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Book Review: Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community

February 17th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. New York: Basic Books, ©2005.

The authenticity of Christian community in postmodern North America is both of scholarly and personal (pastoral) interest to me. In preparing a chapter on how the church might express itself as the Body of Christ in an ever-secularizing social venue I happened upon this quite beautiful monograph. My main interest in reading it was to explore the extent to which social justice should motivate a Christian community. I found a lot to think about here, much more than I anticipated.

As a professor and historian of the United States I am well read in the origins and progress of the Civil Rights movement. The author of this book covers the same chronological ground as most. Where Marsh’s monograph differs is in that at the center of the discussion is the issue of how a Christian theological impulse toward justice and reconciliation drove the Civil Rights movement to the peak of its success, and how a secularization of the movement led to its dissipation and collapse.

As we in the United States experience the fury and tragedy of an unfinished project of reconciliation On the one hand we see the effects of intrinsic racism expressed in a criminal justice system that disproportionately penalizes poor blacks. On the other we are surrounded by a barely concealed knee-jerk Islamophobia that poisons our national discourse almost as hatefully as the unrestrained bigotry of Jim Crow. We wonder where the church fits. Postmodernism, more than anything else, informs us that we can’t solve these problems on our own.

This book convincingly demonstrates that when the Body of Christ acts to do the work of Christ in building the beloved community, real positive change can occur. And the change is not just the alleviation of material inequity, as important as that is, it is the deliberate enactment of the Kingdom of God on earth. That is indeed Christ’s mission, and the mission of his church. But it also shows that when the project became secularized it lost its way. Marsh writes, “When the movement lost its anchor in the church, it began to splinter into activist groups whose spiritual visions were no larger than concerns for their own flourishing, and this proved devastating, since people are not inclined toward social relocation, economic redistribution, or racial reconciliation unless they see their own life stories in a larger theological narrative.” (199)

I have long been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. I have admired from afar those who were willing to sacrifice so much to make God’s justice real in the world. I have been stirred by King’s expressed theology as well as his courage to act. This book only adds to my admiration, and as well introduces a number of others who shared the struggle both alongside King and after. I am not sure whether the stimulation and encouragement I experienced while reading this volume stems from the subject matter or its presentation. Probably both. The subject matter aside, Marsh is both a careful scholar and a fine author given to poetic turn of phrase and insightful analysis.

The book is both historical and theological. It shows us how the Body of Christ has expressed itself in creative ways to create real change, and it calls us to go and do likewise. It provides solid empirical evidence that the Body of Christ can do what secular society cannot, and it thoughtfully answers a question it didn’t ask but I did: building the beloved community is the work the church is here to do.

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