Dr. John J. Thatamanil
Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions
Union Theological Seminary
Saturday, April 6
9:30 AM to 12:30 PM
This retreat, through a time of reflection, discussion and renewal, explored how a “rediscovery” of the Sermon of the Mount in the last century gave rise to the concept of Beloved Community and the way in which the Kingdom of God can be found here on Earth.
Any true Christian reflection on the Beloved Community is inseparable from the global rediscovery of the Sermon on the Mount. Why? Because “The Beloved Community” is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, way of rendering the heart of Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, namely the Kingdom of God.
A variety of New Testament scholars have noted that the central theme of Jesus’s own preaching was neither God, nor himself, but rather the coming Basileia tou Theou (Βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ ), or the Kingdom of God. The heart of that message finds concentrated expression in Sermon on the Mount.
But how can we speak of the “rediscovery” of the Sermon on the Mount? Was it ever lost? Has it not been sitting there in our Bibles all along? Well, yes, but there is a serious argument to be made that Sermon on the Mount has been domesticated, defanged and discarded from the heart of much Christian teaching among many Christian communities for much of Christian history.
The center of Christian life has moved from the teaching of Jesus to dogmas about Jesus and a particular focus on theories of atonement—accounts of what Jesus’s death has accomplished for us. Meanwhile, his life and teachings receive diminished attention.
One recent argument about the distortion of Christianity in the U.S. can be found in the writings of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Wilson-Hartgrove has argued that a great deal of American Christianity has centered not on prophetic Christianity but instead on slaveholder religion. (A recent popular piece of writing by Wilson-Hartgrove about slaveholder religion and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary may be found here.)
As Wilson-Hartgrove points out at the heart of slaveholding Christianity is a certain disconnection: “Slaveholder religion makes a relationship with God separate from one’s obligation to work for God’s justice. It made it possible for Southern Baptists in the early 20th century to not only justify but feel righteous in their defense of white supremacy, because they imagined they were saving poor black souls.”
Of course, as Wilson-Hartgrove goes onto note, that is precisely what Martin Luther King Jr. rejected.
In his brief article found in the link above, Wilson-Hartgrove notes that King received this legacy of prophetic Christianity from the black social gospel and his abolitionist forebears. Not coincidentally, the Sermon on the Mount was central to both Social Gospelers and abolitionists.
But the person who most famously made the case that the Sermon on the Mount has been displaced, watered down and marginalized was none other than Count Leo Tolstoy. Yes, that Tolstoy, the very same person who wrote the epic novels, Anna Karenina, War and Peace and other pieces of classic fiction, long and short.
While no single person can be credited for the single-handed rediscovery of the Sermon on Mount, Tolstoy plays a crucial role. Many who know him only from his works of fiction know nothing about his turn to spiritual writing towards the close of life, writing that had a world-transforming legacy.
In those last years of his life, Tolstoy wrote a number of works that won him worldwide attention in a host of religious and spiritual communities, within Christianity and outside it.
Within Christianity, his early writings on the Sermon, most especially his The Gospel in Brief and What I Believe stirred global excitement and brought him to the attention of many, including, American pacifists and abolitionists, who had never forgotten the Sermon.
Tolstoy was surprised and invigorated when his American correspondents sent him extensive vigorously argued defenses of pacifism from the American scene, defenses that did not seek to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount’s teachings on nonresistance.
Inspired by that correspondence, he wrote his most extended and rigorously argued defense of nonviolence, The Kingdom of God is Within You. The first chapter of this most important book contains extensive selections from his American interlocutors.
Tolstoy’s spiritual writings received their most enthusiastic and consequential reception from a young Indian lawyer who was then relatively new into mounting a campaign of civil disobedience in South Africa. Gandhi was deeply taken by Tolstoy’s work and began a brief, if nonetheless important, correspondence with him. (This correspondence can be found here.)
Gandhi’s writings about, and more importantly, his implementation of the Sermon in collective nonviolent resistance transformed how we understand the Sermon today and even who Jesus is.
In preparation for this retreat, Christ Church Cathedral offered a Lenten Wednesday evening series focused on the theme of Beloved Community. The series centered around a selection of readings as recommended by Dr. Thatamanil. Learn more here.