For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
The concept of Beloved Community originated with the late nineteenth / early twentieth century American philosopher Josiah Royce to refer to an idealized human commonwealth. It was Martin Luther King, Jr., though, who popularized it as the goal of the civil rights movement: a society of justice, equity and compassion that could be realized through non-violent means. Not surprisingly, Beloved Community is the term generally used in liberal religion to replace the older concept of the Kingdom of Heaven, and that mirrors the liberalizing changes in the secular world that have given us egalitarian democracy rather than authoritarian monarchy.
One way of thinking about Beloved Community, though, is in the Biblical terms of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which the book named Luke says that Jesus told to those with him. (You can read a version of the story, by my colleague Chris Buice, here.) Now this parable isn’t just a story that Jesus told because he wanted to explain mercy, or because he wanted to shock his Judean listeners with the idea that someone from a nation they hated could be a good person. Rather, so Luke says, Jesus told the story in answer to a question.
Specifically, a scholar of the Torah had asked, “Who is my neighbor?” And this was asked in order to clarify what Jesus had just affirmed as the two most important commandments of all Jewish law for someone to follow. Not the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai, according to the book of Exodus. (Or even the Fifteen Commandments, according to Mel Brooks.) And certainly not the six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments that can be extracted from the Torah as a whole. No, the two “great” commandments were, first, to love G-d, and, second, to love your neighbor as yourself. And so the scholar asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
When I ask this question of any group of Unitarian Universalists, I get a range of interesting answers. (And there are no wrong answers!) Some literally identify the people sitting nearby, or others in the room more generally. Some name the people in the houses who live next door to them. Some mention their neighborhoods or towns, or various social circles. Some think about the whole world, but all of the answers are valid. In answering the question, “Who is my neighbor?”, there’s nothing wrong with starting with a literal neighbor, or the people with whom we interact directly. After all, that’s the basis for moving outward and bringing into our vision people with whom we might interact only indirectly, but with whom we share our society, and with whom we are supported by the living Earth. In fact, the concept of “neighbor” ultimately transcends the human, too, to include all living beings that form the interdependent web of all existence of which we are, not the totality nor the pinnacle, but a part.
In this way, “Who is my neighbor?” is a theological question because it helps us understand what we believe and how we act, particularly in the context of a religious community. And, thanks to the Universalist side of our heritage, it starts with the person sitting next to us and continues all the way outward until it encompasses the whole world, though I don’t think it’s even necessary to know about Universalism to come to that conclusion.
When I was in high school, for instance, the choir went to a local church to sing as part of a Sunday afternoon service. In itself, this wasn’t anything unusual; the choir was invited fairly regularly to go to local churches to sing, and usually it was without incident beyond some low level of teenage mischief. On this particular occasion, though, for all that it was a gorgeous old church nestled amongst the gorgeous English countryside on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, the sermon was all about hell and damnation. The vicar went to great, expressive lengths, in fact, to tell us how only those of us who had accepted Jesus as true savior would be saved from an eternal fiery torment. I had never heard anything like that before, and my immediate thought was, “Well, what about people who never heard of Jesus? It hardly seems fair for them to go to hell when they never had the chance.” I quickly came to the conclusion that, if there is a heaven, then everybody gets to go. In other words, though I didn’t learn about Universalism until more than a decade later and on this side of the Atlantic, it was in that small English church that I became a Universalist.
We are here, then, not just to be a beloved community with a small b and a small c for the people who are here already, members as well as friends and other participating non-members. We are here to help bring about the Beloved Community with a capital B and a capital C for everyone, because everyone is our neighbor.