Sunday, September 12, 2021

Notes On Extremism

Twenty years ago, extremism collided with America. It was a terrifying day. Many things were excavated from the wreckage, things we were ill equipped to confront or lay to rest. 

Extremism by other names already drenched the soil of America, and the United States had been terrorizing for centuries, but we don't talk about that. Someone had to be punished for the destruction we suffered, we said. Who would exact such horror on us? Only extremists. 

Only an extremist would:

  • spend years planning, recruiting, and carrying out violence
  • risk friendships, family, and community for an idea
  • sacrifice their own life on purpose
  • forsake personal gain to dedicate their resources to the cause 

To be radicalized is to change your lifestyle and your choices because of a belief, knowing it will alienate you from many people who don't agree or understand. It's a departure from "normal" into "crazy." It pushes people into a head space and a life space that others can't enter without joining.

What happened on 9/11 was evil, let no one qualify that. But in our grief, we said extremism was the culprit. And that's not the whole picture. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "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?”

Do we even know what it means to be an extremist for love? Most of us are wasting our purpose away through lack of extremism. Our numbness to the ongoing destruction of our personal relationships and the social fabric around us is because we stand for not much of anything, other than ourselves. If we are unwilling to face death, we will never taste life. 

Chase Tibbs addresses Jesus' claim that he came to bring a sword (Matthew 10:34). Tibbs notes that what we accept as violence and non-violence has been defined by our government and our social leaders and that feeds our notion that the sword cannot coexist with peace. After 500 years of white supremacy and the harm we've inflicted on the world and on ourselves because of it, the question is not whether we're wielding swords. The question  is: in whose interests do we wield our swords? Whose peace am I establishing with my sword? Whose peace am I reproducing? We do not want to make the belly of the beast more comfortable, we want to destroy the beast.  We refuse to make peace with it any more. The sword that Jesus brought did not defend the peace of the empire. Jesus says in Matthew 10 that this sword of extremist love is by nature divisive. 

If you defend the beast, you are still enslaved to it. 

Photo by Christian Chomiak via Unsplash

Extremism is a narrow path. Extremists put their entire beings into a belief, and we know full well that some of those beliefs are a trap. We see the extremism (long-ago turned mainstream) of white supremacy, we see the extremism of MAGA, we see the extremism of terrorism of any origin, and we are right to refuse peace with those extremes. But you can't neutralize extremism with normalcy. You have to counter it with extremist love. 

What if our response to the searing pain of 9/11 had been a different kind of extreme? A chance to humbly address the sins of our empire through repentance? What if our determination had been to become not what the extremists accused us of? The hijackers were so convinced of the evil of American gods that they sacrificed their own lives. No one deserved the results of their hatred. But we wrote off that extremism as crazy, and we've suffered for it. We chose to meet extreme hatred with extreme hatred, and we reaped and inflicted more sorrow. 

All growing up, I was encouraged as an evangelical kid to be a zealous evangelist (not by my parents, God bless them). The saying went, "live in such a way that people will ask you, 'what's different about you?'" No one ever asked me that because I could not bring myself to drag a cross through Venice Beach. I believed (and I was not wrong) that my peers would not ask because it was too different, and not in a remotely appealing way. Eventually I stopped worrying about why no one asked me why I was "different" and settled into trying to act normal enough that people would want to be my friend. I let go of trying to befriend people in order to perform a spiritual bait and switch on them. That teaching is not just different, it's abusive. Even when I made friends who didn't know Jesus, the Jesus I tried to believe in was not a Jesus that I thought anyone else would want. 

As defined by the Bible Project, "An apocalypse is a confrontation with the divine so intense that it transforms how a person views everything." When I embraced extremism, I went back to thinking the "what's different about you" thing is to be taken literally. John 13:35 "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." A lifetime of "niceness" really wasn't recognizable in me as the love of Jesus. So I got dangerous. I listened to what my friends and strangers said hurt, and I ran there. I fed people. We carried each other's fears. I made friends with violent people and I took up a sword. And some of them know me by my love. 

You know who thinks I'm extreme now? The boards of churches, lol. But I know for certain that other people will love the Jesus I now know. My Jesus despises the belly of the beast. My Jesus wants the church rescued from it's twisted definitions of violence. 

Is extremism for everyone? I think so. Extremism isn't always brash, but it is something any follower of Jesus should take seriously as a personal calling. Jesus didn't call just a handful of us to extremist love, he said it was THE marker of discipleship. 

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