A few nights ago, twelve friends and I attended the lighting of the Portland Christmas tree in Pioneer Square. My friends had all flown in for Thanksgiving, and we decided to join ten-thousand others who walked from all over downtown for the event. What we didn’t know is the spot where we squeezed into the crowd was 25 feet from a van filled with what a young man believed were six, fifty-gallon barrels of explosive material. As you know, the FBI had staged a sting, and as the young man made a call on his cell phone from the train station across town that would detonate the bomb, we were singing Christmas carols well within the blast zone. We didn’t hear about the threat until the following morning, and didn’t even know how close we were to the bomb until I saw a picture in the paper, taken only a few steps from the corner of Pioneer Square where we had been standing.
I’ve not talked about Islam or terrorism on this site at all. But reading about the young man, and hearing the talking heads discuss the threat on the internet has me wondering what we are really up against. Is it Islam? I don’t think it is. I think it’s extremism. And extremism takes many shapes and forms. For instance, the Mosque in Corvalis, Oregon where the young man worshiped was burned by arsonists two days later, but this was not called terrorism, it was called arson. And a middle-aged white man, angry about high taxes gassed up his plane and flew it into an IRS building in Austin, Texas last year, but the news was quick to report that this was was not a terrorist attack. Really? Sure looked like one to me. Why weren’t tons of middle-aged white guys who have small planes and listen to Glenn Beck sent to Cuba for water boarding?
I don’t think our enemy is specifically a religious enemy, though I do believe some religions are false. I think our enemy is extremism, extreme black and white thinking, an extreme belittling of other opinions, an extreme and insecure demonization of others, an extreme desire to control, and to make the mistake of thinking extremism is produced only in the Muslim community is ignorance. Extremism is a fall of man problem, a human problem, not just a religious problem. There are liberal extremists, conservative extremists, Calvinist extremists, humanitarian extremists and so on and so on. Here are a few marks of an extremist. Feel free to add to the list:
1. Extremists think in black-and-white absolutes. This does not mean there are not black and white absolutes, it only means the extremists can not see the world in color, the way the world actually exists. Ideas are either right or wrong, good or bad, and there is no neutral territory. You and I may say murder is wrong but eating broccoli is neutral, but an extremist wants to make a moral statement about broccoli and murder both.
2. People who do not agree with an extremist are perceived as threats. An extremist is very uncomfortable living in a world where people can just get along. Instead, they break people down into those who are for them and against them, with us or against us. Extremists believe people are out to get them and so see the people around them as enemies or allies.
3. Extremists do not admit they are wrong and are unwilling to consider another point of view.
4. Extremists are not passive. Extremists are aggressive. Extremists strike first, often out of ignorance or without understanding what they are striking out against. But they do strike out. They react in extremes.
5. Extremists believe, without question, their view is morally superior. They see themselves as right and strong and their enemies as wrong and weak and worth persecution, belittlement and even acts of violence.
And these are just a few loose characterizations of extremists.
I should also say that extremism is not without it’s causes. Many Muslim extremists are reacting to the outright oppression of their people around the world, or the afore mentioned immorality around us here in the west. But where a normal person may have an objective view of such things, and perhaps choose appropriate channels to affect social change, an extremist wishes to eradicate the other view completely.
I should also add there is plenty of extremism in the evangelical church. Whether it’s burning a Koran, or a pastor standing before his congregation belittling other pastors, we see heavy to light extremism in churches all over America every Sunday. An extremist pastor has made a theological stand that is absolutely right, morally superior, and has very real enemies that must be eradicated. An extremist pastor is dividing up everybody into the with us group and the against us group. Some of this has merit, but be certain this is a manifestation of an extremist personality filtered through a theological grid as justification. Lets not be confused. Jesus had very real enemies, and they ended up killing Him even as He cried out to God asking for their pardon. That is a very different stance than the modern war monger waving a Jesus flag.
People who are drawn to extremism are drawn to its feel of strength, it’s moral absolutes, it’s clear definition of enemies and so forth. Extremism paints a world with bold, straight lines, in which one can step into the role of hero or warrior with ease.
But aren’t there Christian reasons for extremism? Absolutely. Biblical Christian extremism, though, looks very different. Biblical Christian extremism looks like being wrongly imprisoned without fighting it, or being stoned to death, or being crucified, or going hungry bringing food to the starving, or crossing a bridge in Selma, Alabama, or turning water into wine for a tipsy wedding party, or leaving your job to bring Christ to the hurting and so on and so on. Christian extremism is willing to die for people, not demonize them to validate their belittlement and oppression.
So, can we just stop saying we are at war with terrorism and start admitting we are at war with extremism, be it a muslim kid or a middle-aged AM radio junkie? Can we just stop calling some pastors provocative and start calling them extremists? And can we answer extremism the way Christ did, by dying for the ones who know not what they do? That’s the kind of extremism I could get behind.