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.

The Cost of Loving Enemies

Martin Luther King Jr. – Marquette Park, Chicago: August 1966

In January 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. and his family moved to Chicago.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had both been passed after effective direct nonviolent campaigns in Selma and Birmingham. Dr. King’s April 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail and August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech had vaulted him to soaring heights in American society, with a moral vision that had been clarion and captivating.

But he knew his work was far from done.

King had turned his attention to the hidden systems of segregation and inequality in the nation, moving the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) into a new phase, “one that addressed entrenched racial discrimination in urban cities which kept blacks locked in ghettos, overcrowded schools, and low-paying jobs.” 1

By 1966 he was exhausted, depressed, and increasingly unpopular. It was during this time, at the invitation of the Chicago Freedom Movement, that King moved his wife and young family into a “slum-dwelling” in the west side Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale, with a broken front door, dirt floors, and the “overpowering” stench of urine. They were bringing their movement to “the heart of the ghetto” in one of America’s most segregated cities.

By most accounts, the Chicago Freedom Movement was a failure.

In June of 1966, King spoke to a crowd of 40,000 in Soldier Field and famously decried, “We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the north.” He then led a march to city hall, where a list of demands was attached to the door. The powerful Richard J. Daley was mayor at the time.

Several weeks later, King led a march through the Marquette Park neighborhood, where discriminatory real estate practices were known to exclude Black buyers. While on the march, King and his companions were swarmed by a mob of 700 white Chicagoans, who hurled bricks, stones and bottles at them. King was struck in the head by a rock and fell to one knee before rising to continue the march.

King told reporters, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.” When confronted, the more hidden dynamics of northern racism and segregation turned out to be animated by an evil and racist animosity exceeding the more overt racism in the South.

By the end of August, Daley was eager to be rid of his city’s new resident. He signed a “Summit Agreement” on the condition that King move out of Chicago – which King did. This agreement initially seemed promising, but in March of 1967 King pronounced it to be “a sham and a batch of false promises.”

Less than one month later, King would be assassinated.

King had spent his adult life loving his enemies – “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” – and it cost him everything.

Turning back the clock one decade, we find find the nucleus of this life in the teachings of Jesus.

It was November 1957, and King was on a speaking tour. He had risen to prominence through his role in the successful 1956-57 Montgomery Bus Boycotts. His home had recently been bombed by white supremacists. In the coming months, he would be stabbed in Harlem. But he was pursuing the theme of Love for Enemies during this speaking tour. Feeling under the weather, and against his doctors counsel, we find King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery taking up the text of Matthew 5:43-45 (KJV):

Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.

King told his audience at the onset, “I try to make it something of a custom or tradition to preach from this passage of Scripture at least once a year, adding new insights that I develop along the way, out of new experiences as I give these messages.” Here we can observe the way King tumbled this truth over and over again in his hermeneutical drum: Scripture to experience, experience to Scripture, year after year.

Love for enemies is such an “extremely difficult command,” observed King,

Many would go so far as to say that it just isn’t possible to move out into the actual practice of this glorious command. They would go on to say that this is just additional proof that Jesus was an impractical idealist who never quite came down to earth.

Though at the end of Matthew, Jesus made it clear that his disciples were to learn to obey everything He commanded, King knew the Christian proclivity to circumnavigate those commands we find impractical or distasteful.

King exhorted them,

Now let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command; he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies… He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing. And we cannot dismiss this passage as just another example of Oriental hyperbole, just a sort of exaggeration to get over the point.

Love for enemies is hard – painfully hard; pressingly hard – but will we learn to obey it or go looking for loopholes. The former is quite costly. The latter, less so. But King understood this was subject to no exceptions.

So let us listen to the insights King, here only in his late 20s, gained from the painful, pressing beginnings of what would become a singular life lived into Jesus’ enemy love paradox.

Firstly, King asserts, “In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.” Is this not the first and hardest step? To have an enemy is to be threatened, and all manner of self-protective measure activates – often involuntarily – under these conditions. To have an enemy is to have someone bent on your defeat and the defeat of what is right and just.

The last thing we want to do is scrutinize ourselves.

I want to pause briefly here to note that in instances of abuse or other forms of personal and corporate violation, this step of self-analysis – especially regarding guilt or blame – should be unequivocal. Abuse and acts of violation are always wrong. We should never ask, “Did I deserve that?” or “Did I have that coming?” King’s focus is within the ambiguities of animosity between persons and groups.

To love one’s enemy, we must defy that most ancient and self-protective reflex of blame, which means we must make ourselves vulnerable before threat.

King’s second admonition is equally difficult: “A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy.” We must learn to see God’s image in our enemy and honor it. He goes on,

We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. 

To love an enemy – individuals or groups – is to understand the great clash of darkness and light raging with them and, at every turn, support the light.

