Harriet Tubman, MLK, Jesus, John, and Thoughts about Extremism

I confess that I debated with myself, but not for long, whether to use the term extreme/extremism in this post.  Looking around on the internet it is clear that there are far more quotations and opinions that speak disparagingly about extremism than speak in favor of it.  I even remember (precocious youth that I was) the profound political fallout the use of the term “extremism” caused for Senator Barry Goldwater in his bid for the US Presidency as the Republican candidate in the 1964 election.  For any political Padawans, the statement that got Goldwater in trouble with many was, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!

Not many months before Senator Barry Goldwater was being marginalized for extremism by the Democratic National Committee in 1964, another herald of extremism was writing a portentous letter in April of 1963, not at the national convention of a major political party, but from a cell in an Alabaman jail.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. cradled a newborn vision of an America that demanded extremism, an extremism which hindsight now regards as the sine qua non for the victories of the Civil Rights Movement.  I now quote a brief section from Dr. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” [due to space I have omitted the statements for which each of these extremists was famous; full text at http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html%5D,

“But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love, . . ?  Was not Amos an extremist for justice, . . ?   Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel, . . ? Was not Martin Luther an extremist, . . ?  And John Bunyan, . . ?  And Abraham Lincoln, . . ?  And Thomas Jefferson, . . ?  So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.  Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

My point is that even the American people of the 1960s could see that not all extremism was cut from the same cloth.

We contemporary followers of the Lamb should certainly not be intimidated by the label “extremism” just because some political or religious hate group is labeled that way.  We should not be deterred from all forms of extremism just because there are misanthropic extremists in some world religions.  Modern followers of the Lamb need to cast a vision for creative extremism, to adapt Dr. King’s idea.  Without apology (as though one could apologize for guidance from the Creator of the universe) the hearty fare of every extremist should consist of focused efforts through faith and practice, through prayer, and through word and deed.  By virtue of its DNA, Christian extremism cannot help challenging the national status quo, questioning assumptions about wealth, justice, and sanctity of life, and providing articulate critiques of various cultural gods.  Extremists will stand in the gap where walls are cracking and falling down in numerous sections of the moral edifice of the country (Ezek. 22).  Moreover, this extremism I describe will be impotent if it does not look inwardly to foster personal sanctification of one’s “whole spirit, soul and body” (1 Thess. 5:23).  One’s commitment to extremism for “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) will certainly not be static.  Extremism is always dynamic.  With some frequency extremists will need to refresh and at times reboot the process.  Every day offers opportunity for a new beginning to participate in the unique drama “where the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15).

The 19th century abolitionist Harriet Tubman strikes me as a black heroine from whom modern extremists could learn some lessons.  She was an active member of the Underground Railroad.  As a spy in the South, she knew she had to work in territory that was occupied and operated by the enemy.  Harriet Tubman’s extremism is evident in her continued devotion to freeing slaves.  In spite of many dangers and a long list of personal medical issues, she remained devoted to the cause to which she had given herself.  Trip after trip, year after year, she struggled and endangered herself in trying to rescue others from the South’s barbaric slavery system.

Harriet’s extremism was based upon a very realistic view of her mission and the absolute necessity of self-discipline by each fellow slave wanting freedom.  She carried a pistol and threatened to kill any of the black prisoners she was trying to lead to the North or Canada if they wanted to turn back.  Sound too extreme?  While Harriet’s threats belonged in the world of commando raids and the like and not in the world of church practices, her vision on this issue is insightful.  This policy was not a result of her egotism, but a love for the cause of freeing her fellow slaves.  She knew that if any of the escaped slaves traveling with her were to attempt to return to their owners, they could be tortured to reveal the route of the Underground Railroad and the locations of other escaped slaves.  Was Tubman too extreme?

Next we look briefly at Jesus, just to see some of his extremism.  The foundation of Jesus’ extremism is incontrovertibly his single minded allegiance to the will of God, this Creator of the universe and redeemer of Israel.  Jesus’ radical devotion to God is manifested in what he regards as the first and foremost commandment for his followers, love and commitment to the Father [if you have been told the most important thing to Jesus was how you treated others, you have been misinformed; that is number 02, Mk. 12:28-34].  This extremism might lead you to have to abandon loyalties to your family members and society (Lk. 14:26).  Some choices for God and his kingdom in the world are so radical that amputation of body parts is preferable to forsaking them (Matt. 5:29); sometimes you might even have to walk away from the funeral of a loved one (Matt. 8:22), or empty your saving account for the kingdom (Mk. 10:21).  Those who don’t live as God demands aren’t even fit to be thrown out on a pile of manure (Lk. 14:34-5).  Although the church who has been entrusted with the preservation of Scriptures, has gotten between the sheets with numerous paramours, it hasn’t yet been able to sanitize the record of Jesus’ extremism captured in his own words, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  . . . Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Lk. 12:51).

