Building the Beloved Community: Jesus, Josiah Royce, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Prescription for a Healthy Society

by | Sep 10, 2017 | Blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Image courtesy of Vivien Feyer*

Dr. Martin Luther King popularized the notion of the “Beloved Community.” King envisioned the Beloved Community as a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings.

As explained by The King Center, the memorial institution founded by Coretta Scott King to further the goals of Martin Luther King:

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.

How is King’s Beloved Community a prescription for a healthy society?

Fundamental to the concept of the Beloved Community is inclusiveness, both economic and social. The notion that all can share in earth’s bounty describes a society in which the social product is shared far more equally than it is in today’s world. The Beloved Community also describes a society in which all are embraced and none discriminated against.

Economic and social justice are the twin pillars supporting the Beloved Community. These twin pillars are also necessary for a healthy society. What would be the health impacts of living in such a society?

Quite a lot is now known about health and social status. When I was in medical school in the 1970s, we believed that it was the CEO at the top of the hierarchy who would be the first to succumb to a heart attack due to the undue stresses of his high position.

Sir Michael Marmot, in the famous Whitehall Studies, showed that actually the exact opposite is true. The lower one is on the social hierarchy, the lower one’s life expectancy, with an incremental improvement each step up. We humans are exquisitely sensitive to our class standing. Our stress hormones reflect this. Those of us lowest on the social pyramid have the highest stress hormone levels. This seems to be how we are wired. The same is true in baboons.

It turns out that social status is the most powerful determinant of health for a wide range of outcomes including life expectancy, as well as illness and death from cardiovascular, pulmonary, psychiatric, and rheumatologic diseases and some cancers. It’s not only where we find ourselves on the social pyramid that matters, it also matters how that pyramid is shaped. In countries with relatively gentler hierarchies and more income equality, health outcomes and social well-being are generally quite good.

In highly unequal countries, like the United States, health outcome and social well-being suffer. We don’t live as long as our peers in more equal countries, nor do our infants or children. We’re fatter, more of our teens get pregnant, we incarcerate more of our citizens, our children score worse on math and science tests, we trust one another less, and we kill one another more often. We even recycle less often. Greater inequality of income leads to a generalized societal dysfunction. We correctly perceive that we are not all in the same boat, and we are more likely to view the world as a Hobbesian struggle for individual survival and advantage.

The King Center addresses one of the key public health challenges of our time by emphasizing a fairer sharing of the social product and an elimination of poverty and homelessness. Since social causes determine how long we will live and whether or not we will get ill, our prevention strategies must advance health-promoting changes in social policy. The science suggests that policies that lessen income inequality, like raising the minimum wage and increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthiest among us, are likely to lead to significant population health benefits.


While social class is the primary determinant of health outcome, racism has a detrimental impact over and above that of low social class. For every class category, some racial groupings that suffer discrimination, like African Americans and Latinos, have worse health outcomes than their white counterparts. How does racial discrimination get under the skin to cause premature illness and death?

Let’s focus for a moment on high blood pressure, a common ailment in African Americans.West Africans of similar heredity do not suffer from high levels of hypertension. What’s the explanation for such high levels in African Americans?

Our brains orchestrate an exquisite symphony of neuro-hormonal signals, resulting in the appropriate blood pressure for the level of threat or challenge we face at any given time. When the brain perceives the threat going up, blood pressure goes up too. The world can be a challenging place for a small biped without sharp teeth or claws. It’s good to be prepared for fight or flight should the situation call for either. The world is even more threatening if your racial group is discriminated against.

The appropriate physiologic response to perceived threat is vigilance and preparedness to run or to fight. Given that racism permeates our social environment, the brain of a person suffering racial discrimination sees hypervigilance as a necessity in order to be able to cope with any challenges that may arise. I imagine that tragedies like the murders of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant must reinforce the feeling that hypervigilance is necessary.