Finally, King advises, “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it.” Though we may have chance to hasten the demise of our enemies, this is not the way of love.

Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Drawing upon the three Greek words for love, King asserts that enemy love should be understood as agape love,

It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them.

I will admit that as I wrote these three pieces of advice down – reflecting as I went – my soul writhed and argued and balked. But isn’t that the point? King would have us understand these convulsions as the throes of seeing the demon of hatred cast out. “The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil,” King contended. Echoing John’s words that “perfect love drives out fear,” he said people must “inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”

This is nothing short of a miracle!

King offered a few remarks as to why one would set out to love one’s enemies – reasons originating from “the center of Jesus’ thinking” – and they include the following:

The principle that “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.” Additionally, although we tend to see hate as representing a risk to the one hated, King reminds us, “hate distorts the personality of the hater.”

[Hatred] is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate.

For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. 

Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.

So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.

This is not hard to see in the broader world and, if we’re paying honest attention, it is impossible to deny in ourselves. Hate deforms us.

The final reason King offers for enemy love is that love is the truest way to overcome them: “Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”

Love is inherently creative, while hate is inherently destructive. “There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. ‘Love your enemies.'”

The love of one’s enemies is ultimately a matter of how we will use what power we have: for good or violence. Thus enemy love is the beating heart of nonviolence. “Violence,” King assured, “isn’t the way.”

Of course King knew where to direct our attention for such a costly and otherworldly love,

There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way… that love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.

Though King would admit toward the end of his life that some of his “old optimism” had been “a little superficial,” saying it must be tempered with “a solid realism” that “we still have a long, long ways to go.” Nevertheless, this was no departure from enemy love whatsoever, only the insights of one who had tumbled this difficult truth for over a decade of costly work.

King was far from perfect and certainly not universally appreciated in his time. The MLK who emerges each MLK Day is often air-brushed; not the complicated, controversial, fiery, and flawed individual so instrumental in the Civil Rights movement and the broader cause of racial equality in our nation. He has been recast in far less threatening forms since his assassination, such that it is hard for us to imagine King as a figure who would have his home firebombed, receive beatings in police custody, be stabbed, or have rocks and bricks heaved at his head by mobs of northern whites. It is hard for us to imagine this man being viewed unfavorably by nearly two-thirds of Americans by the end of his life.

But, as with Jesus, this is the paradox of enemy love: not only that it destroys the enemy category but that it is more likely to get you killed than loved in return. Of all forms of light, enemy love may be the one that poses the greatest threat to the darkness.

Yet King was so gripped by the mutuality of it all, “that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”2 Therefore, love for enemy is inseparable from love for all: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It could absolutely be argued that King’s vision for enemy love, rooted in the Gospel and his unshakable concept of human mutuality, is the incandescence we still find so riveting. This may be the trait of King’s legacy most wanting retrieval in our day. Not a sentimental, superficial love, but a creative and costly love that fights even for the souls of those who would curse, hate, or use us.

It might do us good to adopt King’s custom of tumbling Jesus’ words in our minds and lives, that we would shape and be shaped through their painful press. Certainly, we should part ways with our hermeneutical loopholes and technicalities.

There is, after all, a great battle between light and dark, love and hate, good and violence raging not only out in the world but within us as well. Would we drive fear and hate from our our 0wn souls through these redoubled movements; self-examination, battling for love, honoring the image of God, looking with King to the One on that little tree on that little hill changing everything by the power of love for his enemies?

Then, with King, we might also “move out into the actual practice of this glorious command.”

The Maladjustment of MLK

During a 1967 NBC interview hosted at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. confessed, “That dream I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.”

It was a mere 11 months before his assassination in Memphis.

King was alluding, of course, to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the National Mall in August of 1963. This is the King of our memory: hope-filled, electric, inspirational, proclaiming,

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

By 1966, King’s popularity had plummeted to a point where 2/3 of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him. As he sought to address the roots of American racism and to redress the more concealed causes and effects of Black inequality in the North, he found himself battling elusive forces and less obvious villains.

King also found himself battling his own internal demons of anger and depression. His friends and aides urged him, unsuccessfully, to enter therapy.

In the NBC interview, King explained the persistence of Black inequality by way of the ‘thing-ification’ of the Negro.

You can’t ‘thing-ify’ something without de-personalizing that something. If you use something as a means to an end, at that moment you make it a thing and you de-personalize it…

In fact, King and his allies were battling for the restoration of humanity to Black people in America; something existential and beyond the mere enactment of laws and policies.

Asked whether Black men and women in America were ready to embrace full humanity and equal participation in American society (“Does the Negro in America know what he wants to be?”), King began to respond in the affirmative before lingering within the pathologies associated with the Black condition in America,

I’m convinced that almost every negro in this country, other than those who have been so scarred by the system and have become pathological in the process—and we all have to battle with pathology, and nobody knows what it means to be a negro unless one can really experience it.

