But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love–“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice–“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ–“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist–“Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist–“I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist–“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified. We must not forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
–Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
These words are still powerful and challenging considering how quickly we deploy “extremist” as a term of opprobrium. Islamist terrorists are “extremists”; right-wing congressmen are “extremists”; left-wing environmentalists are “extremists.” Using “extremist” as an inherent term of abuse shifts the grounds of the debate, making the the “moderates” sound reasonable by definition and suggesting that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. But as we well know, King had some harsh words for those he called the “white moderates”–the clergy and other respectable citizens who, while they may have been sympathetic to the aims of the civil rights movement, were uncomfortable with anything that seemed to create “conflict.” They preferred orderly, incremental change that didn’t involve disruptive measures like civil disobedience. But as King’s roll call of “extremists” demonstrates, sometimes conflict–even bloody conflict–is unavoidable in order to unmask the violence and injustice that simmer and fester beneath the surface of an apparently “peaceful” social order.
I also find King’s words personally challenging because I am, by temperament, a conservative person who prefers orderly, incremental change. I’m deeply skeptical of revolutions and Manichean crusades. And yet–some cases do seem to call for a certain black-and-white thinking. Certainly the systematic oppression of black people in the South (and elsewhere in America) was such a case. (Or even more clear-cut, the case of chattel slavery.) A preference for order and incrementalism, as King points out, is often a luxury of the privileged.
Needless to say, I don’t have a good answer to the question of when “extremism” is called for. But surely one essential task is to listen attentively to the voices of those who are pushed to the margins our society–those who most keenly pay the price to prop up the existing order. Examples aren’t particularly hard to come by these days–whether it be the unemployed and hungry, those incarcerated in a nightmarish prison system, or the victims of police brutality. Attending to such people is a quintessentially Christian set of priorities–Matthew 25 priorities you might say. Any social order that rests on the systematic disenfranchisement, impoverishment, or devaluing of some segment of its population, whatever other virtues it may have, falls far short of what justice–at least as the Bible defines justice–requires.