The readings in Advent always take me to a place that theologians call the “margins.” Between Isaiah’s prophecies and John the Baptist, I get caught up in the fullness of their vision of the Reign of God, the richness of their dreams, the urgency of their prayer. Advent calls us to draw near God, even as the prophets announce that God is already drawing near to us. The Reign of God, John the Baptist cries, draws near in Christ. The yearning for God expressed in Advent, can take us to the margins of our lives, as it took Jesus.
During my sabbatical this year, I spent three months traveling around the country, visiting intentional communities that seemed to me to exemplify the biblical vision of Beloved Community, groups of people whose souls have caught the prophetic vision of the Reign of God, and are striving to live it in community–this is what church is, of course, but these folks were also forming intentional communities to express that vision in their every day lives, sharing homes, resources and a mission to their neighborhoods.
Beloved Community is a term that became popular during the Civil Rights era in the United States, but its history is older, and its modern expression goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Beloved Community is the language for an ideal—or a vision, a metaphor for the reign of God, or the kingdom of heaven—in religious terms, a horizon toward which we move, also a biblical vision, articulated in scripture. The biblical prophets point us in the direction of Beloved Community; Jesus’ teachings do as well, based as they are in prophetic faith, teachings that break into history with transforming love, working within individuals and in communities. Beloved Community can be thought of in a variety of ways: a community of repentance, a community of memory, a community of hope, grace, revelation, love and justice. The modern use of the phrase is attributed to philosopher Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In 1913, Royce wrote, ‘“My life means nothing, either theoretically or practically, unless I am a member of a community.” Beyond the actual communities that we directly encounter in life there is the ideal “Beloved Community” of all those who would be fully dedicated to the cause of loyalty, truth and reality itself.'( See: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/royce/). Later the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would adopt this language of Beloved Community, and popularize it in his sermons and speeches, as something that was achievable, rather than a far off horizon of vision. It was a realistic goal: “In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” For King, the method to achieve this goal was creating a critical mass of people trained in the theory and practice of non-violence. “Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred.” (From The King Center: http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy#sub4)
The Beloved Communities I visited were all informed by the powerful stream of imagery, theory, teachings, and practice about what it means to create just and loving communities, exemplified in the biblical prophets and in Jesus’ teachings, in Dr. King’s work, and those who came after him. Most were Christian or interfaith communities, and all of them lived close in with people who have been, or may be still on the “margins” of our society. Now, here’s what this has to do with Advent: Jesus lived on the margins–this isn’t a new thought in Christian theology; it’s a foundational understanding of Jesus’ identity. From his birth in a rural village in the out-post of the Roman Empire, to his death on the cross, Jesus makes his home with the “anawim,” the Poor Ones. (See Raymond Brown: The Birth of the Messiah).
This year, because of our divisive politics, and some of the cruel measures being taken against the people Jesus calls us expressly to love, I find myself feeling an even deeper urgency to understand, help, and advocate for those who are being pushed to the margins of security because of poverty, immigration, discrimination of any kind, racism, sexism, classism, disabilities, mental illness, addiction. Anger and prayers about injustice are not enough; faith is active in love. Jesus lives there, in the lives of people who are struggling for justice, truth, and love. Advent can take us into the blessing of those struggles, if we are not there already.
Here is an example. I call it the first principle of the discipline of loving the neighbor: get to know them. In one of the communities I visited, the members simply took regular walks in their neighborhoods, making it a point of learning about the lives, needs, and struggles of everyone who was within walking distance of their communities and churches. What they found, and what we will find, should we do it, are the intersections of our lives. Everyone needs safety from violence. Everyone needs food. Everyone needs shelter. Everyone needs health care. Everyone needs dignity and respect. Everyone needs decent work. Everyone needs love. As they got to know who their nearer neighbors actually were, it expanded their sense of belonging and opened their hearts to generosity and curiosity about their differences and their shared experiences. They discovered, as we may discover, common struggles, our interdependencies, our interconnections. Refugees live nearby; homeless shelters are down the street; food pantries and soup kitchens feed the person next-door–we ourselves may need those same soup kitchens, too; local libraries offer help with ESL classes, and filling out government documents and forms; neighborhood houses of worship host health clinics and homeless families in transition. Soon the word “stranger” became and becomes the word “friend.”
Charles Marsh writes in his book on Beloved Community, “We must learn how to perceive the living God who is building a new world in unexpected places and shapes; indeed, we must learn what it means to enter the new world of God. In short, we must relearn the meaning of being a Christian. For if Jesus Christ is Lord of the church and over all creation, power, and principalities, as Christians believe, then our first order of business must be to learn again how to participate in the gift…But let us not for a moment conceal from ourselves the fact that obedience to this vision–our actual acceptance of what the Bible proposes: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”–is a step into space, “an undertaking of unknown consequences, a venture into eternity.” Christian discipleship leads one into the most passionate worldliness and the experience of life’s polyphony, its beauty, anguish and complexity…in church we are taken up, perhaps even against our will, into a fellowship of astonishing variety and difference. In church, we are taken into “Christ-time” …and given the hope that our fragile and infrequent experiences of reconciliation will one day become an eternal feast” (p. 214-215). May this Advent take us to the margins, out past our comfort, and gather us up into that astonishing world of “Christ-time” and “Christ-love”, toward the unexpected and mysterious down-to-earth ways that the love of God might be born anew in us and in our beloved communities.