Although we will officially celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr on January 21st, his actual birthday was January 15th. Those of us who remember those days will recall the conversation that took place among many white people in this culture. Threatened by King’s activism and his charisma there were many who argued that ML King was trying to change too much too  fast, that refusing to comprimise, he endangered American security and prosperity. Some openly charged  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.

This was an astonishing admission. Extremist was a dirty word. It has always been so—at least to those in power who are in a position to hurl the charge. To tag someone an extremist is to shun, ostracize and scapegoat.  Stay away from the extremists. An extremist is someone who holds a radically irrational point of view. Extremists are demagogues who employ faulty logic. Extremists show disdain for the rights and liberties of others. Extremists will step all over you to get what they want.  Extremists are not nice people.

If you listen to our leaders, extremists are the people who wish to do us harm. They are the people who justify the destruction of human life for political purposes and send suicide bombers as their messengers. To our leaders extremists are the bad guys and we (all of us who hate their indiscriminate violence) are the good guys.

It is no surprise that our leaders seek to simplify the difference between bad guys and good guys. And in this instance, SIMPLIFY is the operative word.

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.”

Those in our government (regardless their party) are invested in protecting the status quo—that’s not only how they got there but how they stay there. Even if current candidates argue that they are the candidates of change—just give them a few years in office and they’ll become the proponents of their own status quo.

Perhaps the deeper and more important question is not about whether someone is an extremist but what kind of extremist. Generically speaking, extremists that divide the world into Us verses Them and Good verses Evil.

But perhaps a deeper extremism refuses to divide the world into Us and Them or Good and Evil. Perhaps a deeper extremism sees the world as never divided, but despite all appearance, always One.

Herein lies an extremism that can heal the world.