Realizing Beloved Community: Report from the House of Bishops Theology CommitteeEdited by Allen K. Shin and Larry R. BenfieldChurch Publishing, pp. 232, $28.95
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Review by Scott Bader-Saye
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has made racial justice and reconciliation among the central foci of his ministry. Using the language of “beloved community,” he has appealed to the Episcopal Church and the wider culture for attention and action on racial justice. In 2017 he called on the House of Bishops Theology Committee to produce a report on this topic. This book gathers the various pieces of that work.
The book contains both English and Spanish versions of the text. The main chapters cover the topics of white supremacy, practices of listening, reparations, and the doctrine of discovery. Appendices give examples of reparation projects in the Episcopal Church and further resources for the work of beloved community.
The chapter on white supremacy traces the ways Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and anti-Blackness combined in the United States to produce a racist system that not only infected the nation but also the church. The authors acknowledge that the language of “white supremacy” is “loaded with political baggage” but they address this not by avoiding the challenge of this language but by situating it within the distinctly theological language of sin, confession, and repentance.
The concept of beloved community is unpacked in this chapter and given historical context in the writings of Josiah Royce, Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King Jr. This is one of the most interesting and helpful sections of the book, though it ends too soon. Given the ubiquity of the language of beloved community, it would be easy for the term to become a cipher, an empty expression of an aspiration without particular content or moral force. An entire chapter devoted to analyzing and interpreting this term would have been appreciated.
The chapter on listening emphasizes the importance of receptivity for beloved community, especially the practice of hearing the stories of the silenced. The authors give a road map for the chapter in the introduction: “We need to listen to Scripture, the patristic writings, our liturgical formulae, and the stories of the silenced” (35). One might rightly wonder why the patristic writings are specifically named but not the writings of Black theology, but one does not have to wonder too long, because it turns out even the patristic writings are largely ignored. The chapter veers widely from the proposed route and becomes a grab bag of thoughts about listening and narrative. That said, the chapter provides a fruitful examination to baptismal theology, a helpful analysis of competing narratives, and a hopeful invitation to unearth voices hidden in archives.
The volume moves next into a discussion of reparations. It begins with a history of the reparations conversation in the Episcopal Church going back to the 75th General Convention in 2006, at which various resolutions called the church to repent of its participation in the sin of slavery, to seek restorative justice, and to support “proposals for monetary and non-monetary reparations” (62).
Some dioceses began to implement these resolutions, including intentional reflection on what reparations would look like at a diocesan level. Many dioceses did not. The authors of the report do an excellent job of weaving reparation into the work of beloved community so that it becomes obvious that we cannot create communities of love if we do not repair what is materially broken.
The final chapter on the doctrine of discovery addresses the logic of colonialism that began and now sustains patterns of injustice. The doctrine of discovery names a theological argument made by the church in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries to justify support for colonial expansion.
At its heart, the doctrine of discovery asserted that “other territories and peoples are empty commodities to be exploited” (76). This pattern of conquest and exploitation is compared with the actions of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians — an easy biblical comparison to affirm.
It would have been helpful (though more theologically challenging) for the authors to wrestle with the harder question of how this pattern existed in Israel’s conquest of Canaan, which became the paradigmatic theological justification for later Christian conquest. Can Christians affirm that God commanded the conquest of Canaan and not thereby justify a general theological rationale for conquest and colonization?
This is a welcome and important statement by the House of Bishops Theology Committee that will strengthen and continue the church’s important conversations about beloved community. It challenges us not to stop with conversation but to move on to action — repairing and transforming relationships through acts of material repentance.
In the conclusion, the authors write, “This document is an attempt, above the babble, to listen to Jesus Christ, the Savior. It is an attempt, a beginning: not everything that must be said and will be learned through testing and through continued obedience can be said here. But it is an attempt to hear” (83) — to hear the Redeemer call us to the narrow way of love. This document is a successful and welcome invitation to hear that call and to bring the resources of our tradition to bear on what is, at this moment, the church’s most important work.
Dr. Scott Bader-Saye is academic dean and Helen and Everett H. Jones Professor of Christian Ethics and Moral Theology at Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, Texas.