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Becoming Dr. King’s “Beloved Community”

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.