As I write these words the shock of the Fort Hood shootings has subsided, somewhat. Tragic as it is, in a time of war(s), we almost get used to reports of American service members being shot. That’s what military people sometimes do: get shot. But for such shootings to happen in the “homeland” itself, and by one of our own, has added a dimension to this tragedy that will gnaw at us long after many other military deaths have been assimilated, however uncomfortably, into our national consciousness.
Of course, the usual questions arise. How could such an act of terrorism have been committed on a military base—in Texas of all places? Shouldn’t someone have seen it coming? Why weren’t the warning signs acted upon? And how could a man such as Major Nidal Hasan, a religious fanatic, have been allowed to remain in the military?
The last question, however, contains a troubling concept. If Hasan went on this rampage not because of his religious beliefs but because of his religious “fanaticism,” then I have a problem because, like Major Nidal Hasan, I am a religious fanatic myself.
After all, I try to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, who told His followers: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26*). This Jesus told His followers: “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). He also said: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35). He, of course, went even further in radical demands of His adherents: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).
Who’s going to believe these things, much less attempt to follow them, other than a religious “fanatic”?
Watch Your Words
In fifth-century B.C. Athens, Socrates told his rhetorical opponents to define their terms. About 2,400 years later Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that philosophical problems were, really, language problems. However different their approaches, both men touched on a central problem: how we understand the words we so easily and casually throw around. Words, for instance, such as “fundamentalist,” “extremist,” or “fanatic.” And, far from being the irenic musings of linguist philosophers, the understanding of such terms is particularly important at a time of daily headlines about this or that “fundamentalist,” “extremist,” or “fanatic” blowing themselves up and the unfortunate others within range of their holy rage.
It’s no wonder, then, that “fundamentalist,” “extremist,” and/or “fanatic” have taken on negative connotations. But connotations are merely clothing. They change, they can be shed, and they can mask a reality underneath that’s radically different from what appears on the surface.
For starters, one doesn’t have to be “a person of faith” to be a fanatic, an extremist, or a fundamentalist. Remember the Weathermen, American students in the 1960s and 1970s who used violence to protest the Vietnam War? They were extremists, secular ones too. And who’s ever going to call Theodore Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) moderate? Whether someone steals live lobsters out of restaurant tanks and returns them to the ocean, or whether they bomb the cars or homes of those using animals for medical experiments, we’re dealing with fanatics and extremists par excellence. (And though animal rights terrorists usually direct their ire at those who experiment on such higher species as nonhuman primates and dogs, some have now targeted researchers who experiment on—fruit flies.) What, meanwhile, do you call a person who climbs a tree and won’t come down until assured that the tree won’t be “harmed” by loggers? Or what about those who go on hunger strikes for all sorts of reasons: from the Belarusian prisoner who threatened to starve himself to death if not allowed to go to his wife’s funeral, to the Iranian asylum seeker who sewed his mouth shut (along with eyelids and ears) to protest his immigration status in England?
Look at the Marxist movement of the twentieth century, at those willing to rot in jail for years, or sacrifice their lives, for the cause of international Communism. Or what about the extremism, the fanatical single-mindedness, of the Nazis? Who but an extremist is going to burn untold thousands of children alive for no other reason than the status of one of their grandparents?
The point? Extremism doesn’t always come in religious garb. If anything, one could only wish that those involved in the Holocaust (either by active participation or by silent acquiescence) many who had gone to church as children (and some who continued to attend as adults)—would have been a bit more “extreme” or “fanatical” in following Jesus Christ rather than Adolf Hitler.
Let’s be fair and balanced, too. What about those whose “fanaticism,” “extremism,” or “fundamentalism” brought much good? The Protestant Reformers who allowed themselves to be burned alive, tortured on the rack, or hacked to death, rather than surrender their religious beliefs to the dictates of a corrupted church hierarchy, were nothing if not fanatical and extreme. After all, over what biblical doctrine is a “moderate” going to let his flesh get ripped off with red-hot pinchers while some prelate stands before him, declaring, “Recant!”? Thanks to the faith of these “fanatics,” Protestantism exists today, and huge sections of the world remain free from the once, and again if we all forget, dark yoke of papal political and religious hegemony.
