For Times Like These: A reflection on EXTREMISM
by Vartkes “Kass” Kassouni, D.Min.
The “Anchor” of our Faith
Years ago, George Beverly Shea, the beloved soloist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusades, made very popular a song he sang time and time again, inviting listeners to respond to the invitation extended: In Times Like These (Copyright, Ruth Caye Jones, 1944).
In times like these you need a Savior; In times like these you need an anchor; Be very sure, be very sure Your anchor holds and grips the Solid rock! This rock is Jesus. Yes, He’s the one: This Rock is Jesus, the only One! Be very sure, be very sure Your anchor holds and grips the Solid rock!
Having heard it and sung it myself many times, it has seeped into my sub-conscious, and I sing it from time to time when deeply challenged by events and circumstances, near and far. It popped up again when I was invited to write this article. However, I realize now that I have unknowingly changed the wording from “IN times like these” to “FOR times like these,” and thus the focus of the message shifts from “YOU need a Savior” to “WE need THE Savior.”
There is a distinct change in these two different versions, and the changes are not accidental. The focus is now on us, not “them” We are on the spot. We need to check the nature of our commitment to see if our anchor still grips the solid rock or not.
A Dangerous Current
As the people of Christ, we seek to be found faithful to him. We are now in times of significant and challenging change. EXTREMISM is forcing us to reexamine our loyalties to Christ. Will our anchor hold firm, or has our ship begun to drift away? Extreme forces and causes can and are doing exactly that.
The word extreme and the word extremism, share an essential meaning but actually are miles apart. One entails much that is positive and commendable, but the other much that is negative and even destructive. When we exert extreme effort, whether physical or spiritual, to achieve seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve our goals, that is a good and commendable thing. However, when in doing so we organize ourselves and others to aggressively achieve our goals with a disdain for those who do not go along with us and who are therefore considered our enemies or adversaries who must be neutralized or eliminated, then we become perpetrators and victims of extremism. That is what extremism is all about.
Barry Goldwater popularized the term in his acceptance speech in 1964, when nominated for president of the United State: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” That claim of upholding liberty at all costs (“extremism”) has led us to our times. We have secular and religious (mostly Christian) forces organizing to prevail at all costs in forcing our government to conform to their demands. This has led to the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. How did we get here?
Crosses and the Flags
What was astonishing and alarming was that “Jesus Saves” signs and crosses were on display, and prayers preceded the riots. Attempts at bringing down our government, by our own people in America, was an open demonstration of destructive extremism: a political ideology of insurrection wrapped in the language of patriotism and Christian faith.
Jesus, to whom we bear primary allegiance, calls for extreme acts of commitment from his disciples. He asks us to forsake all and follow him. He commands us to love the Lord our God and neighbor with total heart, soul, spirit, and mind. He calls us to “take up our crosses” to follow him. His mandate is that we love one another, even our enemies. Such loyalty and action is called for in demonstration of service to God and neighbor. There is no call in his teachings to organized political power in expression of true faith to subdue, overcome, and eliminate the enemy.
Jesus Teaches Against Extremism
Those among his disciples who wanted to do exactly that and rise up against Rome (the zealots) were discouraged from doing so. The objective, according to Jesus, was not self-serving political supremacy, but service beyond self—the neighbor, the stranger, the world beyond.
The missionary martyr, Jim Elliot, went to his extreme in this regard and gave his life in service. He said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain that which he cannot lose.” He also said, “Lord, give me firmness without hardness, steadfastness without dogmatism, love without weakness.” He gave his life to bring the Gospel to the Auca Indians, not to overpower and dominate over them as their king.
Insight from Experience
I have observed in my many years of ministry that “…isms” demand commitment and loyalty, but in effect imprison the adherents in thought and belief systems that tend to distort truth, and alienate them from others who do not conform, and eventually seek their elimination.
For example, the word fundamental is fine, but fundamentalism is exclusive and judgmental. We have suffered much because of this fact.
The same is true of the word liberal and liberalism, or conservative and conservatism. These have also been destructive in excluding those in the church who have not conformed.
Extremist factions have organized and fought each for control of the church for centuries. Catholicism vs Protestantism; Lutheranism vs Anabaptism. How about the word Evangelical and Evangelicalism? And the list goes on and on. It has been the main cause of separation and alienation among us. Not surprisingly such separation and alienation are demanded as evidence of loyalty and considered the mark of true Christian faith.
America at a Crossroads
In America we have come to a critical juncture in our democracy, highlighted by two phenomena. The first is the decline of the white, mostly European, Anglo Saxon majority in America. For two hundred years it led our culture and political identity. It is now no longer the case, causing much fear, consternation and anger among its adherents. In accordance with that reality, political power is no longer a monopoly of the white Christian element. In their drastic attempt to hang on to power white supremacy is now asserting itself with force.
The second is the rise of politicized Christian factions seeking to restore their supremacy in America. These two are merging to form the increasingly extremist and violent Christian identity movement, leading to Christian nationalism. Their goal is control of our government. Hence, Christian faith is being misused and changed from being an instrument of peace to being an instrument of war. Consequently, for the first time in the history of America its own citizens stormed the US Capitol and sought to overthrow and install its brand of faith-based government!
One Leads to the Other
Extremism in matters of faith, regardless of what religion, leads to fanaticism. Extremism in politics leads to insurrection and rioting. When religious extremism joins up with political extremism, we end up having religious nationalism, whether Christian or other. And religious nationalism has been the cause of many persecutions and even genocides over the past two thousand years.
For times like these, then, let us make sure that our anchors hold and continue to grip the Solid Rock.
Vartkes Kassouni is an Honorably Retired Minister in the Presbytery of Los Ranchos. He served as the Associate Executive Presbyter for Congregational Development. In that capacity he was the Initiating Pastor for Laguna Niguel, Trabuco, Yorba Linda, and North Huntington Beach new church development projects. He also worked with several racial/ethnic churches for revitalization, and with La Mirada and Whittier Presbyterian churches to merge and move to their present location. He served six PLR churches as Interim Pastor, and also as the Interim Executive Presbyter of San Fernando Presbytery,