Confessions of a Recovering White Christian Moderate

Esther Bubley (1943)

Hello, my name is Matt, and I am a White Christian moderate.

(This is the part where you reply, “Hello, Matt.”)

In the tradition of the 12-step program (specifically, AA), one identifies one’s self simply as a common member of the group; a group whose commonality is the desire to recover. Thus, these groups become conducive to recovery insofar as each member meets the other free from equivocation or exception on a common ground. Whatever the addiction, the present-tense language of I am is preferred.

The I am language is itself sobering in that it marks recovery as a delicate progression, one which pride and pretense only compromise. As Paul wrote to the deluded church in Corinth, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor 10:12)

After the customary introduction, one commences to share one’s story. In the present case—my case—it is the story of being a White Christian moderate. More than that, it is about confronting the compulsions that animate this way of living (even in the -anon communities, it is understood that addiction itself is never the prime issue) and, to use the language of AA’s steps 4, 5 and 8, make “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” admit “the exact nature of our wrongs,” and reckon with their harmfulness on human lives.

In my experience, the way of the White Christian moderate is wrong and harmful, moreover, it is an addictive way of living—one from which we must recover. It could be argued that “Christian moderate” is also an oxymoron. That is at least with Martin Luther King Jr. thought.

Moderateness elicits little of the moral outrage associated with blatant racism or avowed White supremacy, in fact moderateness assumes a benign, amicable and unrushed disposition. For us moderates, cooler heads must always prevail and hastiness is to be avoided at all costs. We balk at any manifestation of disorder, lost tempers, or disturbance.

But we’re loath to inspect our moderateness too closely, because it exhibits signs of neurosis. As Carl Jung observed, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” M. Scott Peck agrees, describing life as a constant and painful progression of confronting and solving important problems, concluding, “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.” Seen this way, moderateness might be understood as a wasting and addictive opiate.

This is why Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from the solitary confinement of his “narrow jail cell” in Birmingham his own “honest confession” and “regrettable conclusion” regarding the White moderate, that they were the greatest stumbling block in path of Black strides for freedom, equality and justice; even more than the Klan or other White Supremacist groups!

…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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Later, after admitting his great disappointment with White religious leaders whom he had assumed would be the “strongest allies” of the Civil Rights movement, he lamented how “too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

It is this uniquely Christian anesthetizing security from which we moderates must gain our own liberation if we are to be right-minded and just agents in the world. Paradoxically, King would later articulate how this requires us to be “maladjusted” to much of what is deemed normal in our world.

I must honestly say there are some things in our nation and the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and wish all men of goodwill would be maladjusted until the good society is realized.

Martin Luther King Jr. (SMU, March 17, 1966)

But first a bit of context.

King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a reply to an open letter from eight moderate White southern clergy (seven Christian and one Jewish) titled “A Call for Unity” (published during King’s eight-days in solitary confinement) in which they deemed the Birmingham Campaign “unwise and untimely” and expressed dismay that these demonstrations had, in their words, “incited hatred and violence.”

As it so happens, Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2023 falls on the sixty-year anniversary of the first letter this concerned group of moderates published (“An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense”), which was directed to Alabama pro-segregationists, who were preparing to defy federal mandates to desegregate public schools and colleges. “Many sincere people oppose this change and are deeply troubled by it.” they wrote, conceding, “As southerners, we understand this.” Nevertheless, they urged local officials to abide by these federal rulings. They did not.

This was days after Alabama governor George Wallace gave his infamous “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” inaugural address (penned by a member of the KKK), and pledged to “toss the the gauntlet before the feet” of federal “tyranny.” This group of White moderates understood it as their “heavy responsibility” to express concern over such “inflammatory and rebellious statements” that might lead to “violence, discord, confusion, and disgrace for our beloved state.”

One might be tempted to applaud this group’s evenhandedness and irenic aims, yet, as I’m sure you anticipate, it might be best to hold our applause.