The hypervigilant state comes with a price. Chronically elevated blood pressure has a weathering affect on the heart and blood vessels. Being ready to run or to fight all of the time takes it’s toll. Heart disease, strokes, kidney failure and premature death are the results. A normal physiologic response (blood pressure rise) to an unhealthy social environment can lead to illness and death. You would think that one focus of intervention would be on improving the social environment and reducing racism. This is not the case.

The physician who treats the hypertensive patient unwittingly performs the social function of normalizing the status quo by ignoring the root cause of the high blood pressure and focusing exclusively on the patient’s response to drug therapy. Knowledge of the social causation has been largely kept from the physician who was taught in medical school that this is “essential hypertension” as opposed to the very rare instances of hypertension caused by endocrine secreting tumors. The terrible irony is that the patient’s brain felt it “essential” to maintain the blood pressure at elevated levels to deal with the chronic stress that is racism.

The medical world’s response to this phenomenon of stress-induced hypertension, in this case due to racism, is to treat each individual patient with multiple medicines. Controlling blood pressure with medications is an enormous challenge. The brain controls blood pressure. When the brain senses that the social environment is threatening, the blood pressure goes up. The doctor prescribes medicines aimed at interrupting the various neuro-hormonal messages that the brain sends to the heart, blood vessels and kidneys to maintain this elevated stress-induced blood pressure.

The doctor typically prescribes a beta-blocker to counteract the effects of the adrenaline system, thereby decreasing the rate and strength of the heart’s contraction, and lowering the blood pressure. The brain, still aware that the social environment is threatening, counters by having the kidneys hold on to more fluid — driving the blood pressure back up.  

The doctor responds with a diuretic. The brain, not to be outdone by the doctor, increases the hormone angiotensin, leading to blood vessel constriction and again driving up blood pressure. The doctor has a medication for this too. She prescribes an ACE inhibitor and perhaps nitrates. At this point the patient’s blood pressure may be controlled, as long as the patient can tolerate the expense, the inconvenience and the side effects.

But unless the structures that perpetuate racism are removed, the next generation of African Americans will meet the same fate and they, too, will need to be treated for high blood pressure. This may be good for “fee for service medicine” and for the pharmaceutical industry, but it will never lead to a healthy society.

Dr. King devoted his life to creating the Beloved Community. By doing so he showed us the path to a society that maximizes empathy, compassion and love and also leads to health and well being. We can realize Dr. King’s dream, but to get there America will need to deal successfully with unresolved issues of class and race. Specifically, we need to share the social product more equally and to provide a livable income for all while at the same time removing any and all structures that promote or allow racism or any other form of discrimination. 
In Dr. Kings words:

“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Jeff Ritterman, MD on Twitter: 

From Patheos, in 2015

In progressive religious circles, you will often hear calls to “build the Beloved Community,” but I’m not sure we always appreciate the full historic resonance of that phrase. The term “Beloved Community” was coined by the early twentieth-century American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916). But most of us learned it not from Royce but from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who often spoke of the “Beloved Community” as his ultimate goal.

As an early example, after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in speaking about the larger movement toward which they were building, Dr. King said:

the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

But notice as well what King is not saying. He is not saying what we are often accustomed to hearing in our highly competitive society: that the end goal is a decisive — or even crushing — victory over our opponents. For King, building Beloved Community requires the even harder work of reconciliation, redemption, and being in right relationship, of “transforming opponents into friends.”

As Dr. King said in his 1967 “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” “We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” That’s what he meant by “a love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men”: practices like nonviolent activism that break open the hearts of your opponents, confronting them with the inherent worth and dignity of peoples and groups they falsely believed to be less than fully human.

According to The King Center

For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. 

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Too look even farther back, the vision of the “Beloved Community” is in many ways a secularized version of what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God.” But too often Jesus is confused with the White Queen from Alice in Wonderland. Christianity, however, is not about “believing six impossible things before breakfast”; rather, following the way of Jesus is about practicing radical kindness and compassion in our day just as Jesus did in his time and place — a love that dares to transgress cultural and tribal divisions. From that perspective, I think G.K. Chesterton’s view on Christianity applies equally to Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community: “[it] has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.”

