Extremist of Love and Justice

Extremism seems to be on the rise in America, and this can come in many dangerous forms. Right-wing extremism, as well as left-wing extremism. Religious extremism along with atheist extremism. How many of us would like to be labeled an extremist? Not a flattering label in today’s world. And yet, tomorrow our country pauses to remember someone who during his day was called an extremist – Martin Luther King Jr.

When his enemies gave him that title, MLK responded, “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: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them 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." …

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.”

Acting as an extremist of love and of goodness. Yet how far have we in the Church fallen away from such “good” extremism?

I remember attending an inspiring ecumenical prayer service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr a couple years ago which highlighted the “extremism” of MLK’s words and actions at three critical points in his life – first right after the arrest of Rosa Parks and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus boycott, then from the Birmingham prison after police arrested him for his civil disobedience, and finally on the night before he was murdered.

Whenever I reflect upon MLK’s nonviolent approach, and especially his willingness to suffer for justice and moral truth, his “extremism” really challenges me. I admire his passion and desire for justice, as well as his courage and strength to face great suffering and persecution for righteousness sake. Would I be willing to stand up for divine truth in a similar situation? Am I courageous enough to witness to the radical love of God in my own contemporary setting? An important part of MLK’s legacy should challenge all of us, especially today in this age of divisive extremism!

“If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for,” King dared, “then he isn’t fit to live.” Think about that statement for a moment. Have we discovered something so precious in our lives that we would be willing to die for it? And is that which is precious to us 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, in relation to the injustice of the world all around us. We forget how the first Christians willingly suffered for Christ’s sake, as they went to extreme measures to imitate His life. MLK called out his contemporary church on this very issue, 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.” Too often 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 we are afraid that if we do speak up, we may face not only inconvenience, but even persecution. We forget that Jesus taught in His sermon on the mount, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” as well as “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, it’s usually not an easy path. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Yet when we work for what is right and true, we walk in the path of the prophets and the saints who became extreme, despite all the consequences, in imitating the life of Christ!

I remember when MLK’s home was bombed and his children were threatened; when he was imprisoned and some friends were murdered; when he faced an uncertain future and knew his life was in danger at every moment. How did he respond to these perils? He addressed the evil and hatred that surrounded him in an extreme manner: I've seen too much hate to want to hate,” he would state, “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 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, followed by radical actions – words and actions that completely imitated the life of Jesus Christ!

If we carefully look throughout the Bible, and read the lives of the saints whom we honor every day in the Church, we see a host of men and women with extreme faith. We see people who turned away from the darkness of the world, and allowed the divine light of Christ to shine deeply and richly in their souls. This is what today’s Gospel infers when it says, “People who sat in darkness have seen a great light… and Light has dawned.”

Extremism can be very dangerous, and yet, if we become an extremist for God, extreme in divine love, extreme for truth and justice, then we may be following the paths of the saints. This week, may we all reflect upon such “good” extremism, and see where each of us stands!

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