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Dec  2013 08
In Praise of Creative Extremists

Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., were “extremists.” Now, many of us might employ the word “extremist” as the media does: extremism is bad. But that narrow connotation results in condemnation of genuine prophets.

The Trialogue series of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice this upcoming February is addressing the topic of religious “extremism.” The planning group has spent hours considering what “extremism” means. At first, nearly everyone associated the word with something negative. However, over time, a more nuanced definition developed. To be “extreme” might be a good thing. Nelson Madela’s death last week draws our attention to one such “extremist.” And his brother in the 20th century fight against racism and for democracy and dignity for all people, Martin Luther King, Jr., provides another positive example of an extremist.

Read the following clip from Mandela’s Rivonia Speech, delivered April 20, 1964, spoken at his trial during which he was sentenced to life in prison. Then ponder the segment of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, dated April 16, 1963, and consider what it means to take “an extreme” position.

Mr. Mandela:

We felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. But the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism. Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is guerrilla warfare, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision. …I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. (reference, accessed 12-7-13)

Dr. King:

I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. 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? … Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. (reference, accessed 12-7-13)

Now, consider yesterday’s Advent lection from Isaiah 11:1-4.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…. (NRSV)

Let us praise creative extremists and be watchful for the prophets God has sent our way today.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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