“The first thing I feel disposed to share is what is apparent to us all, namely that if Jesus Christ had been a moderate he would never have been crucified.”
These words came famously from the inimitable Will D. Campbell when speaking to the inaugural meeting of the Whitsitt Society at the 1995 General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Ft. Worth, Texas. As the quote makes clear, Campbell was expressing his own, shall we say, “distaste,” for the category of “moderate.”
I was not there, but in some versions of the tale he reminded the crowd that the Lord says all those who are lukewarm will be spit out, before taking a swig of his podium water and spewing it on the hotel ballroom floor. (This episode did not make the final edited speech so you’ll have to ask eyewitnesses to attest).
I love to quote the “bootleg preacher,” along with many of my Baptist peers. In part, it’s my aspiration to approach any part of his enduring witness for justice, civil rights and the urgency of the message of Jesus.
But I admit, in part it’s an attempt to compensate or atone for how lukewarm I sometimes feel. There’s no getting around it: moderation involves compromise. Life in religious institutions — whether churches or denominations — involves compromise. It’s often heavy with process, lacking the agility and swiftness of an individual. There are many voices speaking, sometimes in an indiscernible hum, rather than the clarity and boldness of a single voice in the wilderness. If we have ever participated in an institution, we’ve probably sensed some of its limitations along with its possibilities.
But I wonder if we who love and care for institutions must always be lukewarm.
My hope these days is that participation in a “moderate” — or “cooperative” — body can be a functional position rather than a position of conscience or conviction. Over the years, some have taken “moderate” to mean “middle of the road.” It has sometimes meant that we’re silent and polite about things that can divide. It has meant we don’t stray too far from the middle — at least not in public. In his prophetic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King described the “white moderate” as one who is “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” That’s what “moderate” can mean.
But could it also mean a collection of people who believe passionately and feel empowered to speak boldly in their own individual voices? They don’t revoke their own positions in favor of some “middle of the road,” but plant their feet and as much as possible, as a friend once expressed, they “reach for those to the right and to the left to do a work of the gospel.”
This is the spirit I sense in CBF’s recent embrace of the ampersand as a symbol of cooperation. The symbol marked collars and lapels throughout the recent General Assembly in Greensboro, reminding of the cooperation and reach to which CBF aspires. The Friday evening worship service was a reminder of what this can mean, with stories from CBF field personnel. Kirk and Suzii shared about an 18-year New Testament translation project among the Bisu people in Thailand, who had a previously unwritten language. Tina Bailey shared a stirring story of her pastoral care and inspirational work with the “Bali 9,” before their execution in Indonesia in 2015. I listened and knew that’s also what “moderate” can mean — the level of cooperation and flexibility that enables such long-term work and witness in the world.
But along with the ampersand, the Assembly was also marked by another symbol, as rainbow ribbons accented the individual nametags of those of us within the life of CBF who believe in the inclusion and affirmation of LGBT persons. The Governing Board of CBF initiated a project called “Illumination,” acknowledging that an “and” movement needs to be able to talk clearly and openly across its differences. This is the ground on which we decide what moderate will mean here and now. Can a “big tent” — as our denomination and churches are sometimes called — include poles on the right and the left?
It’s an urgent question in our local congregations, too. One church member once said to me after a conversation about sexuality and our church, “I don’t know that you and I agree on this. But I need you in my life.” Maybe that’s also what “moderate” can mean. We don’t agree, but that doesn’t mean we’re silent, and that doesn’t mean we fail to talk about things that matter with so much at stake.
I hope that’s what it can mean. I know that there’s lukewarm water on the ballroom floor. But still I hope this category of “moderate” can be found to include people of conviction with visible witness and amplified voices, loving Christ’s Church but also following Jesus who was crucified. I hope I can be that kind of person and not what Brother Will feared “moderate” meant those years ago: “We joined the movement after the prophets were all safely dead.”