And I know we all have to battle with this constant drain—a feeling of ‘nobody-ness.’

Here we catch a glimpse of King’s own inner conflict, “this constant drain—a feeling of ‘nobody-nes.'” It was the pathology with which he waged constant battle.

We recall King’s words from the previous year to a group of students at Southern Methodist University in which he reflected upon the psychological idea of being “well-adjusted.”

Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is the word maladjusted. It is the ring and cry of modern child psychology and certainly we all want to avoid the maladjusted life.

We all want to live a well-adjusted life… But 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.

King inherently understood that to live and labor in a world of sickness often meant to be psychologically maladjusted.

He continued,

And so we need maladjusted men and women where these problems are concerned. It may well be that our whole world is need of the formation of a new organization, the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.

King cited the maladjustment of the prophet Amos, of Abraham Lincoln, and of Jesus Christ. And we remember the words of the prophet Isaiah describing Jesus, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (53:3)

These have been incredibly hard days. Many of us who care about justice, equality, and human dignity in our culture have found ourselves quite disheartened.

In days like these, we also find ourselves battling pathologies, finding ourselves maladjusted, and acquainted with grief. We must interpret these things rightly. They are unpleasant emotions—oftentimes crippling—yet they are part and parcel of living in the legacy of those who love the things of God. They are the “inward groanings” of God’s people (Rom 8:22-23) who, because of their heavenly citizenship, remain maladjusted to this world.

Unpleasant though these inner battles be, they signal an eternal inheritance. This comes with the territory of being children of God: “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:16, 17)

During the NBC interview, King was wistful. “I must confess that that period was a great period of hope for me,” King said, reflecting on the 1963 March on Washington. “That dream I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.”

King continued,

Now I’m not one to lose hope. I keep on hoping. I still have faith in the future. But I’ve had to analyze many things over the past few years and, I would say, over the past few months. I’ve gone through a lot of soul searching and agonizing moments and I’ve come to see that we have many more difficult days ahead. And some of the old optimism was a little superficial. Now it must be tempered with a solid realism. And I think the realistic fact is we still have a long, long ways to go.

Fifty years later, we see the truth of King’s words. Through our own soul searchings and moments of agony, we are reluctantly embracing our own solid realism. When paired with a love for the things of God, this solid realism makes us, more or less, permanently maladjusted people. Depression, anxiety, anger and all manner of other unpleasant emotions become for us symptoms not only of our own mental distress but also of the distress of our world; not exactly things to be fought but rather kindly attended to.

King would tell his student audience at SMU,

And through such maladjustment, we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

That was in March of 1966. One can sense much of King’s irrepressible hopefulness, maybe even optimism. He was calling another generation into the fight. Those students are now in their 70s and 80s. They did not see this daybreak realized.

And we won’t either. Not entirely. But it is ours to be creatively maladjusted to our world: to be part of that invisible international society for the advancement of maladjustment, even as we welcome the “bright and glittering daybreak” from afar.

Thus, on April 3 of 1968, one day before his death, King would tell an auditorium of people in Memphis,

Well I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything! I’m not not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord!

Godly Sorrow Over Racism | “Two Sorrows”

In his second letter to the dysfunctional church in Corinth, Paul makes mention of their commendable response to a previous letter. He describes the letter as being “severe” and “painful”—the cause of “hurt.” (7:8-9) Paul admits that he second guessed himself in sending it, saying, “I was sorry at first, for I know it was painful to you.”

Scholars suspect that there is actually a missing Corinthian letter—maybe the most severe one. But we know something of the dysfunction and shame of this church from Paul’s first letter. Of course, Paul famously critiques their petty infighting and posturing over giftedness and devoutness, pronouncing that, devoid of love, these seemingly spiritual acts are empty and hollow. (1 Cor. 13:13) He calls them to a solidarity which resembles that of a body, in which every part has indispensable value, concluding his analogy, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.” (12:26).

Amidst the salacious, factious, and pretentious smorgasbord of sin afflicting this ailing church, Paul approaches a serious specific issue asking, “Do you want to disgrace God’s church and shame the poor?” (11:22) He is speaking to the way this church handled its Communion gatherings; the sacramental breaking of bread and drinking of wine ordained by Jesus to denote the common union of his earthly people. But they had segregated it by class; stolen this meal away into their own homes; made of it a social club. “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.” (11:20) Think about that. This was not a faulty way of doing Communion, it was not Communion at all. Why? They had excluded the marginalized; “some go hungry while others get drunk.”

