Martin Luther King, Jr.: Extremist!

Monday, January 16, 2006

On the day the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I received a phone call from a member of the Presbyterian youth group I was in, telling me that some of the members of our congregation planned to march in nearby Newark, New Jersey to commemorate the life and death of this man. We had read and been inspired by King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in our youth group, and some of us tentatively began to ease ourselves into a suburban (and very sanitized) version of the Civil Rights Movement.

When I blithely told my parents not to worry about my going to Newark, since the Black Panther Party had guaranteed the safety of all marchers Black or White, they hit the roof.

“If you go on that march,” I was warned, “don’t bother coming home.” They thought of King as an “extremist.”

In 1968 King was considered an “extremist” by many, at least in my mostly White bedroom community in northern New Jersey. The Black Panthers were considered “terrorists” who probably murdered White teenagers before serving breakfast. Newark was seen as a city of race riots, and thus apparently not an appropriate place for religious observance or commemoration.

My best friend Curt checked with his parents, and they offered me a place to stay until cooler heads in the congregation could intervene. We went on the march, and returned home. As in the story of old (although with a much shorter interval and after a few phone calls), my parents welcomed me home as the prodigal son. I tolerated them as the provincial parents. That’s what being a teenager is about.

My son is now older than I was that day in 1968, and attending the UC Davis Law School in California. “The law school’s building is named after Dr. King in recognition of his efforts to achieve social and political justice for the poor and disadvantaged,” explained Dean Rex Perschbacher, in a recent letter to students concerning the day on which most Americans celebrate King’s birthday.

Every day as the students arrive for classes at King Hall, they walk past a “life-size terra cotta sculpture” of King “mid-stride, wearing a clerical robe depicting carved illustrations of the civil rights movement,” according to the school’s website.Cite

In a letter to Dean Perschbacher, several student groups worry that in recent promotional materials and on the website, the law school has “hidden or downplayed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall School of Law name”. They are unhappy with this circumstance, especially since the name “reflects the spirit and community of the law school and the students who choose to enroll” there.

I find both irony and hope in the serendipitous turn of events that finds my son at a law school named for someone who so profoundly changed my life; a civil rights leader who had no hesitation to break the letter of the law through non-violent civil disobedience in pursuit of the spirit of social and economic justice.

These days, King is still called an “extremist” by some. Whole pages on the Internet are devoted to attacks and smears. King’s biographical entry on the free online publicly-edited encyclopedia Wikipedia has been repeatedly vandalized, as it was this morning, forcing editors to monitor the page constantly throughout this day of remembrance.

In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” King at first bristled at being labeled an “extremist” by a group of fellow clergymen upset with his activism.

King wrote that he thought this over for a while, and then realized that in their respective days, the Biblical Amos, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson had all been thought of as extremists by mainstream society. King responded, “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 will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice–or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

Two issues are raised by King’s clever reversal of the attack on him as an “extremist”. First is that the term “extremist” has only relative meaning in terms of how far outside the “mainstream” norms of society a particular idea or act is located by some observer who claims a “centrist” position. Second, King suggests it is important to determine whether any non-normative idea or action defends or extends justice, equality, or democracy–or whether it defends or extends unfair power or privilege.

Ultimately, the concept of “extremism,” and the use of the term as a label, is of little value in studying or challenging prejudice and ethnoviolence. As professor Jerome Himmelstein argues, the term “extremism” is at best a characterization that “tells us nothing substantive about the people it labels”, and at worst the term “paints a false picture.”

Often, analysts use the term “extremism” in a way that implies that ideas and actions are always linked. This is not the case. We need to separate ideology from methodology. King’s ideas may have been outside the mainstream for his day, but he promoted non-violence; and while civil disobedience often involves a minor criminal act, it is not the same as an act of terrorism. Given the way the term “extremist” is sometimes used, it can serve as a justification for state action that is repressive and undermines Constitutional guarantees. Under the Patriot Act and other repressive federal laws passed since the attacks on 9/11, if King was alive today, he would probably be under surveillance as a potential “terrorist”, just as he was spied on during the 1960s.

Before my son returned to law school after winter break, I dug around and found the black cloth armband I wore that day in 1968 when I marched in Newark to commemorate the passing of King. We spoke of these matters, and I asked my son to think about the issues on this day when we remember the man, but all too often forget the full range of his message. That’s what being a parent is about–even when your children are now adults.

And the message of King deserves to be repeated and carried down through generations: if we are to have community rather than chaos, we all must challenge racism, economic injustice, and war.

That’s what this day is about.

Read the text of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.

Read the text of famous speeches by King, and listen to audio excerpts here.

Portions of this essay first appeared in 2004 in my article, “Hate, Oppression, Repression, and the Apocalyptic Style: Facing Complex Questions and Challenges,” Journal of Hate Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, Institute for Action against Hate, Gonzaga University Law School.

