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Should a wrong turn down an unfamiliar side street lead you to a dead end, there’s nothing remarkable about that. But when the road back turns out to be a dead end as well, along with any side streets, this may be no ordinary road you have taken. It may well be that you have entered… (for those of you who remember the show) the twilight zone.

Science fiction from a television show, long ago? More like current events. In Gaza and Israel, in Sudan and Darfur. Moving forward with the same old same old, with more of eye for an eye, or make that a head for an eye, is getting people nowhere but further down a blind alley. But with decades and even centuries’ worth of hurt and pain and scores to settle, there’s no going back as though nothing happened.

How does one forgive when it is impossible to forget? Where does anyone go when there’s no going forward, and yet there’s no going backward either, once a dead end has become a box with no exit? As in Israel and Gaza today, where extremists in Hamas are locked in mortal combat with extremists in Israel. Those who fire rockets at Israeli schools and homes, and who blow themselves up on Israeli buses, are easy to recognize as extremists. But just because someone wears a uniform and carries out the official policy of a recognized government does not mean that they are innocent of extremism either. I don’t know what else to call the invasion of Gaza, or the genocide in Darfur, or the targeting civilians with nuclear weapons, but extremism as state policy.

There was a television special a few weeks ago about religion and violence. A scholar on it said something that made sense to me: that the biggest, most transforming spiritual breakthroughs have happened in such moments of deadlock, when people got a God’s eye view of their propensity for violence, and for the predicaments it had gotten them into, and when they looked desperately for a new way out when there was no way forward or backward. The only way left was to look upward, for help, and inward, to name and to claim their own responsibility for their part in turning a dead-end into a box.

Some would say that this is what gave Islam its power, when Mohammed achieved something that most people in 7th Century Arabia thought was impossible: stopping the cycle of feuding and honor killings that for centuries had set the tribes of Arabia against each other, and uniting them into a powerful force. Of course, their neighbors weren’t always thrilled that their aggression got turned outward, against them.

Israel’s most formative early moments were also breakthroughs to reconciliation, as when Jacob, his family and servants, were caught between his uncle Laban to the east, and his brother Esau to the west. Jacob and all his flocks and people could not stay with Laban, because they were too many. War was threatening to break out over the competition for grazing lands and water holes. Going west toward his brother Esau was his least bad option. Esau, whom Jacob had defrauded of his birthright, and his blessing. Esau, whom Jacob had treated with contempt, whom Jacob had left with death threats ringing in his ears. But for his family to survive, Jacob could only go there on Esau’s terms, penitent and disarmed. Seeing his brother the next day, and getting a welcome he knew he did not deserve, Jacob said those powerful, famous words to Esau: “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”

This was a formative event, not only for Jacob, but in the history of Israel. In that moment of reconciliation, God revealed himself to Jacob and to all Israel as a God who works for the reconciliation of the world to himself, and to itself. Israel would always carry this reconciling sense of God in its spiritual DNA.

It would be no surprise then, no departure, no new thing, really, when Jesus would later teach, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” because the God of Jacob had already revealed himself as the God who makes reconciliation possible in even the most hopeless of conflicts, and as the God who may even make himself known through our adversaries, our enemies, our critics and our victims.

Which has gotten me to wondering about Israel and Gaza: how did their two faiths, born as they were in the fires of forgiveness, become deadlocked into a self-accelerating grudge match? And what would the transforming spiritual breakthrough for Israel and Gaza, the Israelis and the Arabs, look like? Then it occurred to me: Duh! It has come already. It was Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Jesus served notice to this very effect through his inaugural sermon in Nazareth: that a breakthrough of reconciliation with their hated Gentile neighbors was about to happen in Israel. Back home after his first forays into public ministry, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah, the 61st chapter: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to preach good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners, to restore sight to the blind….to proclaim the year of God’s favor…” In short, God is about to usher in the promised, prophesied, world-reconciling kingdom of God. When he went on to say, “This day is this passage fulfilled in your presence,” he was saying, in effect, “And I am the one who will usher it in.”

Today many would call Jesus’ provocative statement, in that Nazarean synagogue, “extremist.” It was indeed an extreme claim to his lordship and to our loyalty, the kind of claim that makes the world duck for cover, fearing that suicide bombing is next, or a rocket propelled grenade.

