PW: How did you choose "the beloved community" as your central idea for The Beloved Community?
Charles Marsh: The term comes from an amazing but little-known speech Dr. King gave in the last days of the Montgomery bus boycott. In December of 1956, King told his church people that while a boycott had been necessary, it was not their goal. "The end is reconciliation," he said, "the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community."
That line just pounded me the first time I read it. For King, the beloved community was tied to the Christian doctrine of the kingdom of God. King's vision of a new social order shaped by the untapped power of divine love seems to me the spiritual motor of the Civil Rights movement—and for many other movements and campaigns for human flourishing in our world.
What do you think is lost when we omit the Christian dimension of the civil rights story?
When you listen to movement veterans tell their stories, you often hear moving testimonials that their home is the church, but historians can't quite seem to take them at their word. [Such] Christian faith refuses to separate compassionate action from its spiritual roots. As I see it, what's lost when you strip away the religious conviction is appreciation of the very sources that energize and sustain compassion.
Are you hopeful that your readers will begin to see Christian activism in a new way?
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I think this book appears at a decisive point in the intellectual and moral history of the West. Has Christianity in the United States betrayed its own original promise "to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God"?... I regard The Beloved Community as a protest against faith's self-assured adherents, as well as its cultured despisers who would conclude that the Christian religion inevitably breeds truth claims intended to abolish all dissent, doubt and difference. I am not claiming that Christianity has some sort of monopoly on affirmations of human dignity. Still, its central story of the Word made flesh, born homeless in a stable, nailed on a criminal's cross and resurrected in the glory of a body made whole—these convictions serve to keep the mind attentive to the human condition.
Are there encouraging stories of contemporary Christian activists attempting to create the beloved community?
At my university—and at many others I visited—there is a resurgence of moral energy among religious believers: young men and women spend spring breaks building houses in rural and urban areas, organize on behalf of undocumented workers and single mothers and abused children, [and] form interracial prayer groups and freedom rides. Many of these young idealists have been inspired by the Civil Rights movement—and with their feet anchored in the church, they are daring to dream again.
What advice would you give a young aspiring activist?
I'd say be generous to your antagonists, remain clear about your goals and try to take things easy. Burnout is the activist's occupational hazard, and it will take a certain inner stillness and spiritual depth to survive. Activists are not prophets; they're fallible human beings who are good at mobilizing people to work on specific social problems. Don't forget there will come a day when the campaign and the movement are over, and on that day you better be sure there's plenty of water in the well.