Paul puts this matter of inequality and exclusion around the Lord’s table quite severely,

“Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A person ought to practice self-examination before eating of the bread and drinking of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on themselves.” (11:27-29)

When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we declare that the body is one; it is an expression of solidarity and unity that is meant to reflect something actual. As David Swanson writes,

“None of this is theoretical. Our decision to reject defective discipleship that fosters segregation for reimagined practices that lead us toward solidarity with the body of Christ has real-world impact on countless fellow members of the body.”

The Corinthian church had actually rejected their radical commitment to body solidarity! How do we know this? When one part suffered, other parts felt nothing—they were numb to it. In actuality, it was worse. They were not oblivious to or obscured from the suffering part; they were effectual agents—beneficiaries. This is what Paul was denouncing. And insofar as this segregating, depriving principle was in place, their gathered worship had nothing to do with true Communion in Christ. They were not only denying to suffering of the body, they were causing and exacerbating it. They were making God’s church a disgrace.

Imagine, then, if the Corinthian church had filed away Paul’s letter, dismantled its force through fancy systematic theology, or overlaid a free market economic ideology on top of it? What if they had sent Paul a return letter saying, “Paul, these people are only suffering because of their own lack of personal responsibility.” Imagine a church in which Paul’s severe letter was thus blunted; its pain and sorrow rejected; the harms and blasphemies it denounced left in place. If you are an American Christian, you needn’t use your imagination—this is our story.

I cannot here outline the enormity of insidious and cruel ways the White church has participated in racism and White supremacy to disgraceful, blasphemous ends. There are resources such as Jemar Tisby’s recent book The Color of Compromise (also a Prime Video lesson series), Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah’s Unsettling Truths, and many, many others—written by Christian and non-Christian scholars alike.

But, as Tisby sets forth his study, he weightily observes,

“Historically speaking, when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”

Tisby quotes historian Caroyln DuPont, “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality, they often labored mightily against it.” Tisby also make clear that the White American Church’s egregious historical compromise toward and tolerance of White supremacy and racism has had pivotal periods of contingency, during which it might have acted in obedience to Jesus but failed to do so: “white supremacy in the nation and church was not inevitable. Things could have been different.”

For this reason he writes in a holy hope to elicit what Paul called “godly sorrow” or “godly grief”—to prompt the American church to seize upon her diminishing moments with greater urgency and righteousness than ever before. “This kind of grief is a natural response to the suffering of others. It indicates empathy with the pain that racism has caused black people. The ability to weep with those who weep is necessary for true healing.” The sorrow to which Tisby is referring is the sorrow Paul rejoiced to see in the response of the Corinthian church to his severe and hurtful letter.

Ever since I began seeing the streets flood with people after the death of George Floyd, I have had an unshakable and, I believe, divine burden that this is one such contingent moment for America and for the American church—a moment when godly sorrow must be awakened through severity and pain. The church’s tolerance of and complicity with racism and White supremacy are, to quote Martin Luther King, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up.”

And so we return to Paul’s subsequent letter to the Corinthians; the one that followed the painful one he was nearly unwilling to send. “I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am glad, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you were sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way.” (2 Cor. 7:8-9)

Here we must start where Paul starts, with an evaluation of sorrows. Whenever a harmed party learns that the perpetrator of their harm is sorry, it becomes a fragile juncture indeed. Paul makes it clear that there are two types of sorrow: one exceedingly good and productive, the other deceptive and lethal. They can be known by their fruits.

So if you care passionately about how the church will respond to its historical and present companionship with White supremacy and racism, then you might actually be averse to the notion that this moment merely calls for “sorrow.” But let me briefly note the quality of the “godly sorrow” which Paul here celebrates, “See what this godly sorrow produced,” Paul declares: earnestness, concern, indignation, alarm, longing, zeal, and a “readiness to see justice done.” (7:11) I would like to spend another piece reflecting on the nature of this sorrow but I will simply note that it is both potent and prolific. It is from God and it indefatigably pursues those things that please him because it has adequately grieved over those things that do not—from a place painfully vivid understanding.

If you are more skeptical of my thrust here—maybe even resentful—let me note, after a subsequent section focused on generosity, Paul writes, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.” (8:13) In this statement Paul anticipates the contemporary sentiment, “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” So let us set aside the our mere distaste for discomfort and threats to our accustomed way of life. Paul’s own letter evinced the hard truth that the Gospel would, more often than not, overhaul earthly lifestyles.

May we keep in mind, as I wrote earlier, that history bends toward an eternity of total ethnic inclusion and honor; a life without sorrow that can only come about when “the old order has passed away.” Part of the blindness of the White American church is an aversion to discomfort and mortification along with an intractable delusion regarding our own claims to innocence. Godly sorrow cannot penetrate nor take root in this hard-baked soil, and our Enemy will gladly swoop in and carry away these painful truths as a bird.

