In my JustFaith sessions we recently read a statement from Good Friday 1963 where 8 white clergy urged the “Negroes” of the city to wait for the right season, obey the laws and wait for the courts to iron out racial problems. Demonstrations by Black residents had turned violent with the actions of police. These clergy urged moderation and negotiation before demonstrations in the Blacks’ pursuit of justice. I They labeled the action of demonstrations as “extreme”.
A few days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. responded with what has come to be known as, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” ii
Both of these documents are worth reading (I’ve put links to them in the endnotes). Dr. King patiently and logically addressed their concerns and outlined how he had systematically approached the issue of racial equality, and then had this to say about moderation:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, 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 White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; 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.
“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.” iii
Later he refers to being labeled an extremist and how he was at first, disappointed with that label. He says:
“… as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: iv “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” v
As Dr. King points out, our God is an extreme God. God goes to extreme lengths to show His love for us. Jesus went to extreme lengths to demonstrate what that looks like. If we aren’t willing to be extreme in our practice of Christian love and our support of racial equality, then we may as well walk out of our churches and parishes and start a country club where nothing is required from us that anyone would label extreme.
I often hear that “moderation in all things” is a virtue. If you are practicing a moderate Christianity, you are denying the radicalness of the Jesus message. You are lukewarm. Hear what the Spirit says to the Church in Laodicea in Revelation 3: 15-16: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.”
Perhaps, you like me, are not quite ready for “extreme” action yet. In order to get to that point, we must take the Lord seriously and allow the image of being spit out of God’s mouth in disgust to ignite a passion for justice within us. That is the challenge of following Jesus’ extreme love into the historic, systemic, persistent situation called racism. So, let me ask you…Do you want to be in a situation where God spits you out in disgust? Me either? So, let us become extreme?
I Frequently Requested Documents: Statement by Alabama Clergymen (stanford.edu)
ii Letter from a Birmingham Jail: https://tinyurl.com/y4vt36ql
iv John Bunyan was a preacher in the 17th century who was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel. He was given the opportunity to be released from imprisonment if he stopped preached, but he refused and was then jailed for 12 years. See John Bunyan – Wikipedia
v Letter from a Birmingham Jail: https://tinyurl.com/y4vt36ql