Remember, this was nearly a decade after Brown v. Board of Education (1953) essentially overturned the spurious “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in the case of school segregation. However, the 1955 Supreme Court enforcement decree (Brown II) left it to local schools and officials to comply with desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”

Nine years hence, “deliberate speed” had become “deliberate delay.”

In 1957, at King’s behest, President Eisenhower had authorized federal troops to ensure the entrance and safety of Black high school students at Little Rock Central. Here again federal authorities were faced with a decision whether to intervene in Alabama. Kennedy would eventually authorize the National Guard to enforce desegregation at the University of Alabama and, later, Tuskegee High School, but this didn’t take place until June and September 1963 respectively.

Meanwhile Jim Crow laws and segregationists practices had relegated Black people in Alabama to “second class citizens” and denied them equal access to almost everything, while Birmingham had come to be known as “Bombingham” due to the constant dynamite bombings of Black homes, businesses, churches (over 50 bombings in a 15-year period).

In 1963 King and Ralph Abernathy’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined with Fred Shuttlesworth’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to organize a multi-week series of peaceful demonstrations known as The Birmingham Campaign.

After a week of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts, Birmingham secured a state injunction against the protesters. King and his associates determined to continue their activities, and, on April 10, 1963, King was arrested and confined to a Birmingham jail cell. On that Friday—Good Friday—April 12, the concerned moderate clergy published “A Call for Unity” in the Birmingham News. After reading their open letter, King began scribbling a response in the margins.

It was this moderate appeal, one I’m sure its eight co-signers felt might accomplish some good by promoting a less fraught path to progress via less “extreme measures” and more “restraint,” that King found most demoralizing.

His letter became public in bits-and-pieces, until being published in its final form in late May. By then the restraint of Birmingham public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and his firefighters and police force—whom the moderate clergy had commended in their letter—had given way to brutality, as firehoses and batons and fists were used to disperse young protesters, and police drove demonstrators from the streets on horseback and aided by dogs during what was known as the “Children’s Crusade.”

The world was allowed to behold racial terror on their TV screens and in their local papers and to come to terms with the true, nefarious basis of the social order; something the moderates weren’t able or willing to acknowledge, let alone confront.

Which brings me back to my confession—a glimpse into my own moderate proclivities, and an admission of the nature of their wrongs.

To use an expression my therapist was fond of, we moderates “come by it honestly.” That is to say, being a moderate is what I knew, not some conscious ploy. Nevertheless, those who come by error honestly must honestly come out from error, lest our recalcitrance betray a deeper, darker deviance beneath what might have once appeared to be an honest mistake.

This is the first and foundational confession for us moderates: claims of innocence can only be pressed so far. That is to say, the chorus of “we didn’t know any better” loses credibility at each refrain. The look of shock eventually betrays itself as mere performance. We moderates are prone to “militant ignorance” or what Henry Giroux evocatively called “the violence of collective forgetting.

Confronted with systems of racial inequality or even egregious racism, we moderates take it upon ourselves to question, to verify, to soften and to propose a plurality of nicer explanations: “Are you sure that’s what happened?”; “I’m sure it felt that way to you.”; “You probably did something that elicited that reaction.”

I have come to hate this habit in others, yet must admit it is my reflex also.

John Perkins laments this trait in his book Let Justice Roll Down, insisting, “there are times when the biggest need is for information rather than exhortation.” We moderates want to offer a bevy of interpretations and exhortations, while remaining woefully, intransigently uninformed.

More than that, when faced with disruptive information and narratives (when experiencing “cognitive dissonance”), we search frantically to find data that will leave our current image of the world intact. Whole ecosystems have cropped up around the moderate’s need to remain untroubled in our simplistic, Pollyannaish outlook. Can this be anything but pathological?

Thus, we moderates function as societal gas-lighters. Regardless of how bad things are, how racist was an action, how harmed are our neighbors, we infer that it is all in their heads. Moderates do unto others the exact thing we would never want done unto us. Isn’t the true horror of any horror movie the horror of being disbelieved?

