The Beloved Community

There is a recent conversation within Evangelical circles that goes something like this: While it’s good for Christians to pursue justice we must be careful not to neglect evangelism.  The cultures at large may applaud our involvement with justice but evangelism is the true Christian distinction. After reading The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today I’ve come to think this conversation represents an entirely lopsided understanding of justice, one that mostly neglects the history of social justice in America.  According to Charles Marsh, it is the distinction of Christian faith that has defined movements of justice.  The Beloved Community offers a compelling corrective to those who make too-clean divisions and hierarchies between the work of justice and evangelism.

If you’ve read Marsh, a professor at the University of Virginia, you’ve likely been amazed at the author’s ability to write history (footnotes and quotations abound) as an utterly captivating narrative.  Chapters are arranged around a handful of women and men whose experiences during the Civil Rights Movement advance Marsh’s thesis, that it has been a robust Christian faith that inspires and sustains advocates for a more just American society.  According to the author, when these movements wandered from their Christian roots they became unfocused, selfish and generally ineffective at bringing about systemic change.  This is a strong stance, but Marsh argues it persuasively by piling up story upon story of farmers, preachers and students who were compelled to great sacrifice by their Christian hope, what Dr. King called “the great event of Calvary.”

The story Marsh tells is relatively unknown by many within majority culture churches, a major reason for the persistent conversations about the merits of evangelism over justice.  As I read The Beloved Community– my favorite book of the past year- I found myself wishing more self-identified Evangelical pastors and churches were familiar with this history.  The theology and practice of those Christ-centered men and women of past decades have so much to teach us today, including the fact that persistent work for justice is no more welcomed by society than is evangelism.

The Beloved Community tells both hopeful and discouraging stories within the larger history of social justice, but the book ends with recent examples of those compelled to join their justice-minded parents and grandparents in the Christian faith.  Marsh makes clear that this history is still being written by those who take seriously their discipleship to Jesus.  Hope, then, is the resounding note through the book and, despite the many set-backs and challenges, it is Christian hope that pushes the movement for justice forward even today.

“…an experiment in truth to find the truth.”

Charles Sherrod was a significant figure during the Civil Right movement, starting with his involvement as the SNCC director in southeast Georgia in 1961.  The following paragraphs are quoted in The Beloved Community by Charles Marsh, a book I cannot recommend highly enough.

But let me bear witness before you that I have seen the earth, moving, surging, and falling, struggling to breathe, eager to learn the truth; I have seen it in stinking jail cells packed with people, singing and sweating people, brought before the Pilates of this day; I have seen the church under the stars praying and singing in the ashes of a burned down church building, in the winter shivering under a tent in the open country, in a home where people cried together without speech but with a common understanding; I have seen the church in a pool room.  I have seen with my eyes whites protecting blacks with their bodies and blacks bleeding to shield whites from whites.

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I have seen ministers lead their congregation from Sunday services to the City Hall to condemn the state.  I have heard ministers with three grades of education put Ph.D.’s to shame.  I have seen men share their bread till the last was gone.  I have seen a band of rugged brothers willing to risk death for each other if need be.  I have seen the strength of fellowship among those who formally refuse the fellowship of the church.  Somehow I think this life must be shared for it to be comprehended; we do have something to offer but there is probably much to receive.  This is an experiment in truth to find the truth.

on the night stand

In the days before we adopted our son I asked those of you book-loving parents to chime in with your reading tips.  I was particularly interested in how you find time to read with the (wonderful) addition of children.  You had some great suggestions and as we near the seven month mark as parents I’m happy to report that books continue to be read in the Swanson home.  Some of these books represent a genre previously unrepresented on our bookshelves: kids books of all kinds and sizes.  And while some of you might appreciate Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!, here are a few recent reads more suited to adult tastes.

home-marilynne-robinsonMaggie brought home Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Home, for me a couple weeks back.  Home is loosely intertwined with Robinson’s previous novel (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Gilead, though each work can easily stand alone.  It’s a testimony to the author that backwater towns, old preachers, downtrodden families, and the occasional theological reflection are turned into such captivating and humane stories.  I’ll reread both Gilead and Home one day and discover all sorts of treasure missed the first time.  (As an aside, a good friend whose taste in books I trust, gave Gilead a try and didn’t make it even halfway.  A reminder that all suggestions are subjective.)

bright-sidedI was sent a copy of Barbara Ehrenriech’s latest non-fiction, a book with a bright yellow cover and long name: Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promostion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America.  Ehrenriech is probably best known for her 2002 book about America’s working poor: Nickel and Dimed.  I’ve written a full review of Bright-Sided to be published elsewhere, but I’ll say that this book surprised me.  The author does a fantastic job showing how prevalent the positive thinking movement is in America.  You can probably tell from the title that she doesn’t think this bodes well for our country.  After reading this book I’d agree and, as a Christian, also lament the impact the  movement has had on many individual churches and the collective Christian witness.

I’m also dipping into a collection of essays by Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonders, written in the days following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  I’m most impressed by the author’s ability to ask big questions and make long observation at a time when most had a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.

I heard professor Charles Marsh speak movingly about Dr Martin Luther King’s understanding of “beloved community” a couple of years ago and have his book, The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today, on my night stand.

Finally, I’ve mentioned Welcoming the Stranger a few times on this blog.  Rather than write a standard review of a book I hope many of you might read, I’ve emailed a few questions to one of the authors that I’ll post on the blog.  Stay tuned.

How about you?  Any noteworthy books on your night stand?