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Just another "extremist": The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

October 17, 2017

Our fearless leader, David French, ADF Senior Counsel, wrote a thought-provoking column yesterday at Patheos, reminding us that sometimes, standing up for what is right and speaking truth is not always “civil”, using Jesus as the example.  This was a great reminder, especially yesterday, as we celebrated the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  People like to remember Rev. King for his instrumental work in achieving racial justice, but forget that in his time, Rev. King was considered a radical by many.  This included other Christians, who urged Rev. King to take a more “moderate”, incremental approach.  Dr. King responded to these concerns in 1963 with his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”:

I am coming to feel that people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will.  We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.  We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God . . . We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

Addressing his dismay at being called an “extremist” by his fellow clergymen, Rev. King noted:

I must admit that I was initially disappointed in being so categorized.  But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.  Was not Jesus an extremist in love—“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.”  Was not Amos an extremist for justice—“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ—“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”  Was not Martin Luther an extremist—“Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.”  Was not John Bunyan an extremist—“I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.”  Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist—“This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”  Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist—“We hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist we will be.  Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love?  Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice—or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

We know that “civility codes” on college campuses are used to stifle speech (see, for example, the case of the College Republicans at San Francisco State University), which is why it is important to oppose them.  (Ironically, they were also used by government officials to silence speech during the Civil Rights Movement.  Many of the foundational free speech cases come from that era.)

We must remember that simply because someone does not like what they hear does not mean the truth should not be spoken.  And we must remember that when we are labeled “extreme” simply because we truly believe in love, justice and truth, it is no insult, though it is meant for one.  It simply means we are in good company with those in the past that chose to stand for these things and make a difference.

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