I wrote this for the National Association of Baptist Professors meeting in May at Belmont University in Nashville, TN (May 2017), and have since had a few people ask for it, so I decided to post it in a blog format. This is a modified version. I admit, it’s a bit scary, and I know this isn’t perfect, but I hope it sparks discussion.
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. criticizes the “white moderate,” 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. While moderates desire to hold a variety of perspectives within Baptist life, the way “moderate Baptist” is employed and practiced, perhaps not intentionally, limits the full flourishing of all persons. Utilizing King’s hermeneutics contained within the Letter from a Birmingham Jail provides Baptists a way forward that is faithful to the Gospel. My methodology is as follows: I apply his critiques of the white moderates to moderate Baptist actions—or inactions—related to our current context. I identify 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 using general statements to avoid speaking of “hot-topic” issues, which King phrases as “sanctimonious trivialities.”
For purposes of this paper, I identify the Gospel as the “good news of Jesus Christ” for humanity, so that humanity, as Irenaeus says, can be fully alive. This correlates with Miguel De La Torre’s Reading the Bible from the Margins which he identifies as the gospel as message of freedom found in the “life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Toward A Working Definition of “white moderate” and “moderate Baptist”
First, who are the white moderates whom King critiques? King’s critique of the “white moderate” responds to open letters penned by Birmingham clergymen in January and April of 1963. The January letter entitled “White Ministers’ Law and Order Statement” responds to the newly inaugurated governor of Alabama, George Wallace, who famously proclaimed “segregation now…segregation tomorrow…segregation forever” amidst the growing push for desegregation in Alabama. As leaders of their congregations, they advise those who want to resist desegregation to “pursue their convictions through the courts,” in the meantime complying with the new proposed laws. They also emphasized that every person was created “in the image of God” and should be treated as such. They claimed to seek God’s favor as “we make our appeal for law and order and common sense.” This letter expressed empathy with segregationists, as indicated by the phrase “as southerners, we understand” that segregationists are upset by proposed integration efforts. It urged peace and obedience to government laws, even if citizens personally felt upset. After the letter was published in Birmingham’s two newspapers, the writers experienced some pushback by segregationists. Also during this period (1963), pastors who preached on race faced criticism, and some were even forced out of their congregations. Most ministers chose to speak in generic terms rather than address race specifically. Historian S. Jonathan Bass details a white pastor claiming, “There are an awful lot of sermons these days about brotherly love, but darned few are specific about who the brothers are.” (sic)
In April 1963, King, along with Southern Christian Leadership Conference, arrive in Birmingham to assist in desegregation efforts. They utilized sit-ins at lunch counters, mass meetings, boycotts, and non-violent direct action to push integration. On April 12, Good Friday, King is arrested for violating a non-protest injunction. Also on April 12, the same white clergymen who penned the January letter now wrote a plea to the black protestors, claiming: “We …strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham…When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts … not in the streets. We appeal to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.” They criticized King indirectly, as an “outsider” who initiated and encouraged such protests.  This letter was published in the same two Birmingham newspapers on Holy Saturday—April 13, 1963.
King responds to this letter giving a critique of what he calls the “white moderate” clergymen. He composes portions of the letter while sitting in his jail cell. In his letter dated on April 16, 1963, he writes:
… I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom …the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice…who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; …. who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Here, King identifies the white moderate as one who is more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with justice for the oppressed. When the status quo needs to be altered, King implies that moderates believe it should be done gradually, with patience by the oppressed. The moderates, for King, are the ones who commend the oppressors—those using violent means to maintain “order” –rather than the oppressed—such as the woman who refused to ride the segregated bus at the expense of her weary feet, or the students who sat at the lunch counters knowing that in that act they would be tarnished with a criminal record.
Do the characteristics of Martin Luther King’s “the white moderate” hold true for moderate Baptists? And who are moderate Baptists, anyway? Admittedly, to identify who constitutes as “moderate Baptist” today is difficult. As I joke with friends, it seems like there are more kinds of Baptists than there are Baptist churches. With the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention in the latter part of the 20th century, the faction that opposed the movement identified themselves as moderates, or were identified as moderates by news sources. Barry Hankins described moderates prior to the conservative resurgence as “elites” but had dissenters from both the right and the left. It seems as if most definitions and understandings of “moderate have been contrasted to “conservative” or “fundamentalist.” Interestingly, by observation, most self-identified moderate Baptists are white. I hope that a fuller definition of what is “moderate” (and the problematics of moderateness) will be fleshed out in this paper.
