EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a guest post from Stephen Partain, Parish Pastor of Grace Community Church in the Bywater area of New Orleans and Leadership Council Member of the Missio Mosaic Network. This post is the third and final in a larger series called “To the White Church From a White Pastor.” You can read the first post here and the second post here.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” after being arrested and placed in solitary confinement. In this letter he points out the “greatest stumbling block” towards the quest for freedom – not the KKK or the White Citizens’ Council, but instead, the greatest stumbling block in the way of Civil Rights was the “white moderate,” according to Dr. King.
In his essay, Dr. King wrote that the white moderate is:
…more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Our white churches in the United States need to understand that my generation is done being moderate on the issue of racial justice. We are done with being moderate on the issue of racial justice. The future of our churches, institutions, and denominations are at stake. We need to institute change, and we need to do it now.
Why do I say that the future of our churches, institutions, and denominations are at stake over this? Because my generation has seen a group of white evangelical leaders communicate the values we should hold as a faith community: the sanctity of human life, the equal treatment of all ethnicities, and the upholding of Christian “family values.”
We believed these things right along with you and saw that these values needed to be lived out, not just printed on voter guides. We understood the need for social justice as an outworking of the Kingdom vision of Jesus, and we expected those leaders to lock arms with us in this work to fight injustice, racism, and to expand a wholistic pro-life ethic.
But instead of locking arms with us, they revealed themselves to be the white moderates who talked the talk but have not walked the walk.
When the 2016 election came about, when standing for Christian values got in the way of power, they caved, and they caved quickly.
Many of us have still been trying in the years after this brutal election season, believing that there was still at least moral courage on the issue of racism in our country, that these leaders may not get everything, but surely, they will stand firmly against racial injustice.
Then the video of George Floyd’s murder was released.
We watched in horror as Derek Chauvin snuffed the life from his body during eight minutes that felt like an eternity, and we expected our leaders to lead boldly into the future and confidently say that Black Lives Matter, because Black lives are made in the very image of God; to acknowledge the historic and systemic racism in our nation, and to commit to fight it with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some did speak. Some did call us to that, but for most, it seems their passion is for things to return to “normal,” with very little appetite to sit in the tension of the current conversation and work towards concrete approaches and solutions.
While this may seem safe, it is actually the riskiest path, putting our cooperation in evangelical circles at stake.
We can no longer have a call to unity that does not include a call to justice. To do so is not only shallow, but it also shows a misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel. We MUST be clear as the church on issues of racism, or the church as presently constituted in North America will continue to lose our generation.
And honestly, it will be an understandable desertion.
Stand against racial prejudice, or we will leave your churches. Work to challenge systemic racism in our communities and country, or we will leave your denominations. Commit to empowering the diverse ethnicities of God in our leadership, or we will no longer participate in your systems.
This is a divine opportunity from the Holy Spirit for us to live MORE DEEPLY in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We have received salvation through the cross and resurrection, and now we commit to walking it out together, in newness of life – that is where our generation is going, and I hope you will join us.