Pandemic, Protest and the Beloved Community

August 21, 2020 by Nancy Crowe

Does the Beloved Community stand a fighting chance, so to speak?

The justice, hope and generosity of the Beloved Community — a concept introduced a century ago by American philosopher Josiah Royce and associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — may seem like a tall order for 2020.

Dr. Marcia Y. Riggs, J. Erskine Love Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary, talked with the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, Senior Director of Theological Funds Development of the Presbyterian Foundation’s Theological Education Fund, about how Beloved Community can work today. The Facebook livestream aired Aug. 19.

The author, speaker, community activist and religious ethical mediator operates from a basic belief that God oversees the world.

“If I didn’t believe that, I would probably want to crawl into a hole somewhere in the midst of this moment between pandemic and protest,” she said.

At a time when people are depressed, wondering what to do or both, Riggs offers other ways of thinking about differences.

Know where you are

She invites church and other leaders to think about energies of conflict already present in any space they enter. The question is whether to engage the energies destructively, as with omnipresent violence; or constructively, in God’s omnipresent justice.

Two basic cultures exist, Riggs explained: one of deception and one of moral courage: “In the overlap between the two is where religious ethical mediation happens. How do we generate constructive ways of being and doing in the world in that space of overlap?”

Doing so means recognizing when we are acting out of the culture of deception rather than the culture of moral courage. It also means recognizing how complicit we can be with the culture of deception.

“It’s that complicity we have to keep working on,” Riggs said. “None of us is above it.”

Hear different interpretations

Different interpretations, especially of Scripture, are at the heart of conflict, Riggs said. It’s important to be able to hear someone else’s interpretation as different while not judging it.

“You don’t get to be evaluative of others’ positions,” she said.

“Which is exactly what we want to do in those situations,” Hinson-Hasty said.

Riggs asks students instead to engage — to ask for clarification or for more information.

“That way, we can begin to listen more.”

The disinformation in our culture is another opportunity to connect.

“Honest conversation and asking questions can be revelatory. In community, we should also be able to say, ‘Let’s do some research together. Neither one of us can know it all,’” she said.

Feed your moral imagination

Riggs teaches four short courses: nonviolent and intercultural communication, conflict transformation, dialogue and moral imagination. “Those are the four ethical capacities anyone in ministry in the 21st century must cultivate,” she said.

This can happen in unexpected ways.

“I think any jazz you listen to is going to help you cultivate a sensibility around improvisation and creativity,” she said. When she brings jazz music to class, she asks students — even if they say they don’t like jazz — to open themselves to what is happening in the music. For example, a jazz version of an old standby can carry fresh meaning.

“(Students say) ‘Amazing Grace’ has a lot more going on in the jazz artist’s mind than I had going on in mine,’” she said with a smile. “I always tell people you have to feed your moral imagination.”

Another example is American singer/songwriter India Arie. Her 2017 song “Breathe” recalls the last words of Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.” Garner, a Black man, died after a New York police officer put him in a chokehold while arresting him.

Riggs asks students to feel and think about breath anew regarding George Floyd, a Black man who uttered the same words in May 2020 as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest, killing him in minutes. Floyd’s death sparked violent protests and calls for reform nationwide.

“What does it mean to be a moral agent in this world?” Riggs asked.

An invitation to come along

Through her nonprofit, Still Waters, Riggs trains people in religious ethical mediation in specific contexts.

In any context, “We are the body of Christ, with many gifts,” she said, encouraging listeners to go forth in this difficult time knowing the grace of God, the love of Christ and the emboldening fire of the Holy Spirit.

Nancy Crowe is a writer, editor, and animal wellness practitioner based in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.