made women’s bodies a political question. And the practice of gynecology was created by a white man, James Marion Sims, experimenting on black women — like that of cancer research and other now-accepted medical fields.

Harris-Perry’s words hold an unsettling but crucial challenge for today’s progressive Christians. While faith communities proclaim a commitment to Beloved Community, we can also be quick to distance ourselves from anyone we deem less reflective of this ideal. In the process, we undermine our own claim to radical inclusion, and fail to reckon with our own complicity in larger systems of exclusion and injustice.

This same challenge was echoed throughout the DisGRACE Conference — including by keynote speakers Soong-Chan Rah and Anthea Butler who both called out white Americans, including white progressive Christian Americans, for worshipping “the American racist god of white supremacy.”

When deeply troubling news breaks, like the misogynistic Trump recording, progressive faith leaders loudly decry the monstrosity of such acts. But Harris-Perry pointed to Maya Angelou for tips on how to engage this election season.

“She always said that we can never call other people monsters. Anything a human can do, you can do,” Harris-Perry said.

“They’re not monsters — they’re human. And if we distance ourselves from the reality of that, we can’t confront it.”

The real task of faith is to recognize that there is no “us and them.” In this election season and always, Christians — progressive and otherwise — are not called to build a community filled only with those they choose to love, but rather to work for a world in which the community we already have—the whole human community—is recognized as beloved.

Layton Williams serves as Audience Engagement Editor at Sojourners.  

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