By Rev. Katie Solter, Religion Faculty and Associate Chaplain
Becoming Dr. King’s “Beloved Community”
Religious scholar Karen Armstrong writes: “Religions have functioned throughout human history to inspire and justify actions that range from heinous crimes against humanity to nearly unfathomable acts of compassion, courage, and generosity.” In my role as a religion teacher and chaplain at St. Mark’s, dedicated to the work of building an anti-racist school, I strive to provide a balanced representation of religions. We must understand religion’s complicity in the “heinous crimes” committed often in the name of religion’s presumed superiority of the dominant group throughout history, while exploring the important role religion plays in fighting oppression and promoting the values of non-violence, social justice, and equality as part of the “unfathomable acts of compassion, courage and generosity” religion inspires.
The Role of Religion on January 6, 2021
The events of January 6, 2021 serve as a poignant example of these contrasting ideas. That morning we woke up to the news of Jon Ossoff’s and Raphael Warnock’s historic victories in Georgia’s run-off Senate elections, with Ossoff becoming the first Jewish Senator and Warnock, the first African-American Senator elected in the state of Georgia. In St. Mark’s required religion class, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (JCI), we discussed the rise in anti-Semitism this year and Jon Ossoff’s run for senate told a familiar story of how Ossoff’s opponents deployed anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes to undermine his candidacy. An infamous campaign advertisement, uncovered by the Jewish newspaper The Forward, exaggerated his features to make him look more stereotypically Jewish. Yet, on this occasion, these age-old tactics failed as Ossoff achieved his improbable victory in a traditionally conservative state.
At the same time, Rev. Rapheal Warnock’s election highlights the role the Black church continues to play in the political arena given the record turnout in Georgia for Black voters. As Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale writes: “Since the end of the Civil War, the Black church has been a critical institution within the pro-democracy movement. Collectively serving as a general for justice, the Black church continues to be a refuge for the oppressed and a force with which to be reckoned on the issue of racial and economic equality through the power of the ballot.” Senator Warnock is senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once served and his election represents a victory for the work Dr. King and the Black church have played in promoting the spiritual and social justice principles of Christian belief.
The election of these two candidates alone–as examples of the important role religious understanding plays in the current political landscape– provided pertinent discussion topics in a JCI class at St. Mark’s. As we all know, later that afternoon, this day of historic victory for Jews and Black Christians in Georgia, quickly turned to a day of infamy. The attacks on the Capitol building highlighted the role religion can play in perpetuating hatred and White supremacist ideology, with Christian flags and banners waving side by side with anti-semitic and racist ones. In just a few short hours, we have two milestone events in our political history that illustrate the sometimes divergent, even contradictory roles religion can play. My job as a teacher of religion in an historical and educational moment that calls upon us to create an anti-racist school is to finds ways to place these moments in a broader intellectual context so my students can have a more balanced and nuanced understanding of religion’s complex legacy.
Teaching religion through an anti-racist Hermeneutic
As religion teachers, we work to make ancient texts, practices, and traditions relevant to today’s world, emphasizing the universal values inherent in religious teachings such as justice, mercy, forgiveness, and atonement that can serve as a foundation for our critical mission of creating an anti-racist school. Seeing the racist and antisemitic slogans and symbols some of the attackers displayed made this work feel more urgent than ever. As the above example illustrates, our work in the religion department is never static. The Swiss Theologian Karl Barth famously admonished Christians to “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” I would argue that the challenge for religion teachers in the 21st century requires a more radical reformulation of Barth’s axiom: religion teachers are tasked with interpreting ‘Bibles’ from our ‘newspapers,’” presenting the study of religious text from a 21st century and anti-racist lens.
In the initial weeks of JCI, we study the richness of the Jewish tradition, reading the Tanakh, learning the differences between Mythos and Logos thinking to re-enforce a non-literal understanding of sacred text, and analyzing how the social construction of race and anti-Semitism affect Jewish identity. This year students reviewed data from the Anti-Defamation League, exploring the many factors that account for the record rise in anti-Semitism in this country. Just trying to keep up with the rising inventory of hate symbols from the ADL database is a daunting task. (There are currently 214 hate symbols and more be created and appropriated from history all the time.) Nevertheless, students learn quickly to see how contemporary White Supremacist groups appropriate historic examples of anti-Semitism such as the re-mergence of the Medieval “blood libel” conspiracy theory or the Protocol of the Elders of Zion from the 19th century. Armed with knowledge of this history, my students should be better able to understand the political intent of the groups carrying flags marked with insignia that reflect this heinous history.
