“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice;” – Martin Lither King Jr., A Letter from Birmingham Jail
I. Moving beyond moderation
In the deep and generative silence that comes when the door clanks shut on a jail cell, and the sound of the guards’ footsteps grow faint as they walk away, Martin Luther King Jr. penned the words quoted above. In that deep and generative solitude, King addressed a letter to eight, prominent, white clergy colleagues from Alabama who had written to encourage King to abandon his methods of direct action, and allow the civil rights movement to continue to run its course over time in the local and federal court systems.
Needless to say, King did not feel obliged to take these ministers’ warm-hearted advice. In the letter, King explained how it was imperative as an act of Christian discipleship that the non-violent movement towards African-American Civil Rights press on, and he offered a warm-hearted invitation to those white moderate ministers to join in the struggle of the long walk to freedom, that one day, towards the end of that long road, they might truly be able to greet one another as “Christian Brothers.”
There is a question that has been asking itself within me over the course of the last twelve months (and longer), to which King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail seems to be addressed. That question is this, “What is the place of the church within our present times?”
That question certainly lived within the hearts of people of faith during the 1960s. There was some variation of that question living in the minds of those eight, white, prominent clergymen who wrote the letter to which King responded from the Birmingham jail, and we see clearly how King wrestles with that question in his lived response to it.
This question lives within the hearts and minds of people of faith today as well. We are living at a crux of history where tensions have grown quite strong. The veil has been pulled back far enough for many of us to begin to see the shortcomings of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Thanks to Michelle Alexander, our eyes have been opened to “The New Jim Crow,” which is the prison industrial complex that disproportionately keeps African American men behind bars and maintains the segregation of our neighborhoods, work places, and our economy. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement that has swelled up in protest of the police brutality that has taken young, black lives, we have begun to see more clearly the ways in which black bodies are devalued. Thanks to the Obama Presidency, and Ta’Nehisi Coates’ analysis of the 2016 election, we have seen the power that white supremacy still maintains to assert its desires upon the American people.
We are living in a time when racial tensions are extremely high, and so are the tensions around immigration, religious freedom, the global economy, housing, gender equality, sexuality, climate change, international relations, the prospects of war, and more. All of this tension contributes to a cacophony of noise that makes it difficult for the church to discern the voice of God in these times. Perhaps we need the silence of a jail cell for clarity to emerge.
From a place where he heard from God as clearly as Moses on the mountain, John on the island of Patmos, and Francis at Alvernia, King wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
For King, those “moderates” that were more committed to standing in the middle than to standing on the side of justice were a greater inhibitor of liberation than were those who vehemently and outwardly sought to oppose the movement towards freedom. This acknowledgement is extremely important as we consider the question, “What is the place of the church within our present times?”
Throughout history, we have too often seen the church willing to stand in the middle or worse, to side with power, rather than to stand fully with the oppressed. In moderate Baptist life, this has especially been the case. We have sought to be a landing ground between fundamentalism and liberalism, but too often our commitment to moderation has meant a covert alliance with a system of oppression. I believe it’s time that the church give up on it’s desire to stand in the middle, and embrace the old adage attributed to Oscar Wilde, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Moderation may be virtuous at times, but there are moments when we must let it go in order to be who God is calling us to be in our times. I am convinced that in our present times, there is no place for the church besides the place of standing in solidarity with the oppressed. In our present moment, the place of the church is to join heart, mind, soul, and body in the liberation movements of our times. Now is the time that the church transcend the cacophony of noise that surrounds her to embrace her call to stand with the oppressed and work towards the justice, liberation, and healing of all people including her very own.
II. Not peace but division
This is a difficult truth for me to embrace, because it probably means the severing of some important, perhaps long-standing relationships. I am aware that there are people and communities of faith for whom the above claim, “that the place of the church is to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and join wholeheartedly in the liberation movements of our times,” makes no sense whatsoever. I am aware that there are people and communities of faith for whom the middle is a complicated and nuanced place to abandon.
Such awareness calls to mind a difficult teaching of Jesus, found in the gospel accounts of both Luke and Matthew. In Luke 12:51, Jesus is quoted saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” In Matthew 10:34, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.” The “not peace but division” theme is one of Jesus’ teachings that I have often preferred to look over. It is a teaching that is not well suited for my grounding theological belief that Trinitarian wholeness is the origin and end of the universe. This teaching does not seem to fit my sense that Jesus’ deep hope for the world is a compelling remembrance and return to the wholeness of life in the garden where humankind lived in deep and peaceful community with God, the land, and with others. “Not peace but division,” is truly one of the more difficult teachings of Jesus.
