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 . . . .