The deadly tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., has elicited strong humanitarian concern and condemnation from the political and religious communities alike. Politicians across the political spectrum have condemned both the white nationalists who feel emboldened by the White House response to them, and the legacy of white supremacy that has been expertly cultivated in American race relations. Religious leaders of all stripes have called for a more engaged and prophetic response — drawing upon the highest ideals and aspirations of human community.
As a scholar of religion teaching at a historically black college, I am compelled to draw upon my training in theology and research into black religious thought to reflect on viable responses to the racial animus of our time. What we need now to heal the racial divides and the wounds inflicted by a history of insane anti-black (and anti-immigrant and anti-woman) political, social and economic policy, is a fundamental re-orientation of social values and our conception of human community and personality. As we reflect on our present historical moment and the rupturing of human community, I believe we may find something of value in Martin Luther King’s relational theology.
In “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” (1967), King articulated a need for the recovery of a “world house” understanding of human relationships. The world house embodies a vision of human interaction and life that reflects the integrated, organic and communal framing of society for which King advocated. In these deeply dis-communal and dis-neighborly times, King’s construction of a world house mindset within our contemporary political and religious landscape offers some hope of rekindling the reconciliatory capacities of human identity. As a theologian, I look at Charlottesville not simply as the showcasing of white nationalism or racist genocidal logic. I see, rather, the breakdown of human personality and community — I see the loss of a relational and communal consciousness that heightens human personality and purpose. If we are to truly make America great, we must rebuild this essential element of our identity — the relational and the neighborly.
A world house reframing of our values and identities as a community is grounded in our willingness to, per King, “shift our basic outlooks.” This means, among other things, cultivating a context for identity formation in which men and women are more proactive about living in real relationships through prioritizing the well-being of one another. Nobody wins unless everybody wins; the flourishing of others is therefore linked with our own sense of self.
What we must do is (re)cognize the essential humanity of those we may perhaps now see as “the other” — we must embrace the strange(r). King realized, as we must, that the best response to regimes of injustice, bigotry and intolerance that serve to displace and sever the connective ties between brothers and sisters, is an interrelated focus that makes primary the dignity of all humankind. Now is the time to bring the vision of the world house to bear on the 21st century. While we are still reeling from, and wrestling with, the events of Charlottesville, racial animosities are not our only concern. We’ve scores of political, economic and religious regimes in place that thrive on the displacement and alienating of minoritized racial, sexual and religious communities — all under the guise of promoting American “greatness.”
Perhaps the true measure of American greatness is found on the back of our currency: e pluribus unum, or “out of many, one.” This is a simple enough concept to understand, but one that takes on additional meaning in our globalized, cosmopolitan context. While we are many and varied in tongue, creed, confession, faith and life experience, we embody a shared humanity, one that eclipses our shared identity as Americans; we share a humanity that is not bound by race or color, or any other arbitrary wall-as-division. Our greatest greatness is not found in racial, religious or political tribalism, but rather, it is found in our inclusiveness — in our willingness to link our national and individual identities to the embrace of neighbor. Only when we can see others in ourselves, and we in them, can we begin the hard work of reconciliation and fulfilling the promise and potential of America’s democratic ethos.
Darrius D. Hills (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of Black Church Studies at Morgan State University.