Ps. 133: The Promise of "Beloved Community"
Rabbi Michael Rose Knopf is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, a founding member of the Standing Together Steering Committee of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities, and a board member of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. He is the author of Thirty Days of Liberation: Pathways for Personal and Social Transformation Inspired by the Book of Exodus, and co-host of Pop Torah, a podcast on the JCast Network.
Corey D. B. Walker is the Wake Forest Professor of the Humanities at Wake Forest University. An ordained American Baptist clergyperson, he has held faculty and academic leadership positions at Brown University, University of Virginia, Virginia Union University, and Winston-Salem State University and visiting faculty appointments at Friedrich-Schiller Universität Jena, Union Presbyterian Seminary, and University of Richmond. He was also a non-resident fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
The signs are ubiquitous. Liberty trail. Slave trail. Museum of the Confederacy. Virginia Holocaust Museum. Gilpin Court. Ginter Park. The contradictions of community are the substance of everyday life in our city.
Psalm 133 extolling “how good and pleasant” it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together takes on a special resonance for us in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia is famous as the birthplace of America’s founders. Richmond, our city and our commonwealth’s capital, is home to two cathedrals to the purported American ideals of liberty and equality: St. John’s Episcopal church, where Patrick Henry famously said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and the Virginia Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, who famously proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”
And yet Virginia is also ground zero for American racial oppression, serving as the landing spot for the first enslaved Africans in British North America in 1619. Richmond was home to the second-largest slave market in the nation, situated in the valley between St. John’s Church and Jefferson’s capitol. Richmond is also famous as the former capital of the Confederacy.
This dissonance speaks both to the American dream of “a more perfect union” and to the tragic reality that unity, even imperfect unity, has been arrested and truncated throughout our history. It would indeed be “good and pleasant” for all to dwell in this place in unity. Yet, entering the second decade of the twenty-first century, the “good oil” of human community remains elusive in Richmond, in Virginia, and indeed throughout the nation.
Home to the necropolis of the Confederacy, Richmond is haunted by the spirit of a mythic “Lost Cause.” This spirit strains our ability to be refreshed by the dew of life together. Instead, Richmond is, 65 years after Brown v. Board, more segregated than ever. The map of our life apart correlates perfectly with inequities in income, wealth, education, healthcare, environmental quality, and life expectancy. As a matter of fact, as of today, almost all of the Richmond city residents who have died from COVID-19 are black.
Yet, the testimony of the uprisings over the past weeks in Richmond and across the nation and world reveal an insatiable desire for the creation of a place that is “good and pleasant” for all brothers and sisters to dwell together. Indeed, if it is “good and pleasant” for brothers and sisters to dwell together, then it is bad and abhorrent when they do not. Here, the psalmist offers a keen insight: when brothers and sisters decide to create a “beloved community”—to borrow and underscore the capacious vision of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—the result is “life.” The abundance of life—like the oil that ran down Aaron’s “beard and on the collar of his robe”—attests to the beauty and bounty of brothers and sisters coming together through unity, through love, and through justice.
In Richmond, in Virginia, in the United States, and all across the world, we must learn that the path of life is in our living together. By dismantling systems designed to keep us apart and building up new ones in their place to foster beloved community, we understand anew the closing lines of the psalmist, “There the Infinite gives blessing, life that never ends.”