There is much reason for much sorrow, and if this moment calls for for godly sorrow, then we must be very clear about our sorrows. There are, after all, many expressions of sorrow and contrition being voiced at present: from pulpits and podiums, blogs and vlogs, and within the sprawling social media landscape. Many “I’m sorry”s, many laments, much posting, much soul searching, and endless vows to listen, learn and do better. There have been many, many tears, which, in White Evangelicalism, is the gold standard of sincerity. And there has been much rightful skepticism toward all this—call it the “when Black people are in pain, White people join book clubs” phenomenon. Which is to say, none of this outright exhibit the hallmarks of godly sorrow.

But does it exhibit the hallmarks of worldly sorrow? Paul isn’t precisely clear about what worldly sorrow is, yet he contrasts it starkly with the godly type saying, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” By way of deduction, we can know it is patently not of the same nature as the godly type. Explicitly, we know worldly sorrow produces death.

This must mean it is ephemeral and, to take Paul’s cues, not entirely sincere. It may be the sorrow of being caught in acts or, otherwise, in the unfashionable state of being socially out of step. Any sorrow over the complicity of racism and White supremacy that is predicated on fashion or the superficialities of wanting to be seen a certain way can only be worldly and transient—it may have the materials of penance but not repentance. It can be preempted by boredom or a short attention span. Such sorrow leads to death.

So too the sorrow of mere sentimentality must not escape our scrutiny. While sorrow is evinced by sentiment, not all sentiment is substantive. It may be that you just don’t like when people are angry at each other, don’t like feeling embarrassed by your ignorance, don’t like seeing ugliness exposed. You may even be genuinely sad over the horrible images of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s killings (as is fitting), yet without a sense that you yourself have been accomplice to this very Black-life-devaluing enterprise! The tears of this sorrow are the tears of crocodiles, who seem to weep while devouring their prey. Such sorrow leads to death.

Without doubt, there is a performative sorrow as well. It resembles the disingenuous and functionally atheistic “acts of righteousness” Jesus bid us beware of in the Sermon on the Mount—“righteous deeds done publicly in order to be admired by others.” (Mat. 6:1) These have no value before God whatsoever, for they have nothing to do with God. They are entirely horizontal. Any likes, retweets, shares, or follows that come of this sorrow hold its only value. Such sorrow leads to death.

Jesus made mention of pretentious giving, praying, and fasting—all manner of “seeking God”—and emphasized the non-hypocritical feature of true “acts of righteousness.”

Still let us recall the word from Isaiah 58 about fasting:

 Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?”

Friends, this must go even beyond personal piety to social concern, solidarity, and a “readiness to see justice done,” or even our seemingly intimate times with God prove themselves largely farcical. How one emerges from times of fasting, prayer, and, yes, even lament is the measure of sincerity—and of the value God places in them. Apart from living justly, such sorrow leads to death.

Because I have spent so much time in Reformed circles, I know the rejoinder to this by heart. “Oh, but I am totally depraved!” we groan. “My ‘righteous deeds’ are only as filthy rags apart from the blood of Jesus!” Stop that! You know you are missing the point—more like evading the point. This Puritanical chicanery has never been consistent with a Gospel morality nor even a cohesive theology. True though the salvific proposition may be, it was never, ever meant to undermine the Gospel project of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Tit. 2:13-14) Such sorrow leads to death.

Look back over the history, and one of the most alarming, grievous features of the White American church is the inexhaustible ingenuity toward such ploys; a playbook of evasive maneuvers toward confronting these the twin travesties of Black and Indigenous dehumanization. These ploys themselves deserve unfathomable grief.

Friends, as I write these words my own heart has been under bombardment; for I have cried many tears, made many posts, felt many sentiments, shared many resources, marched many marches, joined many webinars, read many books and articles, watched many documentaries, attended many prayer meetings, made many friendships, even moved my family to the south side of Chicago. None of this amounts to the proof of godly sorrow. As a middle class White man, I can only say that godly sorrow over White supremacy and racism is something for which I must constantly make time and space—even then, I am more likely than not to underestimate their wickedness in ways that manifest themselves in complacency. As a middle class White man, I can always deny this solidarity, even if I inwardly mourn my complicity. Such sorrow leads to death.

But I am asking in the repeated, importunate way the Savior tells us to ask for justice! (“And will not God give justice to his chosen, who cry to him day and night?”, Luke 18:7) I am asking for justice to be conceived in hearts, gestated in churches, and born into the world. I am asking God to perform a merciful miracle of godly sorrow in our day; that we may rip away our old garments of White supremacy and racism, and “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” (Col. 3:10) Though it happen through much pain, yet it shall lead to something unspeakably beautiful.

Coming of Age

Watch this brief TED talk first.



