Creative Extremists

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.” ... 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 nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Excerpt from: “A Letter from the Birmingham Jail,
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.


We are treated this evening to a special reading from St Martin on the eve of Martin Luther King Day—observed on the third Monday of January each year, following a bill of Congress establishing the holiday and signed into law by Ronald Regan in 1983, marking the date closest to his birthday (January 15th). We also have a feast day in the Episcopal Church honoring the work and witness of this prophetic leader, but one that comes later in the year (on April 4, the anniversary of his assassination—as is the custom for saints, honoring them on the day of their death, or dies natalis: their birth into heaven).

While this portion we hear from the Letter from the Birmingham Jail is not Scripture (not a part of the closed canon of texts discerned by the Bishops of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the 4th century), it is about as close to Scripture as you’re gonna get for an extracanonical text. Like much what we call the New Testament, it is a letter written by an apostle to the Church. And not unlike Scripture, as we listen to this letter we can hear the Spirit of the living God speaking not just to them, there, then—but to us, here, now.

Will we, do we, have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying?

If you have never read it, I would urge you to take some time on the holiday tomorrow and read the letter in its entirety—it will take you only an hour or so. And it may just awaken something in you. It may just change your life.

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St Martin minces no words. There is an urgency about the task to which he has committed himself, his lived witness to the truth of the Gospel that is good news to the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, those enslaved by sin and the outworking of the sinful human condition in the world.

The urgency of his prophetic witness has landed him, once again, in prison. St Martin had joined organizers in Birmingham and from across Alabama to call out the sin of racial segregation and the evil of a pervasive, pernicious myth of White superiority and Black-Brown inferiority that created and perpetuated disparity.

The Birmingham campaign, led by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference among others, began on April 3, 1963—with marches, sit-ins, boycotts of businesses that refused to serve all races, and the like. Just one week later, on April 10, in a credit to the efficacy of the campaign, the powerful White men that ran Birmingham city had had enough. Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a complete injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing, and picketing.”

The powers that be generally do not take kindly to prophetic truth-telling. Truth is an intimidating thing to the purveyors and perpetrators of lies.

But King and company had no intention of obeying the unjust decrees of unjust men. That was the whole point of their witness. As St Augustine put it so long ago, lex iniusta non est lex (“an unjust law is no law”).

With King and company summarily refusing to end their Birmingham campaign, just two days later—on April 12—St Martin and several organizers were arrested. Fittingly and ironically, it was Good Friday. A day when a certain other rabblerousing revolutionary prophet felt to the wrath of a rightly insecure, unjust Empire. As King and company were carted off, churchgoers looked on in their Good Friday best. I wonder if they made any connections.

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So there King sat in his prison cell, the good ol’ boys hoping that maybe this time he’d learn a lesson and emerge just a little chastened. That’s how the powerful like their dispossessed: chastened, compliant, knowing their place and remaining in it.

And while it is doubtful that St Martin would have ever learned his place, it is not clear that he would have ever left us the immortalized missive of this Letter unless his conscience had been yet again pricked, unless he had been further provoked. This time, by an open letter drafted by eight clergymen titled “A Call to Unity” and published on the same day King and company were arrested—Good Friday, 1963. A group of eight clergymen who, just months earlier, penned a similarly placatory memo titled “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” A group of eight clergymen that included one C. C. J. Carpenter and George M. Murray, the Bishop and Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, along with two Methodist bishops, the auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Mobile, moderator of the Alabama Synod of the Presbyterian Church, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Birmingham, and rabbi of Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El (“God is with us”). A good cross-section of the respectable religious establishment.

The latest letter underscored their previous suggestion that “racial matters could properly be pursued in the courts” and the “decisions of those courts should in the meantime be peacefully obeyed.” The present update is occasioned by “a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders.” While the undersigned recognized the “natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized,” they felt the demonstrations were “unwise and untimely” and again asserted the need to “find proper channels” for the accomplishment of intended ends. And, furthermore, they suggested that “however technically peaceful [the actions of demonstrators] may be,” they nevertheless “incite to hatred and violence” and utilize unjustifiably “extreme measures.” The eight clergymen from the respectable religious establishment of Birmingham accordingly appeal to “our own Negro community” to “withdraw support from these demonstrations” and “unite locally,” to press their cause “in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets” in observance of “the principles of law and order and common sense.”

It is this letter that provokes Dr King’s response. As St Martin addresses “My dear Fellow Clergymen,” he is addressing these eight eminent leaders of Birmingham's respectable religious establishment. It is on the margins of the newspaper in which this very letter was printed that St Martin begins to pen his reply. It is their thinly veiled attack, labeling him an “outsider,” that occasions his timeless retort: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is their charge of “extremism” that prompts the passage we hear this evening.

