And as a young child, King seemed like a kindred spirit. In those days, I too did a lot of dreaming. I dreamedI would finally get a little brother, I dreamed I would make webs shoot from my wrists a la Spiderman, I dreamed I would finally get to kiss a girl. Rarely did you hear adults talking about their dreams, especially to us kids, but here was a man who was unafraid to share his, indeed had died as a result of his sharing.
It wasn’t until I became a teacher myself that I started to see the error in my thinking.
King describes the Beloved Community as a system of individuals working together to promote justice and nonviolence in thought, speech, and action. This Beloved Community is by no means perfect, it can only rise as high as the imperfect potential of its human members, but it is based on the premise that all of humanity shares a single spiritual connection.
It goes like this: If you do violence to your neighbor, than you too are subjected to that same violence. And if you choose to ignore your neighbor’s pain, than you increase and perpetuate your own suffering. King believed that the Beloved Community should strive to provide a social, political, and emotional framework for its members to resolve conflict without violence. He believed that if we could get a critical mass of people to commit to these principles than we could move the larger masses of peoples and governments as well.
Members of the Beloved Community must have an open heart and a capacity to give and receive love. This helps to keep people strong, hopeful, and inspired, even in times of trouble and doubt. But members of the Beloved community must also possess the critical faculties to discern truth from what we merely wish, or fear, was true. These critical faculties provide structured thought that allows for the movement from feeling to action. And King was all about action. He wouldn’t have called people together just for the sake of hearing his own voice. He knew his time on Earth was short, and that the task before all of us was great, so he didn’t have a moment to waste.
This outlook has had a profound affect on my approach to teaching. One of a teacher’s primary objectives, in any subject, should be to foster an environment where development of critical faculties is not only encouraged, but expected. This expectation lays the foundation for Beloved Community because it requires students to interrogate the rigid structures of identity they bring into class and hopefully enlarge their self-concept to include the needs and concerns of others in the classroom and the world.
No matter if we’re rich or poor, from the city or country, Black or White, we all suffer. And we all need to learn to cope with that suffering in ways that don’t create more violence and injustice in the world. If we fail to teach our students this lesson, then we’ll be merely training perpetuators, instead of educating reformers.
Some students aren’t ready for this type of community; maybe they’re afraid, or brainwashed, or even worse apathetic. And sometimes I’m not prepared enough, or I don’t articulate the message clearly enough, or I don’t even believe in it enough to help my students. But sometimes we do get it. Sometimes we start to truly understand the necessity of striving for non-violence and justice. When that does happen, and when we are able to make our little class a Beloved Community, even for just a few moments, a tremendous power courses through the room. There’s a connection, like we’re doing important work and maybe what we’re learning will help change things for the better. This feeling, unfortunately, often passes when I hand back graded essays, but hopefully some students leave my class hooked enough on the experience to seek opportunities to build more communities, Beloved Communities. This is the critical mass of which King spoke.