Called to be Extremists
Extremism is not the problem. There is a lot of talk in our country about extremism. The extreme right, the extreme left, the extreme this and that…the extreme factions in our society are frightening, and we may easily think everything will be okay if people stop being extreme. I can think of fewer ideas so misleading and dangerous. The problem is never one of being extreme. The problem is when we are extreme in the wrong way.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has issued a 60-day stand-down in the military to address problems of extremism. The Pentagon is ramping up efforts to combat far-right extremism in the nation. These are just two examples of a growing movement to stamp out extremism in America. What do we make of this? What light can we draw from the gospels on these escalating social issues?
One needs to be careful with politics in religion. We cannot avoid it altogether. We do not compartmentalize as Orthodox Christians. Faith pours out into every part of our life. Nothing is merely political, after all, for our struggles in America are “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). We need to be cautious with politics and social movements, yet we need open eyes. In these times, we need the right response to the movement against extremism.
The scriptures talk a good deal about extremism. Psalm 139:22 prays: “I hate [evil] with extreme hatred.” There is nothing moderate in this advice. Our attitude towards evil must be nothing less than extreme. In Revelation 3:16, God says to the Church, “So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Extremism does not seem to be a problem here. On the contrary, God’s displeasure at the Church is that it is not extreme enough. Christ preaches, “The kingdom of heaven is taken by violence, and the violent seize it” (Mt. 11:12). Our Lord does not mince words. Paradise cannot be regained passively. We have to labor for it. We need the energy and gusto of a soldier at war, right here, in our hearts, in our efforts to submit to God.
Listen to St. Paul’s words in our Epistle reading today.
“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (I Cor. 9:24-27).
Was St. Paul an extremist? He most certainly was. He was extreme in everything he did. It was because of his extremism that he received the crown of glory.
Our Gospel today is also about extremism.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard” (Mt. 20:1-2).
The householder keeps going back to the streets to find more laborers. From dawn to dusk, he seeks out anyone willing to work. It does not matter who started when, but only that people came and got involved in holy work.
There are two categories of people. The first are those “standing idle in the market place.” These represent everyone who is caught up in the ways of the world. They are “idle” because they go with the flow. They are moderates because they float downstream, carried along by the spirit of the times. “Infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). It is ironic that the idlers are standing in the market place. I saw a picture of New York City Square the other day. The signs, advertisements, lights, and distractions were disorienting to say the least. With all the noise and entertainment today, it is no wonder our world has forgotten God. Yet, where does the householder go? He goes straight to the market. God comes to us right where we are, in the heart of the storm. He seeks us right in the depths of our confusion and brokenness, and calls us out to the Kingdom.
The second group of people are those in the vineyard. They are not idle. They are laboring. “The vineyard,” St. John Chrysostom says, “is the life of righteousness in which the various virtues are planted.” The field is the soul. The laborer is the man or woman striving for holiness.
“One must clean the royal house from every impurity and adorn it with every beauty, then the king may enter into it. In a similar way one must first cleanse the earth of the heart and uproot the weeds of sin and the passionate deeds and soften it with sorrows and the narrow way of life, sow in it the seed of virtue, water it with lamentation and tears, and only then does the fruit of dispassion and eternal life grow. For the Holy Spirit does not dwell in a man until he has been cleansed from passions of the soul and body” (St. Paisius Velichkovsky).
We cannot be idle in this life. We cannot be moderate. We must be extremists, extreme in our pursuit of holiness.
Extremism is not the problem in America. We will not fix anything by combating extremism. What does that even mean? We did not hear much talk about extremism during the Black Lives Matter riots. Why is the Pentagon’s campaign directed towards far-right extremism, and not far-left extremism? In the end, all talk about suppressing extremism really boils down to one power suppressing another. Extremism is not the problem. Extremism in the wrong cause is the problem.
“How can we heal America’s fracture?” That is a question in all the headlines, as though division were the problem in America. Our problem is not that we are divided. Our problem is that we do not stand for righteousness. Any attempt whatsoever for our country to unite, if it means uniting on a foundation other than Judeo-Christian values, will give birth to a dystopia far more hideous than all the regimes of the 20th century. We do not need mere unity. We need Christianity.
2021 offers us this challenge. Will we stop being moderates, and will we start being extremists, here, in the Church, in our service to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?