Meanwhile, the folk who risked life and limb to seek to end slavery in the American South were not known for possessing a temperate zeal. Some of the women in the suffragette movement were extremists, even fundamentalists in their cause, and yet who now denies the justice of that cause? What moderates, too, were going to let themselves get clubbed in the face by Bull Conner’s thugs or mauled by his dogs? And, whatever one might have thought of his politics, Barry Goldwater might have been on to something when he said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Many of the great political and social revolutions of history, including the American Revolutionary experience, were promulgated by men and women deeply, even fanatically, dedicated to their cause. King George and his supporters might have viewed the American calls for separation from England as “fanaticism” and “extremism”; the colonists had another word for it: “patriotism.”
Whether in politics, art, science, whatever, most human endeavors, including and maybe even especially the good ones, weren’t accomplished by acts of balance and moderation but by folk who worked with a “fanatical” and “extremist” determination.
It’s particularly troubling, then, when Christians themselves warn about religious “extremism” or “fanaticism” or “fundamentalism” as if extremism and fanaticism and fundamentalism were in and of themselves bad. One expects such diatribes from a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens and the like, but from Christians themselves, from those who profess to believe in the Bible?
One wonders . . . have they read it lately? If Abraham’s intent to sacrifice his only son on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22) wasn’t the act of a “fundamentalist,” what is? The three Hebrew boys’ willingness to be tossed “into the burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:20) rather than bow down before an idol, or the prophet Daniel’s getting thrown into a den of hungry lions (Daniel 6) rather than hide his devotions to God, were the actions of “fanatics” and “extremists,” not moderates. And what does the Christian do with Ezekiel, who was told by God to “lie on your left side” for 390 days in order to bear the sin of Israel, and then when done with that to “lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the house of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year” (Ezekiel 4:4, 6)? Or with Stephen, who was stoned to death rather than stop preaching Jesus (Acts 7)? And what about the apostle Paul, whose zealous “fanaticism” and “extremism” caused him to be jailed, beaten, hounded, persecuted, hated, maligned, and, eventually, martyred by the Romans? Had Paul been “tempered” in his faith, he wouldn’t have lived and died as he did.
“And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy: they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise” (Hebrews 11:32-39).
Hardly the fate of “moderates,” is it?
And then, of course, there’s Jesus Himself, who told His followers, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), and who lived His whole life with the express purpose of allowing Himself to be nailed to a Roman cross until death.
Let’s be honest: terms such as “fanatics,” “extremists,” and “fundamentalists” much more closely reflect the kind of faith revealed in the Bible than do words such as “moderate” or “lukewarm” or “temperate.” In fact, the Bible records God saying to an era of rational moderation, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15, 16 ESV).†
Hence, terms such as “extremism,” “fanaticism,” even “fundamentalism,” especially when prefixed with “religious,” don’t deserve the knee-jerk negativity that they get. Extremists, fanatics, fundamentalists, like moderates, liberals, and leftists, come in endless hues, shapes, and sizes, each driven by different motives and agendas. Plus, too—who sets the metrics that determine where the line is crossed from “liberal” to “moderate” to “fanatic,” anyway? Do we leave that call to CNN, Rush Limbaugh, or a not-too-sure-about-the-absolutes-of-Scripture Episcopalian? That some folk deem Pat Robertson not “extremist” enough helps prove how recklessly these terms can be used.
Words such as “fanatics” and “extremists”—as radically subjective as they are—mean what? People dedicated, to a very strong degree, to a cause. Big deal! The apostle Paul was. The Protestants burned at the stake were. Martin Luther King, Jr., was. So are missionaries who spend their lives seeking to relieve the sufferings of the poor. So is Major Nidal Hasan. So am I.
What’s important isn’t so much the cause, whatever it is, but the means that we “extremists” and “fanatics” use to achieve it. Many Muslims, as fervent as Nidal Hasan seems to be, would no more dream of using violence than I would.
In short, we’ve been victims of a linguistic hijacking. Words that depict religious faith at its highest ideal have been usurped by those who depict it at its lowest. And, unfortunately, but (thanks to folk such as Nidal Hasan) understandably, it’s with the lowest that these terms have most tenaciously stuck.
*Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by Permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
†Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.