In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. criticized “white moderates,” identifying them as feeling empathy toward the civil rights movement, but not acting upon it. King’s “white moderate” compares to contemporary white Baptists who claim (or who embody) the title “moderate.” By putting the two in conversation, I argue that moderateness perpetuates a status quo that does not reflect the gospel. I believe the gospel is the “good news of Jesus Christ” for humanity, so that humanity, as the early church theologian Irenaeus said, can be fully alive.
One can apply King’s critiques of white moderates to moderate Baptist actions — or inactions — related to our current context. There are three aspects inherent in King’s critique: an avoidance of tension through silence, what King calls “negative peace”; a sympathetic view without a sustained change in social structure or policy, identified by King as “lukewarm acceptance”; and use of general statements to avoid speaking of “hot-topic” issues, which King phrases as “sanctimonious trivialities.”
I know the co-option of King and his message by white people is frequent and harmful. I realize I also am susceptible to this reality. But I believe King’s message can convict white Baptists like me, and that his critiques apply not only to white supremacy but other idolatrous paradigms that are contrary to the gospel.
King indicates he’s disappointed in the white moderate because they prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” The white moderate prefers a status quo that perpetuates oppression and inequalities rather than experiences tension and conflict. The problems behind the tension, King asserts, have always been simmering.
To bring this critique forward, when have white moderate Baptists “stood on the sidelines” when oppressed peoples struggle for freedom? In Baptist circles, the “negative peace” is practiced more in the silence than in our voices. This may come in the form of refusing to take a stance on laws that affect marginalized persons (either proposed or already in place). Baptist leadership in churches, denominations or schools may utilize the “big tent” mentality, with a focus on unity, to refuse to speak on concerns that would potentially anger or divide their constituents, donors and congregations.
For King, “Lukewarm acceptance” implies the white moderate is sympathetic to desegregation efforts, but does not understand the white supremacy that underlies it. When have moderate Baptist institutions been sympathetic about a cause, but not to the extent of changing its structures to accommodate it? This may be exemplified in Baptist institutions that are welcoming of LGBTQ persons into the worship space, but not affirming of their identity. For instance, some churches welcome LGBTQ folk into limited leadership roles, but not ordain them as a deacon or bless their unions.
Regarding the “sanctimonious trivialities,” the “brotherly love” and “unity” sermons white parishioners heard in King’s day have been replaced by words such as “inclusion,” “welcoming” and “diversity,” in some Baptist churches. However, a definition of these terms is abstract at best, and decontextualized from the Baptist institution itself. Institutions that advocate “inclusion” do not accommodate inclusion on a structural level, such as altering policies, engaging leadership and changing language. These “buzzwords,” while helpful in one sense, do not challenge Baptists to consider the question that the lawyer asks Jesus in Luke 10: “Who is my neighbor?”.
If moderateness is to be rejected, then combatting it includes both participating in and being transformed by what King calls “direct action.” King identifies direct action as intentionally disobeying unjust laws, and protesting (both physically and economically) institutions which perpetuate such laws. For King, an unjust law inhibits the flourishing of oppressed peoples. It is contrary to the definition of the gospel.
Instead, King reminds us of the “radicalness” of the gospel, and how our theological constructs harm or liberate. Our theologies are life giving or death dealing. We can work toward what King calls being “extremists for love” by identifying peace not as the absence of tension but by the presence of justice. We can refuse to engage in “lukewarm acceptance” and sputtering “sanctimonious trivialities” by stating our positions clearly and specifically, at the expense of great risk (of critique, of funding). This occurs through being converted by direct action and engaging in direct action itself. Only then, perhaps, can we follow in the footsteps of King and the saints he highlights in his letter, whom he describes as “extremists” for love and justice: John Bunyan, Martin Luther, Amos and Jesus.
This is an excerpt of a paper presented at the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion at Belmont University in May 2017. It may be read in its entirety here.