Already, but not yet: Co-creating the Beloved Community

If you are a student of Christian theology, the concept of “already, but not yet” might be a familiar one. I first heard it in a class on the New Testament during my (very) brief time at Earlham School of Religion.

As I remember it, “already, but not yet” was a way to explain why this world is still so full of violence, oppression, and injustice after Jesus was supposed to usher in a new age of peace and righteousness. Reading the Christian scriptures, it’s clear that Jesus and his followers believed this age of peace would happen in their lifetimes, so modern theologians had to somehow account for its absence without saying that Jesus’ followers were, in fact, wrong.

The answer they came up with was that Jesus had ushered in this new age, but it will not reach completion until a future time when the reign of God is fully realized on earth. That will be a time when misery, suffering, and injustice will be things of the past, the unjust will receive their punishment, and God will rule over all. This is why the Kingdom of God is often referred to as “already, but not yet.”

In radical-progressive faith communities, the “Kingdom of God” is often translated as the “Beloved Community,” a concept popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This vision of the Beloved Community included not only the redemption of the oppressed, but also of the oppressor. Agape love, or God's love, was at the center of this transformative view of redemption and at the heart of Dr. King's nonviolent activism.

For many, that vision of a Beloved Community based on agape love died with Dr. King when he was assassinated in 1968 and many left behind hopes that white America would ever truly atone for the sins of racism, slavery, and systematic discrimination. Now, with mass incarceration, a seemingly unending stream of police shootings, and a myriad of other forms of racial violence and control, that vision can feel as impossible as ever.

Staff members from El Pueblo in Raleigh and El Vinculo Hispano in Silver City join Greensboro's Immigrant Rights Working Group for a meeting in June 2015 (Photo by Lori Fernald Khamala)

But for many of us, that vision still guides the work that we do. We know that the Beloved Community is “not yet,” because we still see the trauma of white supremacy and free-market colonialism playing itself out across the globe on a daily basis. But is there also an “already” quality of the Beloved Community that we can tap into and co-create together?

Belief in that “already” is central to the Quaker Social Change Ministry pilot program.* I often think of this program as creating the community that can create the community that we so desperately need.

What I mean is that when we first come together, we carry with us our conditioning about race, gender, class, truth, God, peace, and so much more. This conditioning has been passed down for generations. Our conditioning is so deep within us that we are often unaware of it.

If we wish to acknowledge and free ourselves from the myths, lies, and toxic beliefs that plague us, we need a community to help us do it. It is in loving community that we can shine the Light on our brokenness and transform our communities from a gathering that reflects that brokenness to a gathering that reflects our ever-increasing wholeness.

AFSC Presidential Campaign Project staff from New Hampshire, Philadelphia and Denver joined Iowa PCP staff in presenting a workshop on for-profit prisons and immigrant detention in Des Moines, Iowa (Photo by Jon Krieg)

In this powerful undertaking, it is not our own salvation we are working toward, but rather the liberation of all peoples—liberation from imperial systems and modes of domination and control. This language of liberation from colonialism unites peoples’ struggles across the world and puts our imperial reality into context.

The historian William Appleman Williams defines empire as “the use and abuse, and the ignoring, of other people for one’s own welfare and convenience.” Using, abusing, and ignoring other people for our own welfare and convenience is practically a stated American value. This is reflected not only in our history, but also in our present; in mass incarceration, migrant detention centers, gated-communities, gentrification, Manifest Destiny, and a host of other American institutions, dilemmas, and realities.

Liberation Summer Training Camp visits AFSCs Prison Watch in Newark, New Jersey (AFSC)

How do we as Quakers, especially white folks, participate in collective liberation from these evils? Our work is three-fold:

Decolonizing the self – We engage in the ongoing process of transforming the poison of our imperial, oppressive society into medicine. We learn about our country’s oppressive past and present, acknowledging our relationship to the matrix of domination, grounding our sense of self in non-colonial identities. We rediscover an Inner Light/Spirit that cannot be colonized, embracing liberation histories, realities, and theologies, and finding the courage to do the work that is ours to do.

Decolonizing our communities – We engage in the ongoing process of healing together with like-minded, like-hearted souls, always widening the circle, inviting people in, and transforming our communities. We move from explicitly or tacitly supporting systems of domination to actively healing from their negative effects and supporting alternatives and movements led by communities most impacted by injustice. This has powerful implications for our Quaker community that played such an active part (whether intentionally or unintentionally) in colonizing this land.

Co-creating the Beloved Community – We engage in the ongoing process of re-building our relationship to all of life around us, fostering trust and accountability with communities most impacted by injustice. To accomplish this we commit to accompaniment and followership, staying in it for the long haul, getting out of our meetinghouses and our comfort zones, and co-creating the Beloved Community in ways that de-center whiteness.

Immigrants' rights rally in Phildelphia meetinghouse (Photo by Terry Foss)

Through our honest, imperfect engagement in these three endeavors, we experience the Beloved Community as both “already” and “not yet,” tending to the small seeds within and around us that can grow into tall trees of liberation over time.

We will have moments along the way in which our destination feels uncertain. This is a hard road to walk, which is why we cannot walk it alone. We must prepare ourselves for resistance, from within ourselves, from our communities, and from the powers around us. The false promises of privilege and self-interest are not easily abandoned.

But there will also be times when Spirit breaks through and the agape love that Dr. King spoke of becomes more than a concept. It is a living reality that we are all invited to, a place the power of empire cannot reach, a place where we are reminded that Spirit alone is infinite, not oppression, not empire, and not even death. In this way, we re-orient ourselves to the cosmos and become participants in this life-giving process of liberation.

*To learn more about the Quaker Social Change Ministry pilot program, please join us next Thursday, October 15 at 8:30pm ET for a conference call with Kierstin Homblette, one of the co-creators of the Small Group Social Justice Ministry Model. You can register here.