What is behind this? Dr. King addressed this directly. We moderates are more devoted to a self-preserving order than a just order and to a peace that is the absence of tension rather than the presence of justice. Our sense of order is, to use Augustine’s language, disordered.

We moderates are addicted to order and the fantasy of social tranquility, so much so that we refuse to examine whether these social configurations are just. King wrote, “The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

We moderates are peacekeepers at the expense of being peacemakers.

In Revelation chapter 21, we are given a glimpse of the New Jerusalem. It is a place there are no tears, no pain, no mourning, no death. Moreover, it is a city into which “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought.” (v. 26) The sublime conditions of this city are described in one pregnant phrase: “the old order of things has passed away.” (v. 4)

We White Christian moderates are made uncomfortable by the thought that the old order (the current order) might mean less tears, less pain, less sickness, less hunger, less imprisonment, less loss, less death for us than for our Black neighbors. Our aversion to this holy discomfort lures us into an unholy comfort. We become “arch supporters of the status quo,” repudiating our citizenship in the New Jerusalem every step of the way.

This eternal and eschatological vision affects little “on earth as in heaven” urgency upon our temporal realm. Though we read, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work,” (1 Jn 3:8) we are content to leave the devil’s work of racial injustice intact.

Thus, we moderates become expert can-kickers: deftly kicking the can of racial justice down the road until our days elapse. This is what King decried as “the myth of time,” and he clearly understood this myth to be a tactic—a diversion—and a grievous one at that.

Though we’re fond justifying our gradualism by citing King’s notion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” yet we neglect to remember that this is meant to be a call to action!

Let us stand up. Let us be a concerned generation. Let us remain awake through a great revolution. And we will speed up that great day when the American Dream will be a reality. We, in the final analysis, can gain consolation from the fact that at least we’ve made strides in our struggle for peace and in our struggle for justice. We still have a long, long way to go, but at least we’ve made a creative beginning.

Martin Luther King Jr. (Oberlin College Commencement, June 1965)

King had little regard for “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” understanding it to be a shorthand for “wait.”

“This ‘wait,'” King wrote from jail, “has almost always meant ‘never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration,” adding, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

King hit the nail on the head, observing, “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.'” The following paragraph of King’s letter should bring us to tears of sorrow and anger; should sting us with the dart of conviction toward action. (You can read the whole letter here.) Now you may read King’s words and think, Things are different now. Conditions have improved. Shouldn’t we celebrate our progress? but I would remind us of two things.

First, this progress took place despite the cravenness of White moderates, not because of them. Behind this moderate reaction is an appeal for credit. Sadly, in American racial history, moderateness has never been creditworthy.

Second, are we measuring progress against its nadir or zenith? Put differently, do we still read the words of Micah 6:8 as our mandate?

  And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

To walk humbly is to part ways with our demands for credit and to pave the way for acts of justice flowing from a love for mercy. How abhorrent that a moderate like myself “paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” This is not humility nor justice nor mercy.

A while back, during a discussion on Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise, I proposed that our group discuss the “more subtle” forms of racism like paternalism. One of my co-facilitators, a Black man, immediately replied, “Yeah, there’s nothing subtle about paternalism.”

I’ve come to see this paternalism in myself and other White moderates as the lingering assumption of racial superiority, which it absolutely is!

This paternalism centers and elevates the concerns of White society. It effectively relegates the concerns and conditions of racialized minorities to the periphery. We moderates harbor a hidden commitment to maintaining our place of privilege. (Wendell Berry calls this our “hidden wound.”) It is a spirit of White supremacy, and it reveals itself in its insistence on dictating all terms.

I’m saying it is uglier and more pervasive in my heart than I am readily willing to admit. In dealing with this facet of moderateness, King wrote, “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” It’s true.

I could say so much more, but I’ll add only one final thing. I know Martin Luther King Jr. would be grieved by the way modern White Christian moderates appropriate his inspiring phrases while excising his extremism.