Cultures have coming of age traditions and ceremonies; common, ritualized practices that denote a passage into adulthood and accountability. Typically these are imbued with honorific signals to ancestral heritage, community legacy, mores and customs, and the privileges and responsibilities of maturity within society.

Listening to the poet Clint Smith share his own story, I was grieved by what I know without any doubt is the Black American ceremony of alerting adolescent children to the hazards of their Blackness. This is the coming of age tradition our nation has foisted upon this community.

So, of all the affirming and empowering messages any Black adolescent receives from loved ones, those who are their loved ones and who love their lives, the safety of their bodies, the sacredness of their destinies must love them by cautioning them that their humanness is, at best, tenuous in our society.

If, as Christians or even conscientious Americans, we cannot extend grief, anger, and a will to affect something better toward this precious community–our neighbors–than we must wonder of defectiveness of our own humanity.

Dr King wrote,

“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”

I believe the Civil Rights Movement of the middle of the 20th century was largely an urgent effort toward “legislation to control the external effects of those bad internal attitudes.” We need to remember that there were 4000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950 in the US. One each week. There were also law enactments and enforcements that led to de-facto re-enslavement of Black Americans through share cropping, convict leasing, and widespread intimidation.

The Great Migration was, in actuality, a great refugee movement, because in the South humanness (especially male humanness) was a capital offense. In the North and West, Blacks were introduced to James Crow via segregation, red lining, violence, and dehumanizing discrimination.

When King lived and campaigned in Chicago, he was pelted with stones, spit upon, and met with an open hostility he’d not even experienced in Mississippi. In a speech at Soldier Field in 1966, he famously lamented,

“We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the north.”

King saw education and spiritual transformation as the only gateway to change in attitude–to “make a man love me.” But these things can only take place voluntarily. Any therapist will say, “You have to want to change.” Do we? Do we want a society in which Clint Smith’s kids can receive a totally different coming of age talk; one that reflects the simple premise that Black lives matter?

If our Civil Right forerunners gave their lives to create a legal framework in which the slaughter and degradation of Black life might be mitigated, how must we give our lives to continue their moral legacy? And should it cost us nothing?

Clint Smith is 31. That means his dad gave him this fierce and fearsome talk in 2001. My Black friends are still giving their kids this talk in 2020.

Tamir Rice was 12.

White friends: what talks are we giving ourselves and our kids? If we have no answer, then we are leaving this sad legacy in place; leaving the weight of these dehumanizing talks to the Black moms and dads and loved ones in our nation. We are not calling the Black community our loved ones for we are not loving them as we must.

A friend visited me last year in Chicago. He was taking his son on a 13 year-old father-son right of passage trip. One night while he was here, I asked, “How are you approaching this time?” He said there were a lot of things they were talking about, but that night he had told his son, “You were born a white male in America. That means you won the lottery. You have got to be very clear about how to use your privilege rightly.” It brought me to tears.

This must be a literal “come to Jesus” for us. Silence is betrayal in our public spaces and silence is betrayal in our private spaces. Being human means naming and defining. For the Black community, this means naming and defining racism, White supremacy, and the lethal threat these represent to Black bodies and souls. For Whites, this must be naming and defining racism and White supremacy in our bodies, souls, communities, institutions, and society–including its lethality.

In his book The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry wrote,

“If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself.”

What he is saying is something we all know innately: as White people, our humanity is wrapped up in this also. No person can dehumanize or benefit from dehumanization without compromising their own humanity.

This is inherently Christian.

I would argue it is inherently patriotic.

This is inherently human.

Smith said, “I refuse to accept that we can’t build this world into something new.”

White friends, this is something we must refuse to accept also.

White Christian friends, this is part and parcel of our yes to Jesus.


The work of the Gospel

May has been brutal, and I’m tired. I know so many of us are. There are many varieties of tiredness, but the tiredness in my life is that of heaviness and grief.

The psalmist David expressed it thus,

I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.

We use the word brutal in a spectrum of ways, and May has encompassed them all. At the beginning of this month we witnessed the devastating footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s February 23 murder, in which this black jogger was hunted down and shot in cold blood by a father and son. More than that, we were dismayed by the realization that months had gone by since the killing with no meaningful response by law enforcement. The gaping chasm of this knowledge bespoke something sinister and unsettling.

And we groaned. We groaned, as for a world unlike this one: we cried out, we ran, we sent letters, and made phone calls. Days later we became aware of the terrible shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in her own home in Louisville, and of the miscarriage of justice surrounding it. Our eyes grew weak with sorrow.

Then, in the span of one day, we observed a confrontation in Central Park, in which an embarrassed white woman appeared to summon a dark force against a conscientious black man who had simply asked her to abide by park guidelines. Later that same day came the appalling footage of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whose fellow officers warded off a crowd of bystanders attempting to intervene. The juxtaposition of these two events seemed undeniable points within a connect-the-dot. I was on a Zoom call that night and, as I began sharing about this, I found myself crying.