Ported from Talk to Action
Post comments on this article at

Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates

The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip’s Blog

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Justice Sunday III v. Harry Potter

On Sunday, January 8, 2006, I had a choice between Justice Sunday III and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Perhaps this was a choice faced by other parents seeking to find something educational for their children to experience. My son is grown up now, but I thought about the lessons to be learned from both events.

Let me tell you what I learned when my wife and I attended the Harry Potter film.

•   Certain actions are evil, but evil is not based on heredity or nationality.

•   Sometimes we are called on to do things that we do not want to do (and even makes us unpopular), but that we should shoulder these responsibilities with good grace.

•   Real heroes sometimes set aside their personal quest to help others in danger.

•   We should welcome people from different cultures and nations into our midst.

•   Friendship includes taking risks to support our friends and standing up for them in a crisis.

We also saw that young teenage boys are clueless about young teenage girls, but as parents, we already knew that was true.

Salient quotes:

Professor McGonagall: Is that a student?

Professor Alastor ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody: Technically, it’s a ferret.

Hermione: Everything’s going to change now isn’t it?

Harry: Yes.

I think these are important moral lessons for young adults to learn.

Some on the Christian Right have denounced the Harry Potter series–books and films–as anti-Christian and perhaps even Satanic due to the flagrant use of magic.

From news reports and a transcript of the Justice Sunday III event posted by the sponsoring Family Research Council, we can see the alternative lessons presented by some of the Christian Right.

•  The moral struggle is not between ideas that support goodness and ideas that spawn evil, but between “secular supremacists” and Godly Christians.

•   God is against gay men and lesbians signifying their commitment of love through marriage.

•   God is against abortion.

•   God wants us to put judge Samuel Alito on the Supreme court.

We also learn that liberals and non-Christians threaten America and that we should pray that “not secularism or unbelief or a hostile supreme court [should] prevail against” God’s word.

Salient quotes:

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania): [liberal judges are] ”destroying traditional morality, creating a new moral code and prohibiting any dissent.” Cite

Rev. Herbert Hoover Lusk II: “Don’t fool with the church because the church has buried many a critic, and all the critics that we have not buried, we’re making funeral arrangements for them!” Cite 

As a parent, ask yourself to which event would you take your child for moral guidance?

As a citizen, ask yourself which set of principles seem best for moral guidance in running our country?

As a visitor, ask yourself which lessons would build a country that would welcome you as an immigrant or guest?

If you are a non-Christian or secularist or gay or support reproductive rights or are liberal or progressive, the choice should be even clearer.

Ported from Talk to Action
Post comments on this article at

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Justice Everyday

There is tragic irony in the Christian Right’s Justice Sunday extravaganza occurring the week before the national celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Justice was a theme King returned to time and time again.

In April of 1968, the day before he was assassinated, King spoke at a rally in support of striking sanitation workers at a black evangelical church in Memphis, Tennessee that had been the center of civil rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s. The speech became known by King’s declaration that he had “Been to the Mountaintop“. King was delighted to see so many other preachers present at the rally. “It’s a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and say, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’ “.

The cite to Amos is from the Bible’s Old Testament, Amos 5:24, a text sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the “people of the book”. Now Amos was a prophet, as was King, and we know from another reliable source in the New Testament that prophets are often honored except in their own country and community.

In the year before his assassination, King published a prophetic book: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? The theme was justice for all, but there was a warning that unless we all worked together to ensure justice for all, then we beckon chaos rather than building community. King often spoke of the beloved community. He sought to unite rather than to divide.

Division, discord, and demonization are the themes from the Christian Right, which has tried to drive a wedge between black people and gay people, and to stigmatize women who favor reproductive rights. A government role in crafting economic justice is decried by Christian Right ideologues as coddling the poor who they suggest just need a broom and a Bible. Peace and tolerance are denounced as giving succor to evil enemies. Justice primarily consists of handing out stiff jail terms.

King read the same Bible as the ideologues of the Christian right, but drew different lessons from the text. Another human rights advocate, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, wrote of this dilemma in his book Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love. Spong notes that there are many different ways to read sacred text. Peter J. Gomes, a preacher at Harvard University, agrees with Spong. Gomes wrote: The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.

It was this theme of open-hearted forgiveness and genuine love of humanity that nourished the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. for a non-violent solution to the struggle for civil rights in the face of oppression and bigotry against black people.

King expanded his vision of justice to include working people, union members, and even striking sanitation workers. King saw economic justice and world peace as part of the same struggle. He spoke out in support of women rights and reproductive rights. In 1966 King won the Planned Parenthood Margaret Sanger Award, and he wrote that “there is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.”

There is no record of King speaking publicly about gay rights — though homophobia and sexism are listed as “evils” by the King Center — but for many years he worked closely with an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin, a radical organizer who pulled together the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. King considered Rustin a friend as well as a colleague, and when some urged King to distance himself from Rustin, King brushed aside the suggestion saying he was not going to conduct a witchhunt. At least one aide to the King family has said that in private conversations King spoke of supporting gay rights.

Chaos or community? Demonization or acceptance? Division or unity?

There are those who preach about their narrow definition of justice on Sunday; and those who teach about liberty and justice for all, not just on Sunday, but every day of the week.

