26 September 2016

darling i don't know why i go to extremes.

A perennial thought in my head goes like this: is it good or bad to be an extreme person? 

Many would contend the word "extremist" has a negative connotation. You know, someone who goes too far in his or her beliefs, usually political or religious in nature. Like in a scary, they-are-totally-crazy kind of way. Growing up, however, I listened to a lot of Billy Joel and I long regarded the song "I Go to Extremes" as sort of a personal anthem. My parents would joke that I was a rather extreme person. And now here I am writing a blog post about it. I guess this proves them right.

As a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Tanzania, I feel especially attracted to the extreme - to the edge - a real hallmark of the Maryknoll charism. Of course, I also see great wisdom in the principle of "all things in moderation." This is especially true in situations of conflict when some element of compromise is needed or the very fact that the real truth often lies somewhere in between.

But I am not really comfortable with moderation. Nope, not at all. Moderation itself is a comfortable word and I don't really like comfortable. Like Billy Joel sang, "If I stumble or fall, it's all or nothing at all." I have to be all in on something - go all the way - or it feels uninteresting, disingenuous, or without effect. This is more or less where I stand.

When I ponder the notion of extremes, I generally do so in light of how I am living my life, that is, the everyday decisions I am making that add up to form a summary picture of the kind of person I am. Most often these are self-described acts of discipline, but in actuality look more like over-the-top, nonsensical frugality.

Yes, that is actually how I think. All the time. Of course, however, there are more globally pressing matters to consider. To help me navigate such issues and the world of extremism, I look to inspirational figures. There are a lot of them, but let's consider a few.

Martin Luther King is someone you may have heard of. We have a national holiday because of him in the States (thanks MLK!). He was quite literally called an extremist, and he reflected on this given title in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he writes:

“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…Was not Amos an extremist for justice....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?” 

Martin Luther King of Georgia by Br. Robert Lentz OFM

When I really think about it, MLK is right. Jesus is a very extreme figure. He said things that were deeply challenging, things that ran quite counter to the accepted scope of thought, which is just as true today as it was two thousand years ago. Jesus talked about the importance of giving from one's poverty, not one's wealth. He told us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. Jesus continually reached out to and placed himself on the side of the marginalized, the outcast, the rejected. All of these ideas and actions sound extreme, because they are, and we need more of it. Here's a fun thought experiment: look at the below photo. Is Jesus looking into or out of the prison?

Christ of Maryknoll by Br. Robert Lentz OFM

Monday nights are spirituality nights in our home. Usually this means Ashley and I read a spiritually-oriented book out loud together and discuss. Currently, we are reading The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist by Dorothy Day, a personally inspiring figure that I have written about before. Someone once asked Dorothy Day how close she was to people living in poverty (imagine!), which she reflected on in her writing:

"Going around and seeing such sights is not enough. To help the organizers, to give what you have for relief, to pledge yourself to voluntary poverty for life so that you can share with your bothers is not enough. One must live with them, share with them their suffering too. Give up one's privacy, and mental and spiritual comforts as well as physical."

Dorothy Day of New York by Br. Robert Lentz OFM

That struck me as an awful extreme outlook, and actually is what moved me to write this post. At first I resisted Day's perspective, but then felt strangely drawn to it. Much has been said and written about the romanticization of poverty, and having lived for nearly three years in an urban slum in Tanzania, I can say it is not particularly romantic. I feel like Ashley and I are doing much of what Day writes about, yet I know we could go much further still and wonder if we should. But when would it ever be enough? I suppose it never would be. But should we not continue to challenge ourselves?

Dorothy Day's life, which continuously butted against Catholicism and communism, reminds me of a quote from Hélder Câmara, a Roman Catholic Archbishop in Brazil, and an advocate of liberation theology, who is quoted as saying, "When I give to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." People are generally okay if you want to personally give to the poor, but if you dare challenge the systems and structures that keep them poor, forget it! That makes you an extremist.

If that be the case, then I rather be an extremist.


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