Comparing white moderates and Moderate Baptists
In this section, I take King’s critique of white moderates and apply them to moderate Baptists. I know the cooption of King and his message by white people is frequent and harmful. I realize I am susceptible to this reality. I also believe King’s message particularly in this Birmingham letter can convict white Baptists like myself, and that his critiques apply not only to white supremacy but also sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, and other idolatrous paradigms that are contrary to the gospel. Oppression and sin are intersectional—King himself clarifies this, linking economic justice with racial justice in the letter.
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.” To clarify, the white moderate prefers a status quo that perpetuates oppression and inequalities rather than experiencing tension and conflict. King describes this as a false peace. The problems behind the tension, King asserts, have always been simmering. The civil rights protestors bring the injustice to the fore, and only then, can it be confronted and addressed. 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. In a Trump administration, this means refusing to speak in any capacity about the refugee ban, white supremacy, healthcare, income inequality, or LGBTQ rights, as these are considered “political” issues that could detract from the gospel message. King connects this silence to act or speak on injustice as sinful. He claims that we will “have to repent… or the appalling silence of the good people.” In their silence, King implies, these churches implicitly condone a status quo that continues to harm people. For moderate Baptists, silence functions the same way. Silence under the guise of holding multiple positions in tension for the sake of unity limits the prophetic ability of moderate Baptists to speak about injustice.
King also describes the white moderates as approaching integration and civil rights with “lukewarm acceptance.” This “lukewarm acceptance,” King states, is more confusing than “outright rejection.” The white moderate’s “shallow understanding” refuses to or is unable to see the depths of systemic injustice created by white supremacy. Moderates in King’s day can approach integration with “lukewarm acceptance” in part because they are not personally affected (or, because they enjoy privileges) by the Jim Crow laws of the South. For King, “Lukewarm acceptance” implies the white moderate is sympathetic to desegregation efforts, but do 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, churches welcome LGBTQ folk into limited leadership roles, but not ordain them as a deacon or bless their unions. Another example of “lukewarm acceptance” and “shallow understanding” comes when moderate Baptist institutions turn their attention toward race. Churches may perceive racism as something that continues to exist, but will not speak specifically about white privilege or white supremacy. What is shallow about this understanding (to use King’s words) is that it perceives racism as a problem that exists “out there”, but not as something encoded in modern society and in our own lives. One need only to look at housing laws and bussing acts in the St. Louis area, where I live, to realize that white supremacy is part of the city (and the suburb’s) DNA and essentially has led to a resegregation of schools and communities in St. Louis metro area. From personal experience with moderate Baptist “lukewarm acceptance,” I have perceived churches who may be empathetic about women’s ordination, but church structures and leadership privilege male voices and identity. When women do preach, it may be once or twice a year, and this is celebrated as a sign of welcoming. Unfortunately, these twice a year preaching commitments are tokenistic at best. This is demonstrated in the reality that less than 10% of women serve as senior or co-pastors in CBF and General Baptist Convention denominations, although 44% of partner schools are female.
Instead of addressing white supremacy, King suggests the white moderate make general appeals abstracted from what Paul Tillich calls “the situation.” King claims
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’”
Continuing, King addresses preaching on “otherworldly concerns” “makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” His comments reflect two understandings. First, salvation, for King, is wholistic—the body and soul are wholly united. Biblical witness affirms this. Second, he calls out “white churchmen” preaching on generalities is just as harmful. This goes back to the white pastor that Jonathan Bass cites—people may preach on brotherly love, but don’t identify their brothers. These “sanctimonious trivialities” and body/soul distinction detach the gospel from the current events of 1963 United States.
How do 21st century moderate Baptists fall into the same trap? Moderate Baptists have made strides toward an understanding of salvation as applying to the whole person. Partnerships such as Together for Hope, CBF’s rural poverty initiative, evidence of such an approach. Yet, at times, moderate Baptists emphasize spiritual health (of ourselves, of others) to the neglect of other “healths” that comprise our personhood. For instance, I have noticed in moderate Baptist life discussions on spiritual formation are absent of concerns of social justice or concrete action, and vice versa. If sin and oppression are intersectional, therefore the good news of the gospel should be as well.
