Letter from a Birmingham Jail Part VII: Extremism is Good
February 15, 2009
This is one of my favorite parts of the Letter:
You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. . . . Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”
I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. . . .
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. . . .
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.
Compare this with the rhetoric tossed around by California liberals who probably fancy themselves part of Dr. King’s legacy. Specifically, one pro-choice women’s group describes Tony Strickland and Tom McClintock, two California Republicans, as “too extreme for California”, noting “There is no other candidate more extreme than Tom McClintock, bar none”. This was tried in a California attorney general race as well. Aside from the fact that those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and all that, I find it remarkable that throwing out a phrase like “too extreme for California” has any persuasive effect at all.
And it’s not as though liberals are the only ones who try this. The same rhetoric was tossed around by a California Republican back in 1998 against none other than Barbara Boxer (shocking, eh?). But the problem with Ms. Boxer isn’t that she’s “extreme.” It’s that she is, among other things, extremely pro-abortion (not pro-choice, mind you, but pro-abortion). [As an aside, I loved reading this transcript of her dodging the question whether it would be ok to kill a child with one foot still in the mother while the rest of the child is outside; she obviously couldn’t say that you can kill that child, but she refused to admit when a child is “born” because she supports partial-birth abortion. The transcript is pure comedy.]
Ever notice that those who accuse someone of being “extreme” on some issue are usually equally “extreme” on the other end of the political spectrum on that same issue? Those who have run out of intelligent arguments usually resort to name-calling…
In any event, there is no such thing as “too extreme for California”, or “too extreme” for any sort of political office. I want extremely dedicated, extremely virtuous, extremely wise, extremely effective government leaders. I’d like to avoid the extremely lazy, evil, stupid, and/or ineffective ones, but it’s not because they’re “extreme”, it’s because of the rest of the attributes listed. I would hope that the extremely dedicated, virtuous, wise, effective government leaders revel in being labeled “extremist” by their opponents, for it is their “extremism” in these attributes, and a refusal to compromise on foundational principles, that make them great leaders.