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Gottesblog

A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Extremism

Extremist Christians (outside the cultural mainstream)
By Larry Beane

In this article, a seasoned U.S. senator describes the National Rifle Association as an "extreme group."

Now whether one agrees or disagrees with the NRA's interpretation of the second amendment, the issue ought to be whether they are right or wrong, not how "extreme" they are, as if "two plus two" can be answered according to a bell curve of popularity.

The use of the word "extreme" and its cousins "extremist" and "extremism" is a rhetorical tool to demonize someone who does not agree with the person making the charge.  In the minds of some, it might conjure up disturbing black and white footage of stormtroopers goose-stepping in unison or of raving fascists gesturing and ranting.  For others, it might call to mind imagery of a camel-clad preacher using words like "vipers" and "wrath," or the word may even remind one of another Preacher who drove moneychangers out of the temple with whips while overturning tables.

One man's "extremism" is another man's "passion."

The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod clings to "extreme" views that many other church bodies have long since discarded in our modern, if not postmodern, age: such quaint doctrines as male only ordination, closed communion, belief in the literal reading of Genesis and the six-day creation account (over and against Darwinian evolution), and the traditional view of marriage that considers homosexuality sinful.  Many find our belief that Christianity is the only path to heaven and that people actually go to hell to be not just "extremist," but downright shocking, embarrassing, and reactionary.  We are way out of the mainstream of modern Christian thought.  And that's what it means to be "extremist."

We also are pretty "extreme" when it comes to fellowship, as we won't share altars and pulpits with denominations that have not formally agreed with us in doctrine and practice.  We do not share sacraments even with many Americans who call themselves "Lutherans," nor do we sanction prayers with non-Christians - even in the aftermath of terrible tragedies.

Many would call this "extremism."

But the reason for using this term is that it prevents any substantive discussion.  It is a way of appealing to numbers, to the crowd of one's peers, instead of to the rightness or wrongness of something.  It is a variation of the old "ad hominem" trick. With one word (that really communicates nothing), those who disagree claim a moral high ground and are spared having to debate, discuss, or defend their position.  It is much like the rhetorical tactic of asking a man if he has stopped beating his wife.

The epithet is sometimes hurled at Gottesdiensters.  We are "extremists" in liturgical matters.  Of course, that is really just a way of saying we do not countenance guitars, skits, and dancing girls in our worship services.  Sometimes the appeal is made to moderation.  Twin straw men are set up on either side, with Hans conducting High Mass with incense, and Franz singing Jesus lyrics to Green Day music.  Both Hans and Franz are condemned as "extremists" while their bland step-brother Lukewarm Louey emerges as the Reasonable Middle - the guy who wears vestments (but not too many), who is respectful (but not to the point of reverence) and who avoids both "extremes" of guitars and chanting, and of chasubles and hipster jeans in the chancel.

When the word "extremist" is used, the conversation ends.  The questions do not get asked, discussed, or answered.  The trump has been played and the trick is taken.  And yet, we still want to ask and discuss and answer the question: "Why do we make use of traditional chant, hymnody, vestments, and rubrics in worship?"  The answer to these questions always point us to Jesus.  Whether you agree with or disagree with, like or dislike, are comfortable with or uncomfortable with the traditional liturgy, the elements of Christian liturgical practice are undoubtedly Christian, which is to say: Christocentric.  The answers to the substantive questions (whether they are asked or side-stepped) are rooted firmly in Christ and in our confession of Him as Lord and Savior.

Yeah, the Guy with the whips.

And whether you agree with Barry Goldwater's politics or not, I believe his paraphrase of Cicero (applied not to Jesus but to liberty and justice) exposes the intellectual laziness and avoidance of real discussion built in to the word "extremist" when the classical Roman orator said: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

If you actually believe in something that is of grave importance, you should be willing to bear the epithet "extremist."  Otherwise, what's the point?
Rev. Larry Beane2 Comments