Recall that for Dr. King, the Beloved Community was a “realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.” Given the effectiveness we have seen of the practice of nonviolence in the movements led by King, Gandhi, and others, what would it mean to work toward having “a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence?” What might it look like if we reallocated even 1% of our nation’s significant military budget for teaching nonviolent activism? And then 2% the next year? Then 3% and so on?

How might such a paradigm shift help us move away from what Dr. King called the three greatest threats to building the Beloved Community: racism, materialism, and militarism. In our own lives, what would it looks like to seek to communicate  with one another — even when we are stressed out — with less harshness and more with nonviolent compassion?

Allow me to continue to take us back down to the interpersonal level with a story. During my childhood, the closest glimpse I ever had to what the Beloved Community might look like was at summer camp. Starting at age ten, I attended a camp in Black Mountain, North Carolina for two weeks each summer, which extended to four weeks at age 16, then six weeks as a junior counselor. During college, I would spend ten-to-twelve weeks there each summer first as a counselor, then as an age group director, and finally as the waterfront director. 

As a young child, those two weeks each summer were like an almost perfect, idyllic Beloved Community. And I would sometimes think that we should just have the whole world live in summer camp all the time. But, of course, summer is but one season of the year. And in retrospect I can also see other angles there were invisible to me as a child: such as the race and class privilege that made that two weeks each summer possible. Also, as I became not a camper, but a counselor, I began to see that the summer was an exhausting sprint for the adults — that while exhilarating — was not sustainable year-round. 

As a child I also envied the lives of the owners of the camp, who did live there year round. They were such fascinating people, and I used to think that even if camp wasn’t sustainable long term for 400 campers and 150 staff, then it still must be for those families who were full-time residents at camp. But, again, as I grew up and entered the inner circle of the central staff, I began to see that even the phenomenal camp directors and owners, who did so much to create the magic of camp each summer were human beings like the rest of us with imperfections and rivalries. And that for the most part, during the off-season they lived not in the Beloved Community, but instead retreated to their respective homes and families. 

My experience at summer was one of my earlier lessons in both the possibilities and the pitfalls of building the Beloved Community. In that spirit, allow me to share with you one more story, this one from my Unitarian Universalist tradition. In the 18th- and 19-centuries, the Unitarians and Universalists in many ways defined themselves against Calvinistic pessimism.

  • Rejecting the idea that human nature is characterized by “Total Depravity,” they taught “the inherent worth and dignity” of every human being (which is now the UU First Principle).
  • Instead of some people being predestined to eternal torment, they taught that divine love was for all (which is the basis for the Universalist half of Unitarian Universalism).
  • Instead of a top-down, all-powerful, all-controlling God, they emphasized human freedom and human responsibility.

They had tremendous optimism for the potential of both humanity and society. 

The most well-known distillation of that perspective was from the 19th-century Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke,” who characterized the new liberal theology as about:

  1. The Fatherhood of God
  2. the Brotherhood of Man
  3. the Leadership of Jesus
  4. Salvation by Character
  5. the Progress of Mankind Onward and Upward Forever

Can you hear the faith in inevitable progress, much of it fueled by the Industrial Revolution?

But that optimism did not rest solely with the forebears of contemporary Unitarian Universalism: “One hundred nineteen communal and utopian societies were established in the United States between 1800 and 1859, and more than half of them…were formed during the ‘frenetic forties,’  a decade marked by some of the most intense reform fervor that America has ever witnessed” (xiv). I would like to share with you about only one of them: Brook Farm, a utopian experiment by some of the Transcendentalist forbears of contemporary UUism. 

