The headlines scream about extremists who seek to cause suffering in the lives of ordinary people in order to create a climate of fear and instability. We read and watch daily reports of extremist groups like Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors extremist activity in the USA, especially threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

Extremist is a dirty word.

Those of us old enough to remember may recall that Martin Luther King Jr. was also called an extremist by those who opposed segregation and racial equality.  Back in the day, many white people were threatened by King’s activism and charisma. They argued that he was trying to bring about change too quickly. Some openly claimed that he was a communist or at least an extremist.

Dr. King said he wasn’t a communist, but, after considerable reflection, he admitted he was in fact an extremist.

The definition of an extremist is “one who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm, especially in politics.”

To label another as an extremist is an intensely derogatory tag. Extremists are demagogues who employ faulty logic. Extremists show disdain for the rights and liberties of others and resent the limitations of their own activities. Extremists are not nice people.  Extremists are people to be avoided.


Extremists hate the status quo.

But Martin Luther King Jr. argued that there is more than one way to be an extremist—there is more than one kind of extremism and there is more than way to change the status quo. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote:

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 Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand I can do no other, so help me God.”….And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”….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 love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Perhaps the deeper and more important question these days is not whether someone is an extremist but what kind of extremist.

Generically speaking, extremists divide the world into Us verses Them.

What the world needs now is a deeper extremism. This deeper extremism is not rooted in ideological thinking but in compassionate living. A deeper extremism is not one that divides, incites fear or causes suffering, but one that unites to bring healing and promote possibility.

Extremist thinking divides the world into Us and Them. Extremist compassion knows there is no such thing as Us verses Them.

Especially in this world and at this time, Dr. King’s version of extremism is the one and only brand of extremism that has the power to heal the world.

The question is not whether you are an extremist but rather, what kind of extremist will you be?