Regarding preaching generalities, 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. Some moderate Baptist leaders feel empathetic to the refugee crisis, but do not want to alienate congregation members who support refugee bans, so they preach on “inclusion” and “welcome” instead. This preaching, while helpful in one sense, does not challenge Baptists to consider the question that the lawyer asked Jesus in Luke 10: “who is my neighbor”?
Taking a hint from Martin Luther King: What is “Direct Action” Today?
If moderateness, for King and for white Baptists today, correlates with maintaining a false absence of tension (a “false” peace); who “lukewarmingly” accept certain realties rather than advocating for them; and sputtering “sanctimonious trivialities” abstracted from concerns of real people, then combatting “moderateness” includes both participating in and being transformed by what King calls “direct action.” Direct action, for King, was the last step in a series of maneuvers to desegregate Birmingham. It intended to create a tension so thick that it had to be addressed and encountered publicly. King claims critics always say direct action is ill-timed, labeling it “extreme” and perceiving the protest movement as enacted by “outside agitators.” Direct action may be perceived similarly today.
King identifies direct action as intentionally disobeying unjust laws, and protesting (both physically and economically) institutions who perpetuate such laws. For King, an unjust law inhibits the flourishing of oppressed peoples. It is contrary to the definition of the gospel I mentioned at the beginning. In the letter, King explains how African Americans participating in direct action experienced conflict and harm, as police responded violently to their protests and ignore the bombing of their communities. He also highlights white persons specifically who participate in direct action through their writing and their protests, contrasting them with moderates who stay on the sidelines. One of them, Sarah Patton Boyle, was both transformed by direct action and participated in direct action. In the early to mid-1950s, she initially supported gradualism for desegregation in a published newspaper article. After she received backlash from both black and white audiences, she realized that immediate integration was the only just way forward. She likens this to a conversion experience, chronicling it in a spiritual memoir The Desegregated Heart: A Virginian’s Stand in Time of Transition. At length, she confesses her sins and failures when addressing racism, and how she learned from her errors. It was only after public confession and repentance could she engage in the direct-action King mentions through her work as a writer and an activist.
Learning from King and Boyle, the road to white Baptists becoming transformed (converted?) by “direct action” includes taking stock of our prejudices, paternalism, white privilege—our blind spots–and actively repenting of them. For instance, moderate Baptists who broke away from the Southern Baptist Convention wrestle with a history that includes slavery (which the SBC in 1995 finally apologized for). But what of the historical memory may be embedded into our institutions? Interrogating how power has been constructed historically, and functions today, is one way moderate Baptists can be transformed by direction action.
Not only can moderate Baptists be transformed in their encounter with direct action, but they can also participate in direct action, both in small and large acts of defiance against today’s unjust laws. This requires risk, and a kenosis of privilege. Participating in direct action toward current events can come in different ways. Contemporary examples of direct action may come in the form of Black Lives Matter, the women’s march, and more recently Baylor students’ protests to the administration over a racist fraternity party. Baptists have also participated in direct action. Some Baptist leaders participate in the Moral Mondays protests. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist Center for Ethics both released statements standing in solidarity with refugees after the executive order signaled a moratorium on refugees from certain countries entering the United States. Last year at the Cooperative Baptist General Assembly (2016), several participants wore rainbow ribbons with their nametags to affirm LGBTQ inclusion. Participating in direct action like King and Boyle helps us live the gospel fully.
Reading and learning from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail helps Baptists like me become more faithful to the Gospel. If the Gospel is the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection so that humanity can be fully alive, then understanding how moderateness diminishes such flourishing is vital to living a gospel life. To be moderate is to be contrary to the witness and message of Jesus. Instead of “moderate”, King reminds us of the “radicalness” of the gospel, and how our theological constructs harm or liberate. To quote more than one theology professor, 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. This occurs through becoming transformed by direct action and engaging in direct action itself. Only then, perhaps we can follow in the footsteps of King and the saints he lifts up in his letter, whom he describes as “extremists” for love and justice: John Bunyan, Martin Luther, Amos, and Jesus.