We are prone to call these deaths senseless, but what is most troubling is that they seem governed by a sense—the sense of what is commonly called evil. They are not senseless—they make all too much sense. Our strength fails because of foes. We’re reminded of the powers and principalities at work in this dark world, against which we contend. (Eph. 6:12) We were being allowed to see the gears of a system of mechanisms operating with chilling efficacy as from cruel design. And we were shaken. The earth opened up to unleash a flood of heat. The streets began to burn.

So much could (should) be said and done in response to this. And I agree with so many who are reminding us that this not a sprint but a marathon. But I want to speak as a Christian to Christians—especially white Christians—by saying, The Gospel of the Kingdom pertains to each and every part of this. Do not be convinced otherwise.

As John wrote, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 Jn 3:8) Family, there are few works of the devil with the enormity of carnage than race, racism and white supremacy. There is a pervasive and intransigent mindset in white evangelical communities that working for justice and equality is somehow “a distraction from the work of the Gospel.” But let us reject that. Any so-called ‘Gospel ministry’ that does not speak and act forcefully against the social evils of racism and white supremacy is unrecognizable from the Gospel and the Kingdom of God we encounter in Scripture.

I would argue this internal reluctance experienced within the white Christian community is itself an essential part of the machinery of darkness, because it derives its energy from fear and not love for God or one’s neighbor.

Until justice is permitted to shape our moral imagination, until this can become robustly integrated into our discipleship and disciple-making, we only remain perplexed and passive—and silent. Meanwhile our world is wondering why the Church so often goes hoarse in these moments—if not tacitly siding with injustice. (As silence always does.) Jesus, who came declaring, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” (Mt 4:17) and exclaiming, “the Kingdom of God is already among you!” (Lk 17:21) has given us a prophetic place in this world—a prophetic identity!

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said. “You are the light of the world!” In losing our saltiness, we void our very identity. In refusing our luminosity, our purpose is forfeited. “Let your light shine before others,” the Savior continued, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:14-16) Do they see the goodness of our deeds; the moral clarity of our voice?

Dallas Willard wrote,

“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”

Do we accept this description of discipleship or something less?

What, then, is “the Kingdom of the Heavens”? We are given a tantalizing picture of its culmination in the book of Revelation.

Firstly, it is a populated by “a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language.” (7:9) We are told that this “Great Community” was exactly what Jesus gave his life see realized.

Secondly, “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into” its capital city. (21:26) That is, all humankind will be represented there, and all will have honor.

Finally, it will be a place where there are no tears, no pain, no mourning, no death. Why? Because “the old order of things has passed away.” (21:4) The old order of things will pass away. This is significant. Say it to yourself: “The old order of things must pass away.”

As Christians, we often pine for this day … as we must, for this is our hope. Yet it is also our love, and Jesus taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10) The governing concern of our life, Jesus insisted, is to “seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness.” (Mt 6:33) That word righteousness can just as easily be translated “justice.”

If and when we are about following Jesus and teaching others to do the same;  learning together as would-be followers “how to obey everything he has commanded,” (Mt 28:20) we cannot exclude our obligation to be justice-bringers in this world—if for no other reason than our common “hunger and thirst” for it!

In his book Bring Forth Justice, Waldron Scott noted, “We are accustomed to discipleship, in part, as ‘separation from all known sin.’ In practice we limit ‘all known sin’ to personal misconduct… We do not take seriously our involvement in structural evil.”

The “old order” is the order of this age, and we must help it pass away as members of the Kingdom. This must become an ongoing and significant aspect of the good fight that is ours to join. It is a fight. A fierce one. The fight is decidedly against an entire order of things—with dark powers and principalities behind it. It is a brutal system to which the brutalities of May attest. Our confession and fidelity to Scripture makes this clear.

Much speculation of late has taken place around how a bystander should handle an occasion of police brutality or racial violence. What would I have done if I was on that Minneapolis street or in that Georgia sub-division? It is a fair, if abstract, thought, and I believe it comes from a deep sense of obligation. Most of us, however, will not be present for something so horrific, yet all of us are present and participatory in a society that has yet to act with anything close to the appropriate urgency deserving its evil animations. In this regard, our opportunity is quite concrete.

Having received the moral imperative to, in Messianic words of Isaiah, “faithfully bring forth justice,” (42:3) we might apply our faith to this assignment from our Lord. We might employ our whole arsenal therewith; speaking and acting, praying and promise-claiming,  all the while keeping in mind, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Cor. 10:5) So we might come against these evils by prayer and fasting and worship … and intentional efforts!

