Toward Creative Extremism: Remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m grateful to have a sister-in-law, who (unbeknownst to her) reminds me each year on this day that it’s a good day to reread Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

And I especially appreciated her encouragement this year to read it with a lens toward the parts that make me most uncomfortable (rather than necessarily the parts I think should be making OTHER people uncomfortable).

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

I’m preparing to return to Guatemala in March, and in preparation, I’ve been listening to an audiobook, Open Veins of Latin America about the history of Central and South America and the devastation of conquest, colonialism and violence. And it’s really hard to read/listen to the repeated accounts of how Europeans and the U.S. Have plundered these lands, abused, tortured and killed the people, over and over and over for centuries. For coffee. Sugar. Bananas. Precious metals. Chocolate. How do I grapple with my role in these underlying causes?

I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

Am I aware of all the times I’ve been more cautious than courageous? I was raised to believe that cautious is good. I work hard to cultivate courage.

I was inspired by this passage:

The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But 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 despitefully use 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? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I am both uncomfortable but also inspired at the thought of what it looks like for me to be a creative extremist. An extremist for love. An extremist for justice.

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And I’m glad to be uncomfortable.

I’m increasingly convinced that we need to increase our ability to tolerate discomfort. And by “we,” I mean those of us with deep experiences of privilege. If you’re living under the daily oppression of racism, you not only are far too familiar with discomfort, but with suffering as well.

However, there are many of us with feet in multiple worlds. I move through the world with a lot of privilege. I have a lot of education, including a master’s degree. I’m white. I’m comfortably middle class. I’m an ordained minister. I hold a manager position in a hospital. I’m able-bodied (if a little vertically challenged 🙂 )

And I also have lived my life female. I identify as queer.

The thing is, none of this makes me a good or bad person. These are all aspects of my life, just like “chaplain” and “poet” and “dog mom” and “Lutheran.” They are all windows to different parts of the world, and my view may be different from yours. There may be some ways that I need to introduce you to the world I see. And there are likely many ways I need to have a clearer picture of the world where you live.

My hope is that we will find the places where our worlds intersect. My deeper hope is that together we will create a world where all are welcome, where all have what they need to survive and thrive. That all people have the opportunity to love and be loved.

And today I’m grateful for my many heroes who have led the way. Today, especially, for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood (sic), I beg God to forgive me.

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