“The Beloved Community”: The Quest of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. for “True Humanity”

By Patricia Anders, Editorial Director

The year 1968 seems to have been a pivotal year. It was the year of Prague Spring as Czechoslovakia fought for independence from the Soviet Union, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and held American servicemen hostage for almost a year, tragedy exploded in My Lai and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and Thomas Merton and Karl Barth both died on December 10. It was also the year of the first orbit around the moon, the first 747 jumbo jet, the first successful heart transplant, the launch of Intel, 60 Minutes aired for the first time, The Beatles released The White Album, the anti-war musical Hair opened, London Bridge was sold and later moved from England to Arizona, and McDonalds sold their first Big Mac (for 49 cents).

The problem of race relations in the U.S. was also heating up with the Civil Rights Movement. In a silent but powerful demonstration against racial discrimination, U.S. black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” after receiving their medals at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City (in support of them was silver-medalist winner Peter Norman from Australia). Less famously perhaps was the scene in “Plato’s Stepchildren,” the November 22 episode of Star Trek, where white Captain Kirk kisses his beautiful black female communications officer, Lt. Nyota Uhura.

But what we remember this month in particular of that year is the tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, after he was gunned down (supposedly by James Earl Ray, although that is still a point of contention). Fifty years have passed now, yet we are all painfully aware that the matter of race relations is still a serious problem (along with poverty and militarism, which Dr. King also strove to fight against). Although there is much I could say—and there is much that has already been written about this important man—I want to focus on his concept of the “Beloved Community.” (For details on Dr. King, visit http://www.thekingcenter.org.)

“True Humanity”

Twenty-five years before Dr. King’s assassination, however, another courageous and godly man also stood against oppression. This time it was against Nazi Germany. The man was Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45). Bonhoeffer, arrested on April 5, 1943—almost twenty-five years prior to the day of King’s death—was implicated in an alleged assassination plot against Hitler. After spending two years in prison, Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945—one month before the fall of Nazi Germany. He was thirty-nine years old, which was the same age as Martin Luther King when he died.

On May 15, 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote the following from Tegel Prison to his parents:

What the Bible and Luther mean by the ordeal of temptation and testing [die Anfechtung] has certainly never become so clear to me as here. Quite without any recognizable physical or psychological basis, the peace and composure that have carried one along are suddenly shaken, and the heart becomes, as Jeremiah describes it, the devious and perverse thing that no one can understand (Jeremiah 17:9). One feels it as really breaking in from outside oneself, as evil powers that want to rob one of what is important. But these experiences too are good and necessary; one learns to understand better one’s existence. (Reflections on the Bible, p. 101)

Like King, much has been written and continues to be written about Bonhoeffer—most notably, his discussion on “cheap grace” versus “costly grace” and the much-debated comment about “religionless Christianity.” Like King, however, I also want to touch briefly on Bonhoeffer’s idea of community, true Christian community.

Dallas Roark writes in Dietrich Bonhoeffer from the Hendrickson Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series that in “1927, Bonhoeffer submitted his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio [“the communion of saints”]: A Dogmatic Investigation of the Sociology of the Church, to the faculty of the University of Berlin. This work was praised as a ‘theological miracle’ by Karl Barth and was published three years later” (p. 3).

Eleven years later, in 1938, Bonhoeffer published the popular Gemeinsames Leben, or Life Together. This book was a record of his time at the underground seminary in Finkenwalde, Germany, where he trained pastors in the Confessing Church movement.

Life Together deals with the practical relations of the church’s life in Christ. Between the two advents of Christ the believer lives in community with other Christians. This is a gift of God; not all can experience it, for they may be scattered, imprisoned, or alone among heathen people. . . . Community for the Christian, centers in Jesus Christ. This means three things: (1) a Christian is related to others because of Jesus Christ; (2) the path to others is only through Jesus Christ; (3) the Christian is elected in Christ from eternity to eternity. (Roark, 47)

In “Old Testament and New Testament” (found in Reflections on the Bible: Human Word and Word of God), Bonhoeffer writes:

To be Christian does not mean to live in a specified religious way, based on a particular method by which one makes oneself into a particular kind of person (whether sinner, penitent, or saint), but it means to be human, not a particular human type; Christ creates true humanity in us. It is not religious acts that make one Christian but participation in the suffering of Christ in worldly life. (p. 96)

This is something Dietrich Bonhoeffer would personally experience, as did all those who went before him and those who followed afterward, seeking to make a difference in this world for the kingdom of God.

“The Beloved Community”

As stated on the King Center website (see above), Martin Luther King, Jr. focused strongly on the idea of “The Beloved Community”:

“The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.

For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence. . . .

In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

This may sounds like an unachievable ideal (at least in this reality), but King thought that with some practical steps, this “Beloved Community” could indeed be possible. First, he had six principles of nonviolence he required for all participants in this movement:

  1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
  2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
  3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
  4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
  5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
  6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

Following these six principles are his six steps for nonviolent social change (which you can read about in more description on this helpful website).

If Bonhoeffer had lived to see King’s crusade against racism, poverty, and militarism, he no doubt would have added his voice in support. Unfortunately, these two men adamant against violence and injustice were caught up in circumstances beyond their control—both paying with their lives, victims to the hatred and the violence they sought as Christian pastors, as Christian men, to overcome. Let us remember their struggle and do what we can, as Martin Buber says, “to love powerfully.”

Patricia Anders is editorial director of Hendrickson Publishers. She also serves as the managing editor of Modern Reformation magazine and is the author of A Winter’s Blooming (HNN Press, 2012).

For more information about our books written by or about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, click the following images!

3 thoughts on ““The Beloved Community”: The Quest of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. for “True Humanity”

  1. Pingback: Remembering Thomas Merton and Karl Barth Fifty Years Later | Hendrickson Publishers Blog

  2. bonhoeffer !!! bonhoeffer??? dem einzigen märtyrer, den die (deutsche) evangelische kirche vorweisen kann u. will, bin ich, mag. phil. dd tom eggeling in aurich, germany, jeden tag nah: meine wohnung gehört zum dietrich-bonhoeffer-haus der diakonie hier. natürlich frage ich mich, eine endgültige antwort scheint unmöglich, welche (theologische) bedeutung “unser” bonhoeffer für die evang. kirche hat? und: ist er zum märtyrer geworden, weil et die vielen dank moglichkeiten nach england und/oder die usa zu gehen, zu fliehen nicht genutzt hat, nicht nutzen wollte? im gegensatz zu denen, die keine chance hatten vor den nazis, also der gestapo oder dem sd der ss sich in aur sicherheit zu bringen, hatte bonhoeffer doch alle möglichkeiten, inklusive einer eigenen gemeinde, die ihm angeboten worden war. er blieb. und präsentierte sich damit den nazi-schergen, letztlich dem henker in flossenbürg, dem kz.
    und: welche bedeutung kommt seiner theologie in der evangelischen kirche, der lehre an den theol. fakultäten heute noch zu. ich rede von der theologie als wissenschaft, nicht von der populärliteratur von wg. “von guten mächten.


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