From a Birmingham jail cell, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter to the “moderate” religious leaders of his day. He told of how “gravely disappointed” he was in them.
Of course, King had always known better than to expect support from men such as Bull Connor, but for a time, King apparently held some hope that “moderates” would stand with him and other black Americans in their struggle for justice. However, in his letter from the Birmingham jail, King said that he had almost reached the conclusion that the greatest stumbling block was “not the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” wrote King.
As I have struggled to bring to light the injustice in how clergy abuse survivors are treated in Baptistland, I have often pondered the words of King’s letter. I too have grown to the conclusion that the “moderates” may be the most frustrating of all.
Any fool will know that someone who denounces clergy molestation survivors as “evil-doers” isn’t going to be someone who will extend much help. Of course, that’s “any fool” except countless other Baptist leaders who remain content to keep a man of such hateful words in high leadership. Nevertheless, for us mere mortals, the heartless cruelty of Baptist men such as that -- and there are many of them -- is at least transparent. So we don’t get our hopes up.
But it has taken me much longer to understand the reality of what King wrote about in his letter -- the reality that, with only rare exceptions, “moderates” are equally unhelpful. They are “more cautious than courageous,” and they remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security” of their status-quo do-nothingness.
In fact, the “moderates” maintain the same status-quo as the other Baptists.
In his letter, King complained of those “moderate” leaders who constantly said: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods….”
I have often heard virtually identical words from “moderate” Baptist leaders.
But as with King, I have seen that, though “moderates” may say they agree, they will not take steps toward actually implementing change because to do so would upset their status-quo power structures.
And the “moderates” put forward the exact same excuse as those other Baptists who call us ugly names. It’s the “because we have no bishops” excuse. It’s the “all Baptist churches are autonomous” excuse.
Then they say that I’m too impatient and that, with time, change will come.
Martin Luther King called this a “mythical concept of time.” It’s a concept that imagines the flow of time alone will somehow change things. But of course, it won’t. Advancing the good requires action. But when it comes to clergy sex abuse, action is exactly what “moderates” reject.
Sometimes I really wonder about some of these “moderate” Baptist leaders. Do you think they actually believe the words they speak?
Do they actually believe that “because there are no bishops,” Baptist leaders are powerless to do anything about clergy who are credibly accused of molesting kids? Or do they simply spout the Baptist party-line to avoid rocking the boat, to protect their own careers, or to preserve the false-peace of the status-quo?
Do they really believe that the New Testament prescribes the parameters of “local church autonomy” so precisely that it allows churches to cooperate for funding ministers’ retirements, for international missions, for keeping historical records, and even for investigating churches with gays in their membership . . . but NOT for responsibly assessing reports about clergy who molest kids?
How do intelligent “moderate” people arrive at actually believing such a thing?
If they can come up with such a contrived “autonomy” definition as that, why do they not go ahead and come up with a definition that will serve for the protection of kids and for ministry to the wounded? It’s obvious they’re defining it how they themselves choose, and so why don’t they choose a definition more functional for the welfare of others?
How do intelligent “moderate” people convince themselves that providing critical information to churches -- information about ministers credibly accused of sexual abuse -- will somehow take away the autonomy of churches to decide what to do with that information?
How do they not see the self-serving hypocrisy in such a radicalized view of “local church autonomy”?
And how can they possibly imagine that this abstraction of “autonomy” -- an abstraction that they themselves have defined for their own ends -- could possibly be more important than protecting real kids against clergy who molest and rape them?
I’ll never understand it.
Weighed against the reality of predatory clergy who church-hop through the porous network of Baptistland, the excuse-making of “moderate” Baptist leaders sounds hollow indeed.
In the words of Martin Luther King, moderate Baptist leaders “stand on the sideline” mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
The fact that they call themselves “moderates” doesn’t make their “sideline” approach to clergy sex abuse any less appalling.
(Anyone who doubts that “moderates” have a serious problem should consider the current case of Matt Baker who, despite multiple sex abuse allegations, church-hopped his way through the “moderate” Baptist General Convention of Texas and its affiliated entities.)
Monday, January 18, 2010
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Thanks for such a thoughtful article. Those who can't seem to take action do indeed feel like dead weight in every denomination.
When there are practical, common sense actions needed to protect children, it seems like a corruption of any faith for people to do nothing other than talk and pray.
Many probably have no idea why they don't act. They may not feel they have a role to play in bringing about change. They do not trust their own wisdom, and let others dictate their priorities. Some are loathe to risk losing the comfort of belonging in their church and would never go it alone.
Playing it safe by defending the status quo gives witness to lukewarm Christianity.
So-called moderates in Southern Baptist life are still quite conservative by the standards of most other groups today. And the nature of conservatism is to "conserve", to keep things as they are. So it's not a surprise that a group as overall conservative (including the moderates) as the Southern Baptists would be reluctant and slow to change.
But the whole concept of repentance, which Baptists love to preach, is one of a change of our minds and actions to conform to God's will. In this regard, those who claim to adhere most strongly to the Bible as the source of their beliefs and practices (who use the term conservative to describe themselves), ought in reality be very "liberal" (in the sense of openness to change) when it comes to an area in which their lives and institutions are not in conformity with what the Bible clearly teaches. And it teaches us to help the helpless, to defend the defenseless, to protect the innocent, and to swiftly and surely punish the guilty.
Whenever we see these things not happening as God says they should, if we truly believe His Word, we should seek to change them. Sometimes being a "liberal" is the most Chistian and most biblical thing we can be.
To me moderates are the "lukewarm" Jesus spoke about They are sickening, divisive, and should be put out of any discusion where progress is a goal. They are anti-progress because it requires decision, action, and personal committment. It also means that you may have to work with people who have different views on other issues than you.
I have ome to the conclusion that the answere to "how do they?" is found in an religios education system that teaches self-glorifition first over sacrifice for others or a cause.
When they say "I agree with what you say not what you do.", call it for what it is, "A Lie"!
"But the whole concept of repentance, which Baptists love to preach, is one of a change...."
Interesting thought. How ironic that Southern Baptists are so extremely resistant to change -- even when change would promote the safety of kids and congregants -- and yet the very essence of "repentance" carries with it the call for change.
This is confessing my own ignorance, but until I attended this year’s MLK Day event at Tennessee State University, I was not aware of the pivotal role Nashville’s black Baptist community played in the sit-ins of 1960.
I wondered how Baptist Press treated the story, so I wasted a little bit of time to wade through three months of archives that the SBC History Library and Archives has put online.
Aside from one brief news story about a resolution passed by a fellowship of seminary students commenting on the “current situation,” I could find diddly squat. They were obsessed, meanwhile, with a Catholic running for president.
There was a series of articles about all the evangelistic and educational efforts being done by the various SBC agencies in cooperation with “negroes,” which I guess in their minds was supposed to be a big deal.
Thanks, Bob, for the fascinating historical insight.
Your mention of the SBC Library and Archives leads me to another point . . . I've always found it a bit incredible that the Southern Baptist Convention has no problem using Cooperative Program dollars to fund an archive of Baptist history, but screams "no way" at the notion of creating an archive/database for record-keeping on credibly-accused Baptist clergy.
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