Finally, a look at the extremism of John the prophet.  Where to start?  Extremism toward his own congregations is evident in twice as many occurrences of the term “repent” used against the people of God as against the people who worshipped the beast.  Or the picture of Jesus himself, rough-hewn and illiberal, spine-chilling to view (Rev. 1:12-7), with human carrion left in his wake (Rev. 19:11-21), and at home with every bit as much wrath to administer as God the Almighty (Rev. 6:16).  The extremism of John’s Christian faith is also evident in his refusal to show respect for the teachings and actions of false Christians (Rev. 2:6, 24; 3:1b).  He was also capable of not only demonstrating disrespect but also demonizing those holding anti-Christian views who engendered harassment against the church (2:10; 9:20; 11:7; 12:9; 17:5; 18:2).  I am persuaded at the moment that there is something to be said for the view that some of the greatest criticisms of other world religions preserved in Scripture were not intended for public audiences, at least not most of the time.  After all, when the Psalter of Israel was sung by Israelites, competing religions were crassly ridiculed (Ps. 31:6; 96:5; 97:7; 115:4; 135:15; cf. Isa. 44:18-20); there is no escaping this fact.  Apparently no outsiders would have heard these disrespectful hymns regularly, except those outsiders with enough dissatisfaction with their own paganism to attend the Jewish temple services anyway.  Similarly many of John’s most insensitive and disrespectful statements may never have been designed to be heard by outsiders.  Nevertheless, the faith and practice that John inculcates through his prophecies is intended to engender an extremist community, i.e., seven congregations, that do not “respect” the views, politics, and religions of the surrounding population.  The writers of the NT show no interest in forcing anyone to become a Christian (unlike in later Christendom), but they are clearly capable of extremism in their disrespectful expressions and descriptions of others.

Finally, John’s creative extremism also bequeathed a prophetic legacy for Christianity itself that not even Hercules could vanquish.  With few, but significant, exceptions, John has left a document that is indecipherable to those too lazy or unwilling to read it through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Do not overlook this vital legacy of John’s extremism, for he has left the church a collection of prophecies that have remained opaque to most readers.  Even with its prime location and place of honor as the last and pinnacled book of Scripture, much of it remains dark and at times foreboding to many.  Unlike many books of the NT, Revelation refuses entrance and denies access to those whose hearts, souls, and minds are not nurtured by the Jewish Scriptures.  Fundamentally, this is not a question about the status of the church’s erudition, as though more graduate degrees in Hebrew, Greek, and Bible would automatically provide the solution.

This extreme feature of Revelation, where it shuts, if not slams, its door in the face of ecclesiastical visitors, exists overtly both because of the church’s overall sloth and its promiscuous heart.  The former explains its clumsy efforts at penetrating the argot and themes of the book, all the while refusing to stand where Timothy did as Paul commended him with these words, “how from childhood you have known the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15).  The modern western church does not know the OT and barely knows the NT.  The promiscuity of the church’s heart prefers to enjoy the acceptance and perks of the surrounding cultures.  There seems to be a reflexive panic at the possible situation of someone calling the church “narrow minded” or using the epithet “sect.”  It could make one wonder if the John’s extremist directive has been forgotten along the way, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins” (Rev. 18:4a).

I don’t imagine that any of us would like to be charged with laziness or spiritual promiscuity.  It could even give birth to some awkwardness, embarrassment, or even a combative spirit.  If guilty as charged, one can embrace Christian extremism or just stay lazy and apathetic.  If you were in this condition, trying to desert the cause, and encountered Harriet Tubman, she would have put a bullet in you; if you were in this condition, betraying the gospel, and encountered the Messiah, well, I think you know . . . .

