Community Forged in Solidarity
Social insect species do not like diversity. If an ant from one nest wanders into another ant colony’s nest by mistake it will be immediately killed. The same with stray honeybees landing in the wrong hive. The same with a termite from another mound. If they are genetically dissimilar, they will be immediately sensed as a mortal threat. These extremely successful social species who have finely tuned systems of cooperation become homicidal maniacs if aliens come anywhere near them. They have zero tolerance for difference.
Humans haven’t escaped this kind of genetic reactivity. For most of our evolutionary history, we’ve lived in small tribal bands of genetically related individuals. The way unrelated members entered these tribes was through conflict, capture and enslavement – not friendly immigration policies. We’d probably still be in hunter gatherer bands today if it were not for agriculture and religion.
I’d like to highlight how Judaism and Christianity innovated on the problem of getting people to cooperate in larger groups than tribes. The twelve tribes of Israel were under pressure to unite as other competing civilizations grew in size and power. They knew from their enslavement in Egypt how a powerful empire had organized under Pharaohs to create great military power. They were lucky to escape with their lives with a little help parting the Red Sea then drowning the Egyptian chariots following them.
The Jewish innovations that created the cohesion to hold diverse tribes together was their covenant with God. Their Covenant gave the Jewish tribes favor with God if they followed God’s directions. The very first covenant was marking male bodies with circumcision, a marking that couldn’t be faked or reversed. Males from different genetic lines could be accurately identified as part of the same group. This was a powerful way to establish group membership seen in other parts of the world too.
The second innovation was to identify detailed laws of behavior, the laws of Moses, that identified group allegiance. Daily, Jews signaled their group membership by what they wore, covering the head for example, what they ate and didn’t eat (unleavened bread and kosher foods, and not eating pork and shellfish), and through ritual daily prayers and behaviors. This reinforced group membership and made it clear to others who belonged and didn’t belong. The purpose was to prevent Jews from blending in and being assimilated into the culture around them. These strategies have worked and worked well for thousands of years to preserve Jewish identity.
Jesus advocated another innovation of Judaism that gave birth to Christianity. The one thing we are most certain that Jesus taught is the coming realm of God, God’s paradeosos, or paradise, the restoration of Eden on earth for Israel. It echoes a text Jesus likely knew, Isaiah 51:3:
For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the paradeosos of the LORD, joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.
This wasn’t just for observant Jews however. Jesus gathered in the unclean and ritually impure. Jesus gathered in the poor who had no access to the Temple. Jesus suggested Gentiles could be included too. St. Paul took it a little further when he said Christians didn’t need to be circumcised to be a follower of Jesus. They didn’t need to follow Jewish dietary law. Jesus was clear that what made you part of his movement wasn’t outer signs and behaviors. It was an inner transformation, a change of heart that mattered. Just following the Jewish law wasn’t enough to sanctify them. They needed to do follow the law with good intentions and a pure heart.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ministered as a Christian but recognized that the Realm of God’s appeal was too Christian centric to build a movement on to defeat racism. Racism had its roots in the us vs. them social dynamic that has separated us since the beginning of time. Racism took reinforcement from the same scriptures on which Christianity was based. How could Jesus’ message of love be universalized?
One powerful answer came from the Philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce was critical of individualists like Whitman, Emerson, William James and especially Nietzsche. Royce thought the individual was nothing without being part of a community. “My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” (1913) Royce postulated the ideal of “Beloved Community.” He connected that vision but extended it beyond the church as the process of loyal interpretation of their guiding spirit.
King recognized the centrality of community in Royce’s concept of Beloved Community that extended beyond Christianity and could be a foundation to bind together a movement that transcended himself. What could bind loyalty to that movement were core principles like non-violent progressive action; acceptance of difference; and a commitment to liberation from systemic racism, injustice and suffering for all people.
Unitarian Universalism today finds deep resonance with Royce’s and Dr. King’s vision of Beloved Community. This month we will dig into it and begin to appreciate its potential as a unifying power to define us, to bring us together, and to energize our work for inner and outer transformation.