George W. Bush's presidency has thrust a particular set of moral
values and Christian activism to the forefront of public life,
stirring questions about which values should be reflected in public
policies and how religious groups should participate in the public
A new book by theologian Charles Marsh offers valuable insights
for that discussion (though not explicitly directed at it) by
capturing a very different grass-roots movement and Christian
"The Beloved Community" explores in some intimate detail the
religious impetus behind the US civil rights movement and how,
despite its collapse, that movement has inspired a growing number of
local initiatives grounded in the same spiritual vision.
Near the close of the tumultuous 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery,
Ala., which first pressed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the
public spotlight, the Baptist pastor reminded his followers that
allowing blacks to sit anywhere on a bus was not their ultimate
goal. "The end," he said, "is reconciliation, the end is redemption,
the end is the creation of the beloved community."
Marsh, a professor of religion at the University of Virginia,
argues that from the early days, Dr. King was focused on moving from
protest to a faith-based vision of racial reconciliation and social
justice, and that that vision also guided secular organizations in
the movement, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
SNCC's mission statement committed protesters to "a social order
permeated by love and to the spirituality of nonviolence as it grows
from the Christian tradition."
In the words of organizer Diane Nash: "Our goal was to reconcile,
to create a community recovered or fulfilled," rather than "simply
gain power over the opposition."
Eventually, this moral vision led the country to meaningful,
though turbulent, political and social change. But it only came with
tremendous sacrifice and eventual disillusionment, as issues of
economic justice, the Vietnam War, and the rise of black nationalism
overwhelmed the effort. And then in 1968, King was assassinated.
Other attempts at building "the beloved community" have met
similar resistance. For example, Marsh recounts the difficult
history of Koinonia Farm, an intentionally interracial Christian
community begun in the 1940s near Americus, Ga. For founder Charles
Jordan, the attempt to realize the biblical promise that all would
be one in Christ met with hostility from Christians in surrounding
communities, who boycotted the farm's products and harassed its