I was born in the shadow of the civil rights struggle. My Black mother and white father made the controversial decision to marry in 1968, the same year Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a tragic turning point in our nation’s history in which progress was replaced with riots, the Vietnam War, and a backlash to the advances of the civil rights struggle. I became convinced my generation inherited the unfinished business of that movement. The message of King’s final book — Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? — is just as applicable now. Today, we are at another dangerous crossroad and I offer a form of that same question: “Where do we go from here: destructive polarization or the Beloved Community?”
Destructive polarization is increasingly fracturing our politics, our culture, and even our congregations. We battle over mask and vaccine mandates. Legislators in 48 states have proposed over 400 new voter suppression bills. The devastating impacts of extreme weather — from Hurricane Ida to wildfires ravaging the West Coast — highlight how polarization has blunted our nation’s response to the climate crisis. States are trying to prevent students from learning about systemic racism, whitewashing another generation’s understanding of our nation’s history. Disagreement over policy has increasingly turned into hate and contempt; opponents seek to defeat rather than persuade. We are stuck in a cold civil war that turned catastrophically hot on Jan. 6 as insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. So what is the cure?
Answering this question — not just for myself but also for my two young sons — compelled me to write A More Perfect Union: A New Vision For Building the Beloved Community. In order to move forward together, we must embrace a vision for our future that is aligned with our deepest spiritual values and civic ideals. We need a more hopeful and unifying meta-story for where we want our country to go — a story that can counteract the ahistorical and dystopian allure of the “Make America Great Again” fallacy.
To do this, we need to examine the big-picture story we tell ourselves about how our nation got here. “Until we have a better common understanding of our nation’s history, including the myths and contradictions that have shaped it,” I write in the book, “and unless we can unite around a shared moral vision for our future, we will continue to retreat into partisan and cultural camps; we will fail to forge common ground that bridges our differences and advances the common good.” Part of the challenge is that people in the United States have deeply conflicting understandings of our nation’s history: Are we a nation that guarantees “liberty and justice for all”? Or are we a nation that will continue to confine this promise to only certain Americans, falling short of realizing this promise for all? When we explore these questions, we start to see that many injustices that show up today have been with us since the nation’s founding: We need look no further than the founding tension between the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal,” and the U.S. Constitution, which counted enslaved people as three-fifths of human beings.
These contradictions continue to reverberate through our nation’s history and require that we tell the whole truth about our nation’s past and its present. As Jesus taught in John 8:32, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” For many of us, this means unlearning omissions, revisionist histories, and the deeply biased versions of the American story we were given. If we can engage a more accurate and holistic understanding of our nation’s history, our conversations around who we are, what we value, and who we want to be will have more common ground and be less contentious. But if we refuse to engage a fuller story of our history — from slavery to current racism, from the brutal treatment and extermination of Indigenous peoples to the subjugation of women, from the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II to violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ community and so much more — we will continue to sow seeds of division and fail in our pursuit of a more perfect union.
One of the most powerful antidotes to our current crisis is a shared vision for our future. I believe that a reimagined concept of the Beloved Community — the animating moral vision of the civil rights movement — can be a powerful bridge to a shared future. Building on how King and so many other civil rights leaders defined it, my most succinct definition of the Beloved Community is one in which every person is valued, is seen, and is enabled to thrive. It requires building a society in which neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race, ethnicity, gender, ableness, or sexual orientation. While high, this represents a bar that the vast majority of people would embrace. I love the ways that the Beloved Community combines the values of strengthening families and communities with those of protecting people’s rights and dignity. I love how the concept shows up in so many faiths and cultures, all of which I explore in the book. In the Beloved Community, our increasing demographic diversity is embraced as a strength, not a liability, as a source of hope and not fear. The Beloved Community is for everyone.
But in the context of building it, we will need to counteract a resurgent white nationalism and deep-rooted white supremacy with what I call in the book “redemptive patriotism.”
“Patriotism comes in many forms. Its most destructive, often nationalistic forms erode the very foundation upon which the Beloved Community is built and suffocate efforts to form a more perfect union. Redeeming patriotism requires reframing our love for the best of America’s ideals and aspirations. It requires understanding that the right to critique America is part of the brilliance of America. … Redeeming patriotism requires greater willingness to have courageous and civil conversations about the very ideals that make us love America. It refuses pointless arguments over who loves America more. As a result, redeeming patriotism represents a vital part of creating the atmosphere in which a more perfect union and the Beloved Community can breathe.”
The essential principles and commitments required to build the Beloved Community, what I refer to as the Beatitudes of the Beloved Community, are deeply rooted in scripture. These include: imago dei equality, radical welcome, ubuntu interdependence, prioritized nonviolence, environmental stewardship, and dignity for all. In highlighting these Beatitudes and stories of transformative work around the country, my hope is that my book can serve as a vehicle to catalyze and scale up efforts to build the Beloved Community and enable us to realize a more perfect union.
This journey of building the Beloved Community will be a hard one requiring sacrifice, vigilance, and courage, but it will not be defined purely around struggle. Building the Beloved Community will also be filled with great joy; in it we will find deeper purpose, belonging, and meaning. That’s why it is worth pursuing. But as I say in the book, “I fervently believe that if we walk this road together—tapping into God’s limitless grace and strength, knowing by faith that ultimately the race has already been won, and thus that nothing is impossible—the Beloved Community will prevail.”
I’m deeply grateful to the extensive village of Sojourners staff, board members, family, and friends who provided so much encouragement, advice, feedback, and support along the way. It has been a labor of love to bring A More Perfect Union: A New Vision For Building the Beloved Community to print over the course of three-plus years, including through the COVID-19 pandemic that upended so much of our lives and a partial racial awakening over police violence and systemic racism. Both inspired me to rewrite many portions of the book and have made the book’s message feel even more timely.