Read the text of famous speeches by King, and listen to audio excerpts here.

Ported from Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefConAmerica) 

The Christian Right, Dominionism, and Theocracy – Part Five

The day after Christmas, Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind Prophecy Club” sent out its daily e-mail message with a 2005 “Year in Review” summary The teaser stated: “Are we living in the End Times? Could events of today signify that the Rapture and Tribulation could occur during our generation? Five important Signs from 2005 say yes!”
What were the five signs?

•  1) Devastating natural disasters foreshadow the coming of Christ.
•  2) The Jewish population converges in Israel to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
•  3) A union between Europe and Iraq could set the stage for the emergence of the Antichrist.
•  4) Islamic extremists lash out with London bombings and France riots.
•  5) Putin consolidates power in Russia, as the empire rebuilds.

In the text that follows, we learn that “events in Russia are exactly what we should expect to see if we are nearing the end times….the rule of the Antichrist may not be too far behind…[the] Bible prophesies that the city of Babylon will be rebuilt as headquarters for the antichrist. Babylon lies on the Euphrates River, just 50 miles south of Baghdad.”

We also are told that “…continued tensions may make Israel ripe for a covenant with the Antichrist,” and that the “ancient Sanhedrin, the official legal tribunal in Israel…issued an official call to rebuild the temple [of Solomon in Jerusalem], an act that God’s Word predicts must occur before the return of the Messiah.”

Meanwhile, natural disasters may be “a foreshadowing of the overwhelming chaos that is to transpire during the tribulation, prompting many to repent before it’s too late.”

That last piece of advice is what the Left Behind series is all about.  It is future narrative devoted to encouraging current salvation through a particular premillennial reading of the Bible. It’s not enough to be a Christian, you must embrace a narrow and specific version of Christianity. Otherwise, you are not just going to Hell, but you will be persecuted and maybe tortured and murdered as well.

That’s the basic theme of the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The 13 volumes have sold some 70 million copies, regularly hitting best seller lists. As pop theology, the messages of the series and the Left Behind Prophecy Club are troubling, but as popular political ideology, they are dangerous.

As part of its sales pitch for a subscription service, we are told that “The Left Behind Prophecy Club has the news you need to know” about:

Islamic Terrorism
Middle East Peace Process
The War in Iraq
Europe’s Power Struggle
Natural Disasters

The way these current events are woven into a discussion of Biblical prophecy creates frames of reference that help move people toward specific political viewpoints, not just concerning U.S. policies in the Middle East, but also about domestic issues.

Central to this process is a particular way of reading the Bible’s book of Revelation that establishes a timetable and sequence of events for the End Times and the Tribulations that are related to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

According to polling by Barna research, “nearly nine out of ten evangelicals who believe in the end times (88%) maintain that is it very likely that Jesus will return during the last days, and 77% of born agains who believe in the end times indicated the same.”

Tim LaHaye has spent decades melding his conspiracy theory of history into the End Times beliefs of evangelicals. In his 1980 non-fiction book The Battle for the Mind, LaHaye added a conspiracist theme to the critique of secular humanism put forward by popular theologian Francis A. Schaeffer, a conservative Christian evangelical. LaHaye dedicated the book to Schaeffer.

In a chapter entitled “Is a Humanist Tribulation Necessary?” LaHaye writes that the “seven-year tribulation period will be a time that features the rule of the anti-Christ over the world.” LaHaye explains that this “tribulation is predestined and will surely come to pass.” LaHaye, however, describes another period of tribulations that he calls the “pre-tribulation tribulation.”

LaHaye, explains that the  “pre-tribulation tribulation is:

“…the tribulation that will engulf this country if liberal secular humanists are permitted to take control of our government–it is neither predestined nor necessary. But it will deluge the entire land in the next few years, unless Christians are willing to become much more assertive in defense of morality and decency than they have been during the past three decades.”

According to LaHaye, adultery, pornography, and homosexuality “are rampant” and this is evidence of the warning by Schaeffer’s “that humanism always leads to chaos.” In the Left Behind series, LaHaye and Jenkins write about the spread of humanist moral relativism in the forms of the feminist movement, abortion, and homosexuality. The Left Behind series takes the conspiracist themes of LaHaye’s non-fiction books and spreads them through a huge audience.

The apocalyptic frames and conspiracist narratives in the Left Behind series are a form of “fiction explicitly intended to teach,” according to author Gershom Gorenberg, who warns:

“Inspiration is part of the appeal. Subliminally, so is the all-encompassing paradigm the books offer for understanding the world. Here’s how the global economy (which may have cost me my job or halved my retirement savings) works. Here’s what lies behind debate over abortion or foreign policy. Some people serve God, and some serve falsehood. Here’s why a believing Christian can feel left out: Today’s society is controlled by evil. And here’s why cataclysmic war between the forces of good and the axis of evil is inevitable.

The LaHaye conspiracy theory about secular humanism provides a powerful theological justification for Christians to establish “dominion” over sinful secular society.