Yet the initial response that Jesus gets is favorable. They’ve heard about his wonder-working ministry, his authoritative teaching, and his power over evil spirits. They have probably even heard other sermons like this, in which other people also said, “The kingdom of God is now here.” Maybe even from other preachers and leaders, who said, “And I am the one to usher it all in.” We know of several warriors and preachers in First Century Palestine who claimed in one way or another to be the Messiah, or at least to be ushering in his kingdom.

But that claim was always followed by the next one: that Israel’s humiliation will be avenged, that Rome will be to Jerusalem what Jerusalem now is to Rome, and any Gentile who gets in the way will wind up as buzzard bait. But not Jesus. He confronts this expectation head on when he goes on to say, “No doubt you will quote me this proverb: ‘Physician, heal yourself.’”

Which always struck me as a strange thing to say to his home town relatives and neighbors. Why, “Physician, heal yourself?” Isn’t that like, “Walk the walk before you talk the talk?” Or “Clean up your own act before you start pointing fingers?” Or “take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s?” What does that have to do with anything, especially since we’ve just read that the people of Nazareth approve of him and his teaching?

I think what the proverb really means is not, “Clean up your own act before you clean up ours,” but something more like, “Possession is nine tenths of the law, and relations are the other tenth.” Or “What’s mine is mine.” “The medicine is only for the physician.” Just like God’s kingdom and the Messiah is for us alone.

But Jesus goes on to say, “Remember when that drought and famine struck the land during the ministry of Elijah? And he made oil and grain to replenish itself for the widow of Zarephath, who hosted him? And only for her? She was a Gentile, by the way.”

“And when Israel was at war with Syria, and yet the Syrian army commander, Naaman, came to Israel looking to be healed of leprosy by the prophet Elisha? There were plenty of lepers in Israel wanting to be healed at that time, but only Naaman was. And by the way, he was a Gentile, too.”

Yes, we are God’s physicians, Jesus is saying, with the medicine of God’s kingdom in our medicine chest. But its not for us alone. Prepare to share. With your adversaries. Talk about extremism: Jesus has just confronted them, their attitudes and their assumptions, with all the subtlety and finesse of an oncoming Mack truck.

And that’s why the home crowd suddenly soured on Jesus worse than the Metrodome crowd ever did for Coach Childress and the Vikings. Sharing God’s kingdom with the Gentiles was the last thing on their mind. Especially after all they had suffered at Gentile hands. Rome had its own form of official state imperial terrorism and extremism. That’s why they suddenly went from applauding to appalled; that’s why all of a sudden they rushed him to the top of the hill to pitch him off a cliff. Jesus touched a raw nerve of anger and hurt that had long festered into racism, tribalism, bigotry and a zeal for vengeance. Like with Hamas and Israel today. They were too reactionary to recognize that, with Jesus, God was providing a way out of the dead end that had become a box with no exit. Another word for such boxes is “coffins.”

Which makes you wonder again: How is it that a faith that was formed by breakthroughs of reconciliation could become, at that moment, such a hateful and exclusive club? How is it that the faith of Jacob could become the fuel for the kind of extremism and terrorism that Jesus experienced? How is it that the descendants of Jacob could become a lynch mob, ready to kill one of their very own?

That’s what Martin Luther King, Jr., wondered about in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Here’s the story behind that letter: When Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and put in solitary confinement, he had a lot of time on his hands. Someone managed to smuggle into him a local newspaper. In that paper Dr. King read a full page ad taken out by the local ministerial association of Birmingham, Alabama. It spoke to the recent demonstrations that Dr. King had help to lead and organize against the segregation of schools, businesses and public facilities in Birmingham. In that full page ad, the local body of ministers, from most mainline denominations, said something to the effect of, “We’re with you, Dr. King and all you marchers and demonstrators, in the goals you wish to achieve. But not with the means you use. They are, in a word, extremist. Cool it. Be more patient, wait, negotiate, and integration and equality will eventually come in their own good time.

Fortunately, someone had also smuggled in a pen. With that pen, in the margins of that same newspaper, King wrote the classic, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it he dealt with the criticisms I just mentioned, such as that of being extremist.

What really seemed to break Martin’s heart was that these critiques came from fellow clergy in his beloved Christian church. He wrote to his fellow clergy: “I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?

“Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church…..” King went on to say: “There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”

Disturbing words, these. Dr. King’s question, What happened that the church became so domesticated to an unjust social order? is similar to the one I just posed: How did a faith that was forged in miraculous breakthroughs to reconciliation between previously implacable enemies become a cheering squad for bigotry and tribalism?

To those who labeled King, his movement and his methods “extremist,” King said, If its extremism you’re concerned about, let’s talk about fire hoses being turned on unarmed citizens who were exercising their right to free speech and freedom of assembly. If its extremism you’re concerned about, what do you call police dogs lunging at the bodies of young children and their grandparents?

King went on to write: “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.”

And with that brilliant insight, Dr. King turns the table on us in a way not unlike that of Jesus, when he told his hometown friends and family that the kingdom of
God has come, but that he and his kingdom are not their exclusive property or privilege.

They both turn the table on us and ask, not How might we avoid extremism? or How might we deal with extremists? but What kind of extremists will we be?

If we were looking for salvation from extremism in a polite, post-modern, relativistic luke warm tolerance whose gospel is to say that everything is equally true, that everything is finally one, and therefore the details of our differing beliefs and faiths and values don’t matter, neither Jesus nor Dr. Martin Luther King give us that option. To those who fear that any serious, exclusive commitment to one faith or one set of values constitutes extremism and is therefore setting the stage for suicide bombs and tank shells, both King and Jesus counter with a call to an extremism of love that says that I will prove my commitment to my faith not by my readiness to kill you who disagree with me, but by my readiness to die for you, whether you agree with me or not. A kind of loving extremism that can honestly admit, “Even if our values and beliefs cannot be reconciled to each other, we can be reconciled to each other.”

Besides, anything short of this extremist commitment to love—not just tolerance, but love– will never stand up against the brutal secular faiths of nationalism, militarism, fascism, racism, or the worship of wealth. It wouldn’t even recognize them for what they are: extremist religions as well, only under the guise of respectability and popularity. In spite of their secular costumes, they demand as many human sacrifices as did the Inquisition or the Crusades, or jihadist terrorists today. And finally, such a luke-warm, relativistic faith would never give people the power to forgive, when it is impossible to forget. That, I propose, is the ultimate test of our commitment to Christ and his kingdom: when the boxes we get into can be broken open and transformed into open highways; when we can forgive and be forgiven, even when we cannot forget.

That includes forgiving ourselves.

It has happened before. Within five years of delivering his home town inaugural sermon, the kingdom movement that Jesus started had claimed its first convert from among the Gentiles, and, all the more hard to believe, from within the ranks of the Roman Army: Peter’s friend and disciple, Cornelius.

When Dr. King penned his Letter From a Birmingham Jail in the margins of that newspaper, within my living memory, the racial situation in America seemed nearly as bleak then as does the relationship between Israel and Gaza today. Yet in only a few days, our first African-American president will be inaugurated. Yes, the church broke Dr. King’s heart with its foot-dragging and its fearful conformity. And yet King’s own movement was based in Jesus’ mission, birthed by the church, and fueled by the same reconciling love that brought Peter and the first gentile convert, Cornelius, together.

So, lets not despair of any miracles of forgiveness. Our God can still work miracles of reconciliation, when we look upward for help, and inward to name and claim our own responsibility for getting ourselves into dead ends that have become boxes without exits.

You know, I have often marveled at how Jesus’ friends and family got so far as to be able to trundle him up to the top of the cliff, only to watch him turn and walk out from among their midst unharmed. They did not part to let him pass because on the way there he converted them to a polite apathy and indifference about all things religious, but because the fire of divine love in his heart was hotter than the fires of hatred in theirs. He met brute force and overcame it with the same kind of loving, righteous force that struck a police officer in Birmingham, in the course of those same demonstrations that landed Dr. King in jail. This officer was escorting nonviolent civil rights protesters into a police van, to take them to jail. As they filed into the van, their hands cuffed together, singing hymns, the police officer looked at them and said, with tears in his eyes, “You are better people than I am.” There you see demonstrated the power of that creative and life-giving extremism of love that Dr. King called for. The world also saw it in that synagogue in Nazareth, and on that cliff top long ago.



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