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And without that context, we might think that St Martin’s reply is a bit, well, extreme. We are good Episcopalians after all. We follow our Anglican progenitors in abhorring overmuch fervor, right? We nod our heads knowingly when our presbyters preach of “the poison of enthusiasm” (as the English divine George Hickes put it in a sermon aptly titled “The Spirit of Enthusiasm Exorcised” preached before the University of Oxford on July 11, 1680).

We do not quite know what to do with such talk of “extremism,” as St Martin seems keen to promote. It does not quite fit in our well-ordered liturgy, or our well-ordered lives; our well-ordered church, or our well-ordered city and society. It seems to us uncouth. We would probably be inclined indeed to suggest that King and company work the proper channels, know their place, and respect the principles of law and order and common sense.

And that is precisely why we need to heed the words of this sinner and saint, this pastor and prophet. That is why we must hear—in these words written to his dear fellow clergymen there, then—the Spirit of the living God speaking to us, here, now. For in this of all weeks, we are yet again confronted by placating powers and principalities who seek to keep things the way they are, to resist change, to assert law and order over immediate, capacious, demanding compassion.

Do we have ears to hear? And will we, how will we, respond?

Do we hear the summons in the satisfaction that, after being initially disappointed, St Martin finds in being labeled an “extremist”?

"Was not Jesus an extremist for love… Was not Amos an extremist for justice… Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel."

Do we hear these words written by St Martin to them, there, then; and through him—through the Spirit of the Living God at work in him—to us, here, now:

"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?

On Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. 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 nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."

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This morning, we hear—in both the Hebrew scripture and the Gospel—a calling, a summons. We hear the Spirit of the Living God stirring Samuel out of his slumberous contentment and into the prophetic witness he is called to, in a time when “word of the Lord was rare in those days” and “visions were not widespread.” We hear the summons of Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, extended to Philip and Nathaniel, bidding them to leave everything they have, all that they possess, all the degrees they have accumulated, all of the money and property they have accrued, all of the respect and esteem they have earned, all that they have cultivated in their well-ordered lives, to follow him—out of that agnostic incredulity that Nathaniel so poignantly expresses, “Can anything good come from that sh**hole Nazareth?”, that dismissive elitism, arrogance, and bigotry; and into the life of radical discipleship, as followers of the lowly servant-savior, Jesus Christ.

The question before us is whether we will heed the stirring of the Spirit in our lives.

Will we be, as the Bishop of Seoul in the Anglican Church of Korea challenged his flock this week, transformed from being mere believers into devoted disciples? Taking that next step from passively acknowledging that, “yeah, there’s probably a God and Jesus very well could be, meh, probably is, God’s Son” to really and truly responding to the summons of the Holy Spirit at work among and within… awakening us out of our slumberous complacency, out of our agnostic incredulity, into a living and active faith, into being not just believers but disciples, to—if I dare say it to this esteemed lot of Episcopalians—an enthusiasm and extremism.

In a world where the placating powers of privilege and political clout utilize their platform to demonize and exclude the poor (you know, those who inhabit the supposed sh**holes of the world) from the gated, walled-off lands of plenty—built on the backs of the dispossessed and excluded—holding up to us the uncomfortable mirror of the America that America has always been for those who aren’t the fortunate few, we need some Christians willing to risk just a bit of extremism. We need some Christians who know that the promised kingdom of God—where heavens are opened and the angels of God ascend and descend—is not among the powerful but the poor. We need some Christians who are willing to risk their well-ordered lives to follow the One who relocated to, of all places, Nazareth of Galilee to be with us. We need some Christians who—wherever they find themselves on the journey of life and faith—want to take the next step, from being a mere believer to devoted disciple. We need some Christians ready to proclaim the Good News of salvation from sin and life abundant that is to be found in Jesus Christ; who liberates us by His grace from our own personal prisons, our cages of concupiscence, and the structures of social sin that keep us perpetually participating in the fallenness of this world.

Will you heed that stirring and respond: “Here I am”? Will you come when He commands: “Follow me”? Will you stand up against injustice and respect the dignity of every human being? Will you refuse to remain silent when human dignity—the human dignity of the poorest of the poor, the most powerless of the powerless—is under direct attack? Will you refuse to stand idly by when there is an injustice somewhere that is, therefore, a threat to justice everywhere? Will you open your hearts to receive the grace, hospitality, and love God offers you this very morning; and in turn offer that grace, hospitality, and love to your fellow human being, your neighbors, from here to Haiti?

Will we, do we, have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to us, here, now? Will, how will, you respond?

For the nation, the church, and the world are still in dire need of some creative extremists indeed. Amen.

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Fr Joseph Wolyniak serves as chaplain to The Episcopal Church at Princeton, encompassing students, faculty, and staff at Princeton University, Westminster Choir College, and Princeton Theological Seminary.

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