“I want to adopt from Africa.”
The first time my wife said this, I secretly hoped that if I ignored it, she would move on to some other idea that was less threatening to me.
She never moved on. So we moved forward. A white family bringing home a black child.
In the spring of 2007, I had to begin exploring the nature of my fear. I wasn’t afraid of adoption. We had already done that. But the last time, we brought home a white baby. Turns out, I was afraid of being the white father of a black son. It wasn’t because I thought that being white was better than being black. I just didn’t know anything about being black, and I was afraid I would let down any young black kid who ever called me “Dad”. It sounds silly, but I had never even touched a black person’s hair before—and now I was supposed to teach my son how to take care of his?
“Separate but equal” isn’t best
As most white kids that grew up in the South in the 1980s and 90s, the faint remnants of a much more explicit racist past bubbled up to the surface from time to time in the form of a comment or a joke from others. I remember one relative saying to me, “Separate but equal is best.” Even as a kid, I couldn’t understand how separation would ever result in equality. I remember watching “The Cosby Show” and feeling like that could be my family. I remember when I had my first black friend. I knew something wasn’t right about “separate but equal.” I knew that anyone who used that phrase really just meant “separate” and didn’t care about “equal.”
But even with all of those small moments of revelation in my life, I never pushed against it practically. I kept myself separate from black people. It was easy. I was a part of the majority in a majority culture. Years later, through my fear when my wife first told me she wanted to adopt a black baby, I realized that even though I scoffed at the idea of “separate but equal,” I had been living it passively.
My parents didn’t ever say much to me about Dr. King. Neither did my teachers or pastors. I didn’t read Letter from Birmingham Jail until just a few years ago. That’s where Dr. King—and the Lord, too—confronted my passivity with these words:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in this stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who 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.”
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.
Becoming an extremist
In that paragraph, I saw myself—a white moderate. And if Dr. King was right, I was a greater stumbling block to justice than the overtly racist Ku Klux Klan. It was the white moderate pastors who called Dr. King “an extremist”. In reply, Dr. King roll-called faithful people from biblical and church history in Hebrews 11 style.
Jesus–an extremist for love
Amos–an extremist for justice
Paul–an extremist for the spread of the gospel
Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln–all extremists
“So the question is not whether we will be extremists,” King wrote, “but what kind of extremists will we be? Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
Dr. King was saying that Christians are to be extremists for love. And love creates. It doesn’t destroy, or tear down. It creates. Love fulfills the cultural mandate that God gave human beings at the creation of the world. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the Earth. Take the Garden into the wilderness. Create instead of destroy.
Now, thanks to God’s Word and his Spirit, and through the words of Dr. King, I have committed my life to being a “creative extremist”. Not only that, but as a white pastor, I am committed to leaving behind the moderation that passively allows for systemic racism to go unchecked behind the guise of “keeping order.”
As a creative extremist, that doesn’t mean destroying; it means building up. It means sacrificing and laying aside my own privilege for others, especially for my black brothers and sisters—and son. It means leading my church, with varying opinions on systemic racism, through difficult waters. It means openly talking about it and seeking opportunities to think deeply and act creatively regarding race and justice.
That’s why all of our elders and staff and some of our members will be at MLK50—to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy, to learn from other creative extremists, and to sit down together over three days, planning, praying, and asking the Lord to make our church a bunch of creative extremists. We have a long way to go, but, there is a rejection of passivity and privilege that I see happening in my heart, in my family, and in our church that I believe will bear fruit in our city, state, and country.
I’m so glad the Lord awakened me to my passivity, especially in my family. Now, one of my favorite moments of the day is my children’s bedtime. My two youngest sons–one black and one white–share a room together. When I turn their light off, I kiss them each on the head. Nothing lights up my heart more than leaning toward the two inches of curls on top of my 11-year-old’s head and feeling it brush up against my cheeks as I kiss him goodnight. It reminds me how perfect love drives out fear, and that being together is so much better than “separate but equal.”
Racial unity is a gospel issue and all the more urgent 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. Register for “MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop,” taking place April 3-4, 2018, in Memphis, Tennessee, here.