In our fatigue, we can call to mind, “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:9) In our discouragement, “my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)

But first we must settle the matter once and for all that this is part of our discipleship. It is not a distraction from the work of the Gospel, it is the work of the Gospel. This need not be to the exclusion of other works of the Gospel; in fact, this can only serve to legitimize our witness and to fortify our spiritual lives.

Let us neither forget nor spiritualize the fact that Jesus himself announced his ministry by taking up the scroll of Isaiah:

“He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Lk 6:17-21)

The eyes of many remain fastened upon those who are called by Jesus’ name. In our day will we see this scripture being fulfilled?  Let us hasten the dismantling of old, sad orders through our toil in partnership with the One who says, even now, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)

Lord help us!

The Table Leaf Rule

When I was a young boy, my mom would produce this wonderful little object. It was a piece of varnished wood perched upon rails, which she would hook like cleats to the bottom 3 steps on our carpeted stairway. I could climb to the third stair, sit on its slick surface, and shoot to the bottom. It was my little indoor slide, and my mom would employ it thus when she knew I needed to burn off some excess little-boy-energy.

What I didn’t know was that she was repurposing said object. Its intended purpose was actually equally wonderful—a section of wood which could be inserted into the middle of a table to magically produce more spots! The table itself had secret machinations of gears and locks and nubs that allowed it to be expanded outward to receive and integrate this extension. The object in question was of course a table leaf.

These leaves create table space where there is not enough. My in-laws have a table with improbable abilities of augmentation—interlocking slats that slide out to welcome a seemingly endless amount of dining real estate. Whenever I am called upon to extend this table, I find it almost comical. Nevertheless, when the table has reached its lengthiest proportions, it is quite a marvel to have so many important guests gather around it.

The table leaf is a marvelous device; one which might even instruct us in ways of equity and justice. Can it even be repurposed thus? I believe it can and must. Continue reading “The Table Leaf Rule”


I’ve only performed a handful of weddings, only served communion a few times, however, although these activities resemble their commonplace cousins of public speaking and food service respectively, they palpably transcend all other common functions which might be named, save one: voting.

Whenever I vote I experience a certain jitter of otherworldly privilege. In a small way, not unlike eating crispy little wafers and sipping juice from tiny plastic cups, we are making something significant move—together! We become like snowflakes in an avalanche, unawares as to which might become the crashing threshold. Sure, I’m plowing through 57 judges with a simple thumbs up or down; badly coloring in some odd arrow-gap. Sure, sometimes I’m stabbing in the dark, but I’m stabbing!

The original English usage of vote was in proto-Parliamentary England. In its linguistic genealogy you would find the Latin votum, “to wish”, which is itself derived from vovere“to vow”.  And yes, in ancient Roman parlance, such vows were made before a deity. Maybe that’s why it resembles the wedding ceremony: “before God and these witnesses.”

Fill that bubble. Dislodge that chad. Rub that lamp. Make a wish.

Continue reading “vote”


I was watching a conversation this past November between Bill Kristol (founder of The Weekly Standard) and Jonah Goldberg (of The National Review). They were discussing conservatism in the age of Trump. The interview came out on November 5. Goldberg was lamenting the present acrimonious climate of political discourse in our nation and he described how “one of the most repugnant things” is the way in which adherents to political sides wait with baited breath after mass shootings to find out whether it fits their particular partisan agenda in order to to utilize the tragedy as political fodder.

He prefaced his comment in an way that disheartened me, and you’ll see why in a second. He said,

One of the most repugnant things. . . Hopefully when this airs there won’t have been a recent mass-shooting, because it will seem like I’m talking about it—but there hasn’t. The most recent one was a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. . .

I was struck for one reason, shaken for another. I was struck by the fact that Goldberg took for granted that there would likely have been another mass-shooting in the days following his interview—this spoke volumes! But I was shaken because, as I mentioned, the interview was released on November 5, and, on that same day, a man clad all in black entered a rural church in Sunderland Spring, TX and gunned down 26 churchgoers with a modified AR-15. Parents were killed, children were killed, families were utterly and irreparably decimated.

Continue reading “Guns”

Trump | #Friday500

It has been a fascinating year, I must say.

Back in July of 2015 I was sitting on a sailboat off the shoreline of Chicago with a friend from out of town and another friend—the owner of the boat. It was a beautiful blue and breezy summer day, and we were drifting blissfully along overlooking the shimmering, sun-bathed skyline. I was playing tour guide.

“So that’s the Sears Tower—AKA the Willis Tower. That one over there is the John Hancock. The glassy one right in the middle? That one’s the Trump Tower.” I paused. Then added with a grin, “You know? Our next president.”

My visiting friend smiled back knowingly. “Well. You never know.”

I’m sure I said something along the lines of, “Wayeell… some-times ya do.” And so we drifted along. I had no idea the strange saga I was about to watch our nation undergo.

Continue reading “Trump | #Friday500”