I am remembering Dr. King on this 55th anniversary of his death with a reflection on his important contrast between what we could call “moderates” and “moderatISM.” The differences between the two are vast and have important implications for us today.
In a June 4, 1957 speech to students at UC Berkley, King shared with his audience a beautiful vision for nonviolence. Agape love, he said, is at the center of nonviolent resistance. This love both shapes the character of those resisting AND pushes back on the violence of the age. How so? “Agape says you must go on with wise restraint and calm reasonableness but you also must keep moving.” It was on this latter point that he then turned to an objection he often faced in his ministry: that African Americans should turn to slower methods of moderation in their pursuits of justice.
This is where King contrasted two very different uses of the word, the first meaning the character of those resisting: “If moderation means moving on with wise restraint and calm reasonableness, then moderation is a great virtue that all men must seek.” To be a moderate meant one who was wise, who knew when to restrain themselves. It was one rooted in Agape love. Such love has the power to free us from bitterness. As King has said in several other places, in our pursuits of justice we must always use Christian weapons. We can never turn to bitterness. Bitterness is violence, and weaponizing bitterness leaves our unborn generations in a “long and desolate night of bitterness.” If we turn to bitterness, our chief legacy will be violence and meaningless chaos.
If I could identify one way that King has most shaped me, it is in this regard. In his battle with injustice, his prophetic actions, his challenge of the moral evils of his day, he never succumbed to the violence of character so common in my heart and this present age. Many today rightly have a concern to fight against social injustice, but the means which we employ – such as bitter and reactive speech – are violent injustices in themselves. My earnest hope for myself and those we disciple in Indy is to be able to manifest the kind of moderate posture King did – bold and restrained, courageous and reasoned, fierce and calm.
However, there is a more insidious use of the term moderation: “If moderation means showing up in the move for justice and capitulating to the whims and caprices of the guardians of the deadening status quo, then it is a tragic vice which all men of good will must condemn.” Such moderation – moderatISM – is an excuse-making, power-hungry, injustice-approving posture which must be condemned by all who strive for justice and righteousness.
This posture is often seen today in those who argue that Christians – even pastors – shouldn’t take strong stands against particular issues in our society. It is said that we will burden the conscience, to which I say – are there not times our conscience must be burdened? In King’s words, “There are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted.” There is a pastoral responsibility in leading our people in crying out and acting against present abuse and injustice.
A posture I see most commonly is those who confuse being a moderate with the practice of moderatISM. Sadly, the “third-way” technique of many Christians is often deployed in this way: “The Christian position is not liberal or conservative, it is this third moderate position between the two.”
Such a position surrenders moral and rational superiority to the ideas of this world. King said, in the spirit of Romans 12:2, “At the heart of our universe is a higher reality – God and his kingdom of love – to which we must be conformed.”
What is needed today is Christians of all kinds who can demonstrate a moderation rooted in something similar to King’s understanding of agape love.
Such moderation challenges the bitter weapons so prevalent in this age, refusing to multiply violence upon violence.
Such moderation also challenges those, particularly Christians, who believe that zeal for the Kingdom of God looks like a sloth after its evening meal!
King has challenged me to envision a Christian people, too vast to number, who demonstrate agape love by restraint from bitterness, wise action, and zealous contention for Kingdom justice.
Where will such Christians come from?
Why not us?