The right kind of religious extremism

Following the killing of Osama bin Laden,  a quote attributed to Rev. Martin Luther King, has been widely circulated via Facebook and Twitter:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.  Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

It is unfortunate that King has been misquoted.  He did say the second half of the quote, but the first sentence has been added by someone keen to make his words even more relevant to their concern about the joyous reactions of some to bin Laden’s killing.   Mark’s Twain’s comment that “A lie can be half way round the world before truth has got its shoes on” is half relevant; in this a case a misquote had spun many times round the entire globe before anyone has managed to point out its inaccuracy.

The fact that King has been misquoted however should not obscure the relevance or power of what he did say.  Osama bin Laden has for 10 years now been an iconic figure of the worst kind of religious extremism – a ‘radicalisation’ which leads to carnage and suffering.  Hate has indeed led to the multiplying of more hate.  Both the terrorist attrocities and so much of the Western military action launched in response have not brought peace and rather have plunged the world deeper into darkness.

It is clear that many forms of religious extremism do lead directly to injustice and violence.  But not all.  Other forms of religious extremism have led people to do amazing work for compassion and social justice in the name of faith.  This is the kind of extremism that the world is badly in need of today.

On Good Friday 1963, Martin Luther King was incarcerated for breaking an injunction against demonstrations in the city of Birmingham, Alabama.  While in jail, King noticed in the local newspaper, an advert taken out by a group of eight Christian and Jewish clergymen criticising his campaign of non violent protest.  The clery accused King and his followers of being extremists.

Writing on scraps of paper and the edges of the newspaper, King responded, writing his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“…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 despise 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?”

I think Martin Luther King challenges Christians today to avoid the kind of mushy, wishy-washy faith which is simply keen not to offend anyone or cause any conflict. Conflict is often necessary in order to highlight problems and create the conditions for transformation to happen.  King’s writings are provocative, urgent and confident. Like all prophets, he inspired many beyond the church and angered many within it.

King goes on:

“There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

We don’t need to misquote Martin Luther King or add to his words – we simply need to listen carefully to the challenge he gives us all.  Perhaps the world has had enough of half-baked Christian sentiments, mild and tentatively offered reflections which mask a desire to be popular.  Personally, King challenges me to have more conviction and confidence to live my faith in real and tangible ways.  Like the Person he passionately followed, King achieved much for peace through both the way he lived and the way he died. And there is nothing more radical or extreme than that.

1 thought on “The right kind of religious extremism”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s