Our study of Judaism explores the social construction of race in The Book of Esther and The Exodus story, guiding us to further examine these themes in our Christianity unit through an analysis of the “heinous crimes” committed during the Christian Crusades, where Popes manipulated Christian teaching to justify Islamophobia, the murder of Jews, and unjust warfare against Islam as a way to absolve sin. Likewise students critically analyze the Papal encyclicals that created the Doctrine of Discovery, justifying the seizure of land, the genocide of native peoples, and the perpetuation of colonialist practices for centuries. As we deconstruct the role politics, propaganda, misinformation, and other historical factors played in both the creation and the devastating effects of the Doctrine of Discovery, we can more readily understand the role such factors continue to play in our current world. Students learn that religious doctrine and practice must always be viewed through the lens of the myriad factors that influence it. This study is preceded by an in-depth examination of Jesus’ core teachings on non-violence, radical charity, and God’s inclusive love for all people, while analyzing Dr. Martin Luther King’s principles of non-violence and racial justice as one such example of how Christian practice inspires “unfathomable acts of compassion, courage, and generosity.” (Armstrong
Dr. King’s six principles of nonviolence
The King Center for non-violence outlines six principles of non-violence as a way of understanding Christian principles inherent in the work of racial reconciliation. These principles are
1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.
2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.
3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims.
4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence willingly accepts the consequences to its acts.
5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence to the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolence love is active, not passive. Nonviolence love does not sink to the level of the hater. Love restores community and resists injustice. Nonviolence recognizes the fact that all life is interrelated.
6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change)
Students are particularly attuned to principle number three, recognizing that the work of racial justice seeks to defeat “injustice, not people.” This understanding supports the essential principles of our Episcopal Identity here at St. Mark’s as we strive “ to seek and serve justice for all people and respect the dignity of all human beings” as outlined in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church. Dr. King argues that non-violence is “passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is nonaggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually.” (King 165) Though we do not tell students what to think or how to practice their spiritual lives, St. Mark’s vision of holistic education embodies a process that encourages “spiritual curiosity” and “healthy habits of mind, body, and spirit.” King’s philosophy reminds us that social justice work must partner with the spiritual life in order to create a beloved community rooted in Agape love. As Dr. King writes “When we love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does.” (King 166)
Mindfulness, compassion, community building and self-care are integral parts of the work of racial reconciliation, so that we “love the person and hate the evil of racism.” (King 166) Our JCI classes hope to inform students on ways to enhance their own spiritual identities, while understanding the core religious principles, beliefs, history, and traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims around the world that help promote such values. In our 21st century world, where social media, conspiracy theories, and hate groups frequently hijack such teachings to serve their own White supremacist ideologies, this knowledge is essential in combatting the forces of hate that use religion to justify the heinous crimes of racism and hatred. King’s philosophies help create an essential bridge between the work of racial justice and the development of the spiritual life, as we strive to build a “Beloved Community” at St. Mark’s, based on racial reconciliation and respect for the dignity of all human beings. The election results that came in on the morning of January 6 reflect the positive and important role religion plays in understanding the work and dedication it takes to build this Beloved Community, just as the horrors of the afternoon reminds us of what’s at stake.
The Reverend Katie Solter is a faculty member and associate chaplain at St. Mark’s School. She teaches in the Religion Department.
“ADL Tracker of Antisemitic Incidents.” Anti-Defamation League, 7 Apr. 2021, http://www.adl.org/education-and-resources/resource-knowledge-base/adl-tracker-of-antisemitic-incidents?field_incident_location_state_target_id=All&page=1.
Armstrong, Karen. The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts. Vintage Canada, 2020.
The Book of Common Prayer. Ebury Press, 1992.
Cf. Fosdick, On Being Fit to Live With: Sermons on Post-war Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1946), pp. 16-17.
Hale, Cynthia. “The Black Church Is at Work in Georgia.” Sojourners, 5 Jan. 2021, sojo.net/articles/black-church-work-georgia.
King, Dr. Martin Luther “Non-violence and Racial Justice” Christian Century 74 (6 February 1957): 165-167.
Pink, Aiden “Republican Senator deletes ad that made Jewish opponent’s nose bigger” The Forward July 27, 2020: 1.
“St. Mark’s School.” Educational Outcomes http://www.stmarksschool.org/about/strategic-plan-2020/educational-outcomes.
“The Center for Nonviolent Social Change.” The King Center, 21 Apr. 2021, thekingcenter.org/.