When Billy Joel sang “Darling, I don’t know why I go to extremes,” I think we could all relate. We’ve each dipped our toe in the crazy pool of extremism from time to time; but we don’t want to swim in it. Proper swimming apparel would be a spiritual hazmat suit.
Like Jesus did in His time, we will meet some overzealous citizens and encounter their extremist views. “Extremism” in political or religious spheres has bad connotations—and rightfully so. It is often associated with riots, immoral acts, illegal behaviors, and polarizing schemes. It can get manifest through racism, sexism, terrorism, inter-religious hatred, or ethnic hostility. I don’t think there is much, if anything, good about extremism.
We often use extremist interchangeably with radical, but I differentiate the terms here. Jesus was, and is, viewed as a radical. “Radical” comes from “radish” which means rooted. He was certainly strongly rooted in a way of being—the way of His Heavenly Father and the way He marks out for us. He was rooted in spiritually rich soil that presented a way of living and way of loving that inspires goodness. Every parent wants to give his/her children similar roots, as does every pastor to his parishioners. If we are deeply rooted in rich spiritual soil, we will be solidly anchored and less likely to grow crooked or weak which causes us to sway with the winds of change or get blown over by forceful pressures.
Whereas extremists are basically concerned for their own point of view and don’t value other perspectives or circumstances, radicals tend to perceive, and work for, the common good. Radical thinking wants us to all reach new heights. We can think of a tree with a healthy root system and envision its branches that stretch high and far, much as each of us should strive to grow in moral development, civil discourse, sacred discernment, and good citizenship.
Some are concerned about the divisive political climate in America today and fearful of extremist behavior, like that which was demonstrated across our country this summer and fall. Broadening to an ecclesial perspective, I am concerned about extremists I encounter in church, too. They are the people who argue about indulgences or are obsessed with hierarchy or scrupulous in counting sins or obnoxious in judging others or compulsive in rubrical devotion. Jesus dealt with them also. Scrupulosity is a mental illness and, unfortunately, the church has fed this type of extremism that is often experienced, even encouraged, in confessionals.
The sooner our nation learns to deal with extremism the better. The same is true for our church as we deal with our own forms of it. As we know, you cannot reason with someone who is unreasonable, and you cannot tell a crazy person that he or she is crazy. We must allow for freedom of expression and variations in viewpoints and remember that, from time to time, we’ve probably all gone to extremes. The only additional suggestion I have is turning to Jesus, the radical. He dealt with Pharisees and Sanhedrin and other unreasonable souls by being strongly and deeply rooted in love, the secret ingredient that our Creator added to the recipe by which He created us creatures, made in His image and likeness. We may not squash extremist actions or polarizing behaviors in the Catholic Church or the United States of America but I believe that if we imitate Christ who was rooted in the Commandments to which He adhered, the Beatitudes which He presented, and the Catholic Social Teachings which He inspired, we will contribute to a healthier, holier, and more wholesome society and a common good that brings the kingdom of heaven to earth.