Social commentary

‘Will we be extremists for hate or for love?’

Woolwich-1905133The brutal killing of the soldier yesterday in Woolwich is a shocking example of religious extremism leading to hatred and violence.

In a bid to defend the vast majority of peaceful Muslims who completely condemn this kind of violence, I have read many comments which say that ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’.  Understandable as it is, that’s a hard case to argue when the perpetrators openly use their faith as the basis of what they have done.

The truth is that all religions have an ugly side.  Any form of faith or religion is vulnerable to being misused and twisted in oppressive and destructive ways.  No reading of history can avoid this reality.

And at certain points in history, some religions and the complex traditions within them, are more vulnerable than others to be misused for violent purposes. The term radicalisation has been used to describe a violent form of Islam over the last 10 years. But it’s interesting that the term ‘radical Christian’ has not used in the same way.

Does violence in the name of religion mean that we should seek a mild form of faith which avoids any dogma, passion or any controversy?  Do we adopt a faith which is essentially a humanism which seeks to occupy a neutral, tolerant and rational space?

I don’t think so.

We need to counter violent extremism with stronger commitment to something else.  Neutral tolerance alone is too passive and does not have enough power within it.  This is why transformational movements are so often started and led by people of faith – people whose views about compassion and justice are rooted in their faith in God.

in 1963 Martin Luther King was accused of being an extremist by Christian and Jewish clergymen when he was arrested and imprisoned for leading a protest in the city of Birmingham, Alabama.  While in jail, 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 am 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?”

The legacy of people like Martin Luther King is a challenge to Christians to live out their faith in real and tangible ways – to put our heads above the parapet and be extremists for love.  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.

3 thoughts on “‘Will we be extremists for hate or for love?’”

  1. I remember reading once of a Sikh (can’t remember his name) who was interviewed, more-or-less at random, by the police after a terrorist incident in the 1980s and was asked if he was a “fundamental Sikh”. He replied, “Yes, insofar as I am fundamentally committed to the fundamentals of Sikhism”. I remember thinking that’d be the sort of reply I’d want to make to that charge.


  2. Much as this murder is horrific I think the media and the politicians have gone over the top in defining this as terrorist and religious extremism..There is huge and dangerous power in this narative and the current discourse around it. It would be better if we could see it and redefine it as a criminal atrocity with some element of (misguided) political motivation …. with just a pinch of religious rhetoric… I don’t mind being labelled as a radical… and precisely in this that I want to challenge the categories and discourses in which we construct the world… for better ones which I hope are deeply rooted in the Good news of Jesus the Messiah..


    1. But Greg – I can see what you mean – there is ‘huge and dangerous power in this narrative’ but that doesn’t mean its not true. If Islamic belief, however misguided and warped, has been a factor in giving these men a perspective which helped legitimate killing then it is religious extremism we are talking about. Maybe mental health, poverty, anger have also been factors but we should not seek to eliminate religion from being part of the issue from a prior-commitment to building unity.

      9/11 was also a criminal atrocity with misguided political motivation – and stands as a testimony to the on-going huge and dangerous power implicit within religion. It and to a lesser extent yesterday’s incident are part of the grim reality of humankind’s religious history.


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