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The civil rights movement must water its spiritual roots

The real goal isn't political power, but reconciliation

By Jane Lampman / January 4, 2005



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 arena.

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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 sensibility.

"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 members.

Over the past four decades, as Marsh describes, Christians concerned with social justice for the poor have grounded their work in the needs of local communities and committed themselves to living and working directly with the neediest.

The Rev. John Perkins, an African-American pastor from Mississippi, is often called the father of the faith-based movement. Once a preacher focused on personal salvation who shied away from the social gospel, Mr. Perkins changed his thinking during his searing experiences of the '60s. To serve the neediest in the Jackson community, he and his wife, Vera Mae, developed a complex of social ministries called Voice of Calvary.

They then began training other religious leaders in grass-roots community development and racial reconciliation. The effort gave birth in 1989 to the Christian Community Development Association, which today brings together some 700 organizations from around the world.

Perkins and others pursuing the faith-based vision have captured the imagination and energies of young people on some college campuses, and Marsh all too-briefly describes the efforts of several contemporary church- and student-run programs in urban areas.

This is a stirring account of Christian faith in action, and the author makes a fervent plea for spiritual renewal and recommitment. Yet his book reveals how countercultural such a pursuit continues to be. While the vision remains a potent source of moral energy for many, it's not clear how effective such efforts have been.

But Marsh isn't a sociologist. He's a theologian concerned with "lived theology," and here he provides a resource for those yearning to put their faith more fruitfully into action, and to reach beyond what he sees as the "ideological box" that has narrowed Christian values to a short list of issues. President Bush's faith-based initiative was intended to give new impetus to social programs run by churches and other religious groups, but Marsh seeks a renewed commitment to racial reconciliation and a genuine pursuit of community within a divided country.

Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

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