Extremists of Love

An extremist. How many of us would like to be labeled extremists? Not a flattering label in today’s world, especially after the attacks in France, and the horrors of Boko Haram in Nigeria. We often link extremists with Islamic jihadists, or some other negative and violent depiction, and yet, tomorrow our country pauses to remember an extremist of his time – Martin Luther King Jr.

When his enemies, including many in the established church, criticized MLK with the label “extremist,” he responded in a thought-provoking manner:

“Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist… I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.        
     + Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse  you, do good to those that hate you, and pray for those which despitefully use you and persecute you."    
     + Was not the Prophet Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."   
     + Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."

Acting as an extremist for good, for justice, for love! Yet how far have we in the Church fallen away from such “good” extremism?

I remember an inspiring ecumenical prayer service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. which Pres. Faith and I attended several years ago. The service highlighted the “extremism” of MLK’s words and actions at three critical points in his life – 1) Right after the arrest of Rosa Parks and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus boycott, 2) In the Birmingham prison right after police arrested him for his civil disobedience, and 3) On the night before he was murdered.

In each of these instances, MLK offered an extreme approach of nonviolence - willingly suffering for justice and moral truth! MLK expressed a desire and displayed a passion for justice, as well as revealed incredible courage and strength in enduring terrible suffering and persecution for righteousness sake. Would we be willing to stand up for truth in a similar situation? Are we courageous enough to witness to the evil of the world in our own contemporary setting with the radical love of God? The legacy of MLK should challenge all of us!

“If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, than he isn’t fit to live.” Ouch! Here’s more powerful words from MLK. Have we discovered something so precious in our lives that we would be willing to die for it? And is that which is precious something with eternal significance?!?

When I think about people like MLK, what really haunts me is the way we contemporary Christians, myself included, have become too comfortable and passive in our faith. We forget how the first Christians willingly suffered and died for the Kingdom of God. MLK called out the church of his day, lamenting the fact that “The church today is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo.” Unlike the early Christians, we don’t want anything to disturb our comfortable way of life, even if we know that people around us are suffering from injustice and discrimination.

Too many of us choose to remain isolated from the suffering of others, and remain afraid that if we do speak up, we may face not only inconvenience, but even persecution. We forget Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When we struggle for what is right, for what is true, for what is good… when we walk in the path of the extreme prophets and the saints, we do not walk a comfortable or easy path.

I often think of MLK’s life – where his home was bombed and his children were threatened; where he was imprisoned numerous times and he witnessed friends being murdered; where he faced an uncertain future and knew his life was constantly in danger. All because he spoke an uncomfortable truth! And yet, how did he respond to these perils?

He confronted the evil and hatred that surrounded him in an extreme manner: I've seen too much hate to want to hate, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you....

Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, and violence multiplies violence in a descending spiral of destruction… Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend…

Thus be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

What extreme words, combined by extreme actions – radical words and actions that imitated the Spirit of Jesus Christ! Throughout the Bible, and among the saints we honor every day in the Church, we see many extremists - men and women of extreme faith. Even today we remember St Athanasios, one of the greatest of Church Fathers and surely an extremist by all measures! He stood up against the world of his day, and even against most in the Church, for the sake of truth! And he suffered for it – being expelled from Alexandria several times, and even being exiled for more than 20 years from his Episcopal throne. Yet he never compromised the faith or water downed the truth. This is the faith of our forbearers, and this is the extreme faith we are called to imitate!      

Let me conclude with the words, once again, of Martin Luther King:     

          So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will 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?   

         In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime - the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”  

An extremist for God, for love, for truth and righteousness sake. This week, may we all reflect upon such “good” extremism, and think about where each of us stands!

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