Confessions of a White Moderate
It’s an honor to be here today to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’m a firm believer that talk can be pretty cheap, but as a pastor, I also happen to believe that, in the beginning, God started talking, started telling the truth, and a whole universe exploded into existence. Trillions of galaxies and only God knows how many stars, flashed into existence because God started talking and telling the truth. So maybe God will use some of these words to create a world with a little more truth.
Like everyone here, I’ve always been immensely inspired by Dr. King. And like everyone here, I’ve always considered myself someone who supported him and his vision for racial equality, and not just racial equality, but racial brotherhood. Dr. King dreamed of a world where black and white people were not just equals, but also brothers and sisters. That was Dr. King’s vision, and it was a vision he got from Jesus, from the Apostle Paul.
And yet while I’ve always considered myself a supporter of King and his vision, I recently realized that I didn’t really know that much about King or his vision. You know how that goes—you know just enough about it all to feel good about yourself and assure yourself you’re not a racist, but you also make sure you don’t know enough to really have to do much of anything about it.
And this is a tendency that many of us have. We like to know just enough about King and racism to assure ourselves that we’re not racist, and then we like to know not enough to really, aggressively oppose racism in our community and world. We hate that racism happens; we’d rather it not happen; but we don’t lose too much sleep over it. And, obviously, that’s not something to be proud of, but it is something to confess, to tell the truth about, because when we tell the truth, miraculous things can happen.
Letter From Birmingham Jail
So a few months ago I decided to better acquaint myself with Dr. King’s work, and so the first place I turned was to his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And if you’re unfamiliar with the context of the letter, King is essentially responding to a group of pastors, a group of white pastors, who had criticized King and his methods. These white pastors agreed that racial injustice existed and was wrong, but they thought King should be more…patient. They thought he should let the courts sort it out. They thought his methods were too aggressive and public. They thought that since he wasn’t from Birmingham, he should mind his own business.
So I’m reading this letter, this letter written to pastors, like me, to white pastors, like me, and I came across a paragraph that stopped me dead in my tracks. King says:
I must make a confession to you, my Christian brothers. I must confess that over the past 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 his stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice… 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.
The White Moderate
You see, when we think of racism we think of the KKK, we think of the events at Charlottesville. I think of James Byrd, drug behind a truck, murdered in Jasper, TX, just a few miles from where I grew up. I was 13 at the time, and I remember being outraged.
But, according to King, when we think of racism, we shouldn’t just think of the extremists. No—we should also think of, what he calls, the white moderate. Now what’s a white moderate? Who’s a white moderate? Well…I am. I am opposed to racism, but I have the luxury of being patient about it all because it doesn’t really affect me that much. So I also have the luxury of telling others to be patient about it. I like King’s ideas; I just don’t risk much to make them a reality. And I’d be willing to bet that I’m not alone
Ideas and Realities
Because dealing with ideas can be so much easier than dealing with realities, so we really like ideas. Ideas are optimistic, clean, simple, perfect. But reality is cold, rigid, unbending, complicated. We all like the idea of a brotherhood, of a sisterhood in Christ that transcends race, that destroys all the broken systems and structures that hold the world in a crooked imbalance. We love ideas, but ideas, by themselves, can’t change a single thing. Christians should know this.
Because when God wanted to save the world, he didn’t give us ideas. He didn’t say, “Here are some neat ideas. Think about them and they’ll fix everything.” No, he took on flesh, was born in a stable, lived as a poor man among other poor men, was a victim of murderous injustice, and was nailed to a wooden stake. That’s what it takes to change reality—assertive, aggressive, suffering kindness and justice.
And so what I guess I’m offering is a word from a recovering white moderate, a call to all my fellow white moderates to understand that racial division and hatred is not something we can afford to be moderate about. In his letter to the church as Ephesus, the Apostle Paul says this in relation to Jesus’ resolve to bring together divided people: “For Jesus himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and shattered the barrier of the dividing wall.” Shattered the barrier of the dividing wall—does that sound very moderate to you? I don’t think so.
And so to our black brothers and sisters, we white moderates confess the sin of our moderation. We look to you for guidance on how to assertively and aggressively work towards the healing of the racial wounds that so deeply scar our country and community. And most of all, we pledge allegiance to the God who created us all, who loves us all, and even now, is gathering us all together into one big, bless, diverse family of God.