Unitarian minister George Ripley left his pulpit to help lead an experiment in creating the what they called the “city of God” — what we might call the “Beloved Community” on a 200-acre diary farm called Brook Farm, nine miles outside of Boston (xiii). Sterling DeLane, author of Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia, writes that:

the community is nostalgically recalled as a bucolic retreat in which the days began with choruses of Mozart and Haydn by the Brook Farm choir, afternoons were interrupted in order to read Dante’s great work in the original, and evenings featured dramatic tableaux, lectures, and dancing. Life at Brook Farm often did resemble an Arcadian adventure, but what is [rarely] acknowledged…is the desperation that came from unrelieved financial pressures, the loss of faith in Brook Farm’s leaders, and the class antagonisms that often smoldered beneath the surface of community civility. (xi)


BrookFarmAs you may can guess, when you are accustomed to an urban, literary “life of the mind,” it turns out that a few months of reading agriculture books does not prepare you mentally, physically, or financially to run a 200-acre farm (33, 43). And although the Transcendentalist residents of Brook Farm found the country life to be “invigorating” in many ways, a huge initial set back was that “after five full months of nearly back breaking physical labor around the farm, the community still had no reliable source of income or, even more alarming, a ‘feasible [financial] plan’ to sustain the Association’s future operations” (59).

And although the Brook Farm experiment lasted for six years from 1841 to 1847, two tragedies forced the community to collapse. First — and here I’ll let you drawn your own parallels to today — there was a small pox outbreak in November 1845 because (you guessed it!), “Many had never been vaccinated” (245-6). Second, in March of the following year an accidental fire destroyed a major new building project which had never been insured, adding a devastating loss on top of major preexisting financial strain (254). 

There are many potential lessons for us today from these utopian social hopes. One, is that “intention does not equal impact.” The residents of Brook Farm, particularly George Ripley, had the best of intentions and worked hard. But that is no guarantee of “progress, onward and upward forever.” Another lesson in retrospect is not to neglect your strengths. The founders of Brook Farm had a lofty, abstract, agrarian ideal of the farming life. But they did not have any significant previous “farming or business” experience (320). And although they were highly educated in general, they did not focus on the boarding school at Brook Farm even though education for them likely had a much stronger chance of being a reliable income stream than farming. For instance, whereas “none of the other antebellum New England communities had more than one college-educated person involved in their educational program,” Brook Farm had three college-educated teachers in the school (357).

Part of what I’m building toward is that even though the Calvinists were far too pessimistic about human nature, our 19th-century forbears over-corrected with an overly naive hope in human potential and progress, particularly how easy and inevitable progress would be (xv). But today, we live on the other side of the twentieth century — in the wake of the horrors of WWI and WWII, of Vietnam and Watergate. 

Part of the reason the Brook Farm story is poignant for me is that my childhood summer camp that I was telling you about earlier was founded in 1956. For the two previous decades, that mountain valley around Lake Eden (where I swam in the summer and eventually became Waterfront Director) had been the sight of the radical, progressive experiment in education known as Black Mountain College. Visitors included such pathbreaking figures as philosopher John Dewey, playwright Thornton Wilder, novelist Henry Miller, writer Aldous Huxley, and musician John Cage. Buckminster Fuller erected the first geodesic dome on the field where I learned to play soccer and ultimate frisbee (97). It was an breathtakingly beautiful site with incredibly well-intentioned, gifted, innovative people. But similar to Brook Farm, “Money was always an issue…and when the college disbanded every April, no one really knew if it would reopen the next fall” (8). Eventually it do not reopen, allowing for the formation of a summer camp that continues to this day.

With all that being said, however, I will confess that I still share the social hopes of Josiah Royce and Dr. King, of Brook Farm and Black Mountain College. But as a citizen of the early twenty-first century, I also want to learn from their mistakes, even as I am grateful that we “stand on the shoulders of giants” who have gone before us.

For now, I will give the final word to the late American Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty (1931 – 2007) —  whose grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch was a major part of the Social Gospel movement — from his important book Philosophy and Social Hope:

Neither the ratio of population to resources, nor the power which modern technology has put in the hands of kleptocrats, nor the provincial intransigence of national governments, has anything to do with such changes… The utopian social hope which sprang up in nineteenth-century Europe is still the noblest imaginative creation of which we have record.”(277)

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@carlgregg).


Laudato Si’ Movement
Laudato Si’ Movement

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