King was assaulted and insulted, stoned and imprisoned, mocked and stalked, stabbed and bombed, and eventually shot and killed for his activities. The moderates of Alabama criticized the “extreme measures” in Birmingham. Initially, King took exception at being labeled an extremist, however, upon further thought he declared, “I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love?”

After listing a number of Christian extremists from history, King put the question to us moderates:

So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

This is the set of question we White Christian moderates must return to continually, lest we be lulled back into complacency and conformity the unjust “pattern of this world.”

As mentioned earlier, The Birmingham Campaign preceded federal actions of desegregating Alabama schools in June and September of 1963 (and set in motion what would eventually become The Civil Rights Act legislation of 1964). These protests were staged out of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in the heart of historic Birmingham.

On September 10, 1963, National Guard troops were deployed to Tuskegee High School near Montgomery to protect Black students. (All 275 White students eventually transferred, many to the newly-formed Christian school Macon Academy.) Five days later, on September 15, 1963 the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by the KKK, killing four young women and injuring many others. It was the extremism of hate on brutal display.

This event thrust one Birmingham White Christian moderate named Charles Morgan Jr. into his own recovery. The next day, Morgan delivered a speech to Birmingham’s all-white Young Men’s Business Club and addressed the question of responsibility for the bombing (the investigation had just gotten underway). He asserted the following: “Every one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We did it.” (This is recounted in Tisby’s The Color of Compromise.)

He continued: “It is all the Christians and all their ministers who spoke too late in anguished cries against violence.” Morgan mentioned the lack of solidarity, lack of support, and the refusal among White Christians to defy the systems of racial segregation. Unsurprisingly, Morgan and his family were eventually driven from Birmingham due to persistent, menacing threats.

There is an undeniable uptick in racial violence and a reinvigoration of overt White Supremacy in the U.S. in our day. As I write, we are not yet to the tragic anniversary of the Buffalo shooting (May 14, 2022) perpetrated by a White Supremacist who drove over 200 miles to the Black population center of Buffalo. Ten beautiful souls, elders, were lost.

This young man had expressed admiration online for another White Supremacist, who, in June of 2015, killed 9 church-goers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. This is not isolated and this is not in the past.

Moreover, a fierce cultural warfare of suspicion is currently being waged. Being labeled as ‘woke’ or any number of related epithets can trigger all manner of threats and discomforts for the White moderate of today. Believe me, I’ve suffered a number of painful losses to this blow-back. Believe me, I’ve found myself on more than a few occasions craving the tranquilizing effects of moderateness. I am a recovering White Christian moderate and always will be.

During a trip last summer to Niagara Falls with my son, we stopped by the Tops Grocery store in Buffalo where the May shooting had taken place. We saw the pictures of the victims, the makeshift memorials, the grief-stricken community. I’ll admit, I was afraid to go there. I didn’t know what I’d experience. I thought it might be easier to just take my son to Niagara Falls for our fun getaway together. It would have been. But I knew something sacred was drawing me.

Standing there with my son, feeling my eyes fill with tears, giving hugs to strangers, I’ll tell you we were standing on holy ground.

King famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I am slowly learning to accept this. As a recovering White Christian moderate, I’m coming to terms with how this “injustice anywhere” is often most pronounced in my own heart; the absence of justice in my own heart is a threat to justice everywhere.

As a White man, the tantalizing and anesthetizing escape of moderateness lies always available to me. As a Christian man, I know this is not the “narrow path” of fidelity to Jesus; the narrow path that leads to life, not only for me but for all.

My name is Matt and, as I said, I am a White Christian moderate. I understand this to be a life-long road to recovery, because it is a road of suffering and self-denial. Not only that, but it is a road of cosmic overhaul! When Dr. King was asked whether he would ever be satisfied, he said:

No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. . . .

King’s dream was eschatological in nature: not only realized when some things change, nor even when I myself change, but when absolutely everything changes. This is not a moderate dream, it is a Christian dream.

Let us be satisfied with nothing less.

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