Was Dr. King an Extremist?
One fascinating part of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmangham Jail” is his defense against being labeled an “extremist.” Against this charge he argues:
“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need to emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is a more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”
Dr. King rejected the “extremism” of what he describes as the “black nationlist” but he also rejected the complacency of many in the white church. He wanted to affect change to bring about justice, but he wanted to do it through non-violent protest. And so, he argues, he was not an extremist, at least not with the connotations often ascribed to extremists – hatred and violence.
Later in the letter, though, he captures the term for his own purposes, embracing on his own terms:
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. 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 Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” 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 for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Is too much religion a bad thing?
“Perhaps the biggest deterrent to Christianity for the average person today is… the shadow of fanaticism. Many nonbelievers have friends or relatives who have become “born again” and seem to have gone off the deep end. They soon begin to express loudly their disapproval of various groups and sectors of our society… When arguing for the truth of their faith they often appear intolerance and self-righteous.”
People tend to view Christians along a spectrum, with “nominal Christians” on one end and “fanatics” on the other. “Fanatics” are those who are seen as prone to “over-believe” and “over-practice” their Christianity. In this view, the best kind of Christian is the one that falls somewhere in the middle. This Christian practices his faith, but not “too much.” Keller points out that “the problem with this approach is that it assumes that the Christian faith is basically form of moral improvement.” If that were true, then this kind of “over-practiced” moralism really would be something objectionable. In fact, these “high powered” moralists had a name in Jesus’ day: Pharisees.
But mere “moral improvement” is not the essence of Christianity. “[T]he essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us.” The people who are considered “fanatics” (those who view Christianity primarily as a form of moral improvement) are not fanatics “because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed enough.” Those who fully committed to the gospel and understand the nature of grace will not be marked by self-righteousness and pride, but by humility and grace.
Moralistic “fanaticism” is a constant problem within the Church but the solution is not to “tone down” your faith but to gain a better grasp of the nature of the gospel.
This brings us, and Keller, back around to Dr. King.
Keller notes that there have been times in history when Christianity has had to self-correct. The ostensibly “Christian” continents of Europe and North America bear much responsibility for the slave trade and the subsequent segregation and injustice of the South. But, it was also strong Christians who led the charge in the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements.
Keller observes of Martin Luther King Jr. regarding “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: “[H]e did not call on Southern churches to become more secular… He invoked God’s moral law and Scripture. He called white Christians to be more true to their own beliefs and to realize what the Bible really teaches.” He didn’t call for moral relativism or secular ideals. He called down the words of the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). The answer to racism wasn’t “toned down” Christianity, but a better understanding of the gospel.
“Extremism,” as it is used in today’s vernacular, as something that leads to violence and hatred, is a terrible thing and religious extremism is the worst. But we should confuse “extremism” with what it means to be fully committed to the gospel and the Word of God. Jesus was intense. He was marked by zeal and absolute obedience to God and to Scripture. But, his zeal did not lead him to hatred, but to an unparalleled act of love. It led him to the cross to sacrifice his own body for the sins of an undeserving world. And it is this “extreme” love that we are called to both receive through faith and emulate ourselves.
 All remaining quotes are from The Reason for God by Tim Keller, Kindle version, chapter 4.