Extremism is not the problem. There is nothing wrong with extremism. It all depends on what cause you are extreme about, and how you implement it.
For people or societies that have no morality and no religion, ‘extremism’ is the worst of all behaviours. For Governments who believe in management over justice and truth, extremism is the chief ‘sin’ that has to be opposed and controlled. Western societies are trying to fight ‘extremism’ because we, in the West, refuse to even discuss religion, or religion based morality. So we are left opposing all religions as if they, and their extreme expressions, were the same thing. And we are paranoid about all extremism and only fight when something disturbs our peace.
But consider some extremists: A couple of successful, capable, health professionals leaving all the comforts, prosperity, security, and career advancements in Australia to help the desperately sick in an isolated, dangerous, impoverished, dysfunctional society. They have not done it as a short-term stint to help the needy in a crisis but starting in 1972 have continued for over 40 years. Here is a surgeon still working in his 80’s, for there is no other to replace him, amongst the thousands of well remunerated, western surgeons. He is the only surgeon for a couple of million people, building a hospital from nothing. He and his wife have not worked for money or fame but for their ultimate aim “to show the love of God”.
These people are extremists. Their whole life is anything but normal, average, usual or mainstream. They are extremists: Christian extremists. They are not alone. All over the world there are Christian extremists like this: People who have voluntarily given up the great Australian secularist life for something higher, grander, better. Extremists who have sacrificed the materialist dream to serve Christ by serving the poor, marginalised, endangered and sick.
When Muslim extremists kidnapped them, their life came into the public domain. At first they were called ‘humanitarian workers’, as were the other seven who were killed at that time elsewhere in Burkina Faso. But their motivation was not simply humanitarian, it was religion that made them extremists. And not simply religion but Christian religion – for each religion has its own ways of living extremely – and sacrificing your life for the benefit of others is profoundly Christian. We do not follow a warrior prophet but the crucified Christ. Our extremism is good for the world, which is why wise governments have supported and promoted it – for it is for the common good.
Sadly Christians don’t always get it right. But when we are wrong, call out what is wrong. Don’t blame extremism or religion. In 1963, some clergy opposed Rev. Martin Luther King’s campaign of non-violent protest. They were wrong. But they were right when they called him an extremist – for he was!
In his famous letter from the Birmingham gaol he wrote:
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: “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 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.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” 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.
Please stop attacking extremists; we need more of them not fewer. But we need extremists for the right causes not the wrong ones. And that means we need to face the hard issue of saying what is right and wrong and why it is right or wrong. Otherwise, we will simply end up making conformity the great good and extremism (of any form) the great evil. And that, in the end, is a recipe for tyranny.