In the context of 2017 however, Jesus difficult teaching makes a bit more sense to me. In light of Charlottesville, Harvey, and Irma, and the xenophobic, homophobic, sexist rhetoric that spews from our halls of power, “Not peace but division,” is finally landing a bit.
Jesus is not calling for war here. He’s not calling the Zealot army to take up arms and overthrow the government. Neither is Jesus calling for the Roman government to take up its sword and bring order and control to the conquered people and land that they govern. No, this is not a call to arms for any people group.
Instead, Jesus’ teaching is a rhetorical challenge of allegiances, and a wise proclamation about the division that will result in a re-orientation of allegiances in the midst of the present world. Jesus challenges the allegiances of his followers here. Jesus asks his followers, “Where do you stand?” Do you stand with the imperial status quo? Do you stand with the system of exclusion? Or do you stand with the liberating movement of Love in our midst? Jesus speaks plainly, “If you choose to stand with Love, you will find yourself standing in opposition to Empire. If you choose to stand with Empire, you will find yourself standing against Love.”
Too often, friends, we choose moderation in opposition to standing on the side of Love. Too often we try so hard to stand in the middle, not even recognizing that in doing so we are necessarily choosing to stand with the oppressor and silence the voice of the oppressed. In times like these, it’s time that the church gives up her allegiance to anything but the liberating love of Jesus Christ. It’s time that the church stands in the place of Jesus, in wholehearted embrace and inclusion of the oppressed, and joins wholeheartedly in the work of the liberation movements of our times. Not just for the sake of the oppressed, but for the sake of her very own people caught up and held captive by their allegiance to a system of oppression.
III. The unity on the other side of division
For some, my reading of this text will seem too binary. Especially for people who have made a life and living of standing in the middle. It will seem too simplistic to say, “We either stand with the imperial status quo, or with the liberating movement of love in our midst.” For some, it will seem too black and white to say, “If you choose to stand with Love, you will find yourself standing in opposition to Empire. If you choose to stand with Empire, you will find yourself standing against Love.” Frankly, I would tend to agree with those assessments and warn that we are at least weary of binary, simplistic, black and white teachings.
Taken out of context, this teaching reads a bit too binary. But taken in the entire context of the life of Jesus, it becomes a life-giving breath of fresh air. Taken within the context of the second person of the Trinity who was with God in the beginning; the incarnate God, who put on flesh to call humankind and all of the created order towards its fullness and completion; the resurrected one who offers abundant life to all who would receive it, we understand that Jesus’ moment of binary speech comes within a deeply lived hope for the re-union of all of existence. Jesus acknowledges that within the present world, a reorientation of allegiances are necessary, and that will necessarily result in immediate division, but Jesus takes the long view here, and hopes for a world where we might all stand together in unity on the side of Love.
This hope of Jesus calls to mind that famous quote from former US Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” For Holmes, the sort of simplicity that is awarded by refusing to do the difficult and complicated work of getting to the bottom of reality is not worth “a fig,” but the simplicity that comes on the other side of that work is worth his very life.
The same is true for Jesus in terms of unity. Jesus’ entire life is about bringing peace and unity to the earth, but the unity that lies this side of division is not worth “a fig.” The unity that lies this side of doing the difficult work of standing against Empire and standing on the side of Love is not worth anything at all. But the unity that lies on the other side of division, the unity that lies on the side of Love was worth his very life.
It’s time that the church gives up her need to stand in the middle. It’s time that the church let go of her need to hold everything together. It’s time that the church let go of her alliances and allegiances to the powers and principalities that govern this world and take up her place with Jesus on the margins standing in solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, the outcast and the oppressed. It’s time that the church joins wholeheartedly in the liberation movements of our times. It’s time the church let go of some of the unity this side of division that we are so desperately trying to hold on to, and in faith seek the unity that stands on the side of Love.
In an age of so many competing allegiances, here is one allegiance we can let go of: the allegiance to moderation. Because in holding on to that allegiance, we necessarily find ourselves standing with Empire, standing with the oppressor, standing against the strides of freedom of people on the margins, and friends, that is not the place of the church in our times.
 By “place” I mean to ask, “What is the locale of the church? Where should the church locate herself? Where should the church stand?” Other important questions would include, “What is the church’s role?” or “What is the church’s purpose?” these questions should also be dealt with, and will solicit slightly different responses than the response I aim to provide here.