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7 thoughts on “Harriet Tubman, MLK, Jesus, John, and Thoughts about Extremism

  1. Provocative thoughts and challenging words! Acting on an extremist view presumes a high level of knowledge, belief, conviction. Going back to the example of Goldwater, in 1964 a critical question was, “What do you know?” The tag line for the Goldwater campaign was “In your heart, you know he’s right.” In a brilliant move, the Johnson campaign retorted, “In your heart, you know he might” (push a button and begin a nuclear World War III). Good people go to impressive extremes because of what they know or believe. Apparently, Tubman was completely convinced that someone turning back would no doubt bring an end to the redemptive project. But what are people convinced of today, to that same extent or extreme?

  2. As far as I can tell we are on the same train to glory. The bottom line on many of my posts is that the so-called Christian Right are certainly not Christian extremists, just rightest extremists who are technically Christians but ideologically disciples of Ayn Rand (who we both learned at Rice, is a “consistent” Atheist) Even the presidential candidates who were Catholics did not have a “consistent” Catholic social ethic. The right wing protestants had almost no social ethic at all. As to the Leftist extremists, almost none have a “consistent” pro-life position (they are for a savage abortion on demand policy, etc). I inherited a consistent pro-life position (anti-abortion, strong pacifist) position from my Stonite/Campbellite ancestors from Pittsburgh, Bethany, and Ohio. Because they were German pacifists and the only Lincoln Republicans in Gallitin, Tennessee in 1917, they left for the badlands of Texas (Lower Rio Grande Valley ) where they established the Elsa church. They left the church of Christ, however,when their fellow church people would not allow the Black Mitchell family, whom the Mitchells had adopted as freemen when the moved from Pennsylvania. The Valley Christians were also bigoted against “Mexicans”. My mother was Melugeon who became Mexican citizens in 1818 when they escaped from the Carolinas, where they could not be citizens because they had been Portuguese slaves, they went Mexico where slavery was illegal and being Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish did not foreclose citizenship. My mother and father met in a cotton field and were migrant workers when I was young. So my most important lifelong interest has been Christian social justice which was not been characteristically of much interest in Churches of Christ..

  3. You can remember 1964!!?? LOL. Seriously this is a powerful and convicting piece. There are many examples of “extremism” in the Bible. Isaiah walking around nude. Ezekiel laying on his side for months on end just trade sides. Judith taking off Holofernes head. We find such things to be very unnerving, and to be honest embarrassing, in our culture. Perhaps the root of that is simply a lack of conviction that what we believe is actually the “truth.” Your last two paragraphs are simply worthy of “amen and amen.” Our lack of knowledge of the Story is appalling. I think for many years “we” have not known the text. We knew our choice texts like a JW coming to our door but once we got off a few topics related to our “identity” we were lost. Thank you for the powerful, the extreme, call to let the Story master us to the point where we breath it. Brittany Wilson in an article in CBQ noted that today’s believers are far removed from the “scripture-saturated encyclopedia of the early Christians.” No pocket Bibles or New Testaments and they had the text practically memorized. May we embrace the extremism.

  4. A very challenging post for this ideologically moderate mind. Thank you.

    But large part of me struggles to apply it, thinking, “So I need to moderate my moderation with some extremism…”

    😉

  5. Dr. Oster

    This blog may have stirred my mind more than any of your other pieces. Thank you.

    To preach the truth in love (EPH. 4:16) is often cited as balance, Perhaps a better way of looking at it is to be a creative extremist.

    I think it would be hard to preach this blog on Sunday.

  6. Dr. Oster, I see you to be a gentle person. The kind of extremism you call for in this article, balanced by your kindness toward others, is quite appealing. Extreme commitment balanced by grace and love and knowledge of Scripture are most appealing.

    P.S. I should quickly add that in the classroom you certainly expected extreme commitment to study! And I’m grateful.

  7. Dear Richard,

    I enjoyed your latest blog. The response by the press to Sen. Goldwater in the ’64 campaign after his extremist comment was absurd. There is one in your hagiography of extremists I would not have included – Abraham Lincoln. It is not clear that he waged a war to eliminate slavery, not having been an abolitionist. The quarrel had its principal roots in economics, specifically the Northern States passing protectionist tariffs which amounted to mugging The Southern agrarian economy. European nations did away with slavery by the mid 19th century without waging total war which resulted in many hundreds of thousands of deaths. He trampled the constitution by jailing opponents and eliminating habeas corpus. His regime led to the death of Federalism and to the increasingly despotic statism we have today. Was his extremism over the top? You better believe it.

    Bob Hyland

    El Paso

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