Let’s Talk About Extremism
Originally published as Edgar Metzler, Let’s Talk About Extremism. Focal Pamphlet Series No. 12 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1968).
© 2021 by Edgar J. Metzler. All Rights Reserved. Introduction © 2021 by Maxwell Kennel.
Edited by Maxwell Kennel
In 1968 a Mennonite pastor and peace worker named Edgar Metzler published a short booklet in the popular “Focal Pamphlet” series published by Herald Press – a series that includes other more widely read works by Mennonite historians and theologians like Harold S. Bender and J. Lawrence Burkholder. The brief preface on the inside cover gives some indication of its purpose and audience in the context of the American Mennonite experience during the late 1960s.
This pamphlet is prepared to stimulate the Christian’s peace testimony. Christians need constantly to return to the Bible to discover the message of the gospel. This message must be translated into living terms by every generation. The S. F. Coffman Peace Lectures are sponsored by the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of the Mennonite Church. They are financed by an individual who has an interest in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it relates to the social needs and the international tensions of the world in which we live.
Metzler’s text is situated amidst the international tensions alluded to above, particularly racial tensions and violence in the United States during the Vietnam War era. The pamphlet is titled Let’s Talk About Extremism, but what the author means by the term “extremism” calls for explanation, some of which the author provides in the first section of the text below.
Although other pamphlets in the series were more widely read, Let’s Talk About Extremism has only been cited a few times since it was published – most recently in a survey of definitions of radicalism and extremism.1 The lack of scholarly or public engagement with the text in the years since it was published is a problem that I hope to remedy in this edition.
In short, the argument of the pamphlet is that how we think about the relationship between extreme or opposed positions – whether they are political, religious, social, or a combination of all three – matters deeply. For Metzler, ways of thinking and knowing, or what scholars call “epistemologies,” are just as important for the Christian peace witness as more visible manifestations of violence like killing or war. Whereas Metzler refers to “extremism,” today we tend to refer to the problems he addresses by using the term “polarization.” In response to these problems, Metzler calls his readers to consider how hard oppositions between liberals and conservatives are clarified when we think about not only what we think, but also how we think, and how we express what we think.
But rather than staying within the bounds of the liberal-conservative opposition, Metzler enjoins his readers to reframe their vision of extreme positions by measuring ways of thinking against a different standard, asking: “Is this way of thinking closed or open?” Drawing attention to the presence of closed-mindedness at all points on the political spectrum (a pattern recently explored by Francois Cusset), Metzler advocates for openness. Against racist, nationalist, and religious prejudices, Metzler values a kind of open-mindedness that is able to listen to the other, take in new information, and charitably engage with “extreme” perspectives. By contrast, the closed mind is reactive, reliant on questionable second-hand sources, and unable to be moved. This is not to say, however, that Metzler advocates for a kind of passive middle way that sits between extremes and attempts to remain neutral on matters of justice. Rather, Metzler helps his readers to avoid the pitfalls of both polarization and neutrality.
One further benefit of how Metzler frames his argument for openness is that he leaves open the question of how this openness is authorized or validated. For Metzler himself, it is the peaceful figure of Jesus Christ who is the model for a more open epistemology. But Metzler leaves open the possibility of taking on his perspective without confessing Christian faith. Metzler’s resistance to oversimplification, selectivity, black and white thinking, appeals to fear, authoritarianism, and so forth, are critical values that can resonate with the priorities of Christians and religious ‘nones,’ secular and confessional Mennonites, and anyone who is concerned with the problems of our shared world. For this reason, perhaps anachronistically, I would characterize Metzler’s work as “postsecular” – where “postsecular” names a way of thinking that challenges the claims to superiority made by both religions and secularities.
One final point that makes Metzler’s work important today is his critique of conspiratorial thinking. His conversation with an alienated congregation member, as described in the final pages of the pamphlet, is a model for how to openly and critically engage with those who are given to conspiratorial thinking, while seeing through the content of such arguments to the narratives of rejection and victimhood that lie beneath. In a time when conspiracy theories are becoming more influential, concomitant with a decline in public trust and trust in expertise, I think it is essential to consider Metzler’s reminder that beneath the “extreme” positions of those who believe in conspiracy theories is often a common human desire to be heard and recognized. Again, this is not to say that Metzler’s work is a resource for those who would, in the name of ‘free speech,’ give an open platform for hate (for example, the conspiracism and violence of far-right groups). Instead, his concluding comments point to the deeper social roots of present political problems, and provide practical ways of challenging violent ways of thinking.
In the digitized edition below I have made very few editorial interventions. I have left the original text entirely unchanged. My only additions are the footnoted references for the quotations provided by Metzler and some references to resources. Paragraph breaks, headings, and numbering have been preserved, along with older usage (ex. ‘catalog’). References to original page numbers appear in square brackets.
I am especially grateful to Edgar Metzler and his son Michael Metzler for their permission to publish this online edition of the pamphlet, and I want to acknowledge not only their support but also their conviction that this historical document still has much to teach contemporary readers.
Original Author Note
“Edgar Metzler was born in Masontown, Pennsylvania, where his father, A. J. Metzler, served as pastor for a number of years. He was graduated from Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and received his BA and BD degrees from Goshen College and Goshen College Biblical Seminary, Goshen, Indiana. The latter degree was received in 1961. During 1966-67 he studied at the Graduate School of International Affairs at American University, Washington, D.C. Before he became pastor he served for two years as associate executive secretary on the National Service Board for Religious Objectors, Washington, D.C. He was ordained to the ministry in 1957 when he became pastor of the First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ontario. where he served until 1962. He was Executive Secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee Peace Section from 1962-66. In 1967 he with his family joined the United States Peace Corps as Program Officer in Nepal. He has served on the Peace Problems Committee, later the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of Mennonite General Conference. He has written curriculum for Uniform Sunday School Lessons and articles for various publications in the areas of peace and social concern.” 2
Have you ever called anyone an extremist? Or have you thought that someone was one? What did you mean? Likely you meant that he had certain ideas, patterns of thought, styles of expressing and discussing ideas, or actions which you considered to be unreasonable or irresponsible.
But that’s your judgment. He may think the same of your ideas and the way you support and express them. Extremism is thus not a very useful term. It is vague and difficult to define precisely. It is relative. One man’s extremism is another man’s moderation. Nevertheless, the term is in common use in our society. The term usually appears in the discussion of political and social policy and programs. In church circles the discussion may be intertwined or overlaid with religious and doctrinal issues.
Three Examples Extremism
Extremism means different things to different persons. We may not get far trying to pinpoint a definition. We are more concerned about the reality behind the label. Three recent conversations may help us feel the boundaries of our discussion, even though the center is not in clear focus. [3/4]
I asked a friend of mine who he would consider an extremist. “Wouldn’t you have to say that Jesus was an extremist?” he replied. “He said some rather extreme things, didn’t He? Hate your father and mother, give no thought for tomorrow, sell what you have and give it to the poor, cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. Not many people would consider those reasonable or responsible admonitions.”
The second conversation which may throw light on the problem took place on the train to Washington. The young man in the seat beside me wanted to talk about the war in Vietnam. He didn’t want to discuss the issues; he wanted to tell me what he thought because he had all the answers. He knew why Americans were in Vietnam and it was only for one reason. That was to make more money for American businessmen. He had the proof of it in the morning paper. The day before a news story out of New Delhi reported that the Indian government had been approached by Hanoi to begin peace negotiations. Immediately there was a flood of selling on the New York Stock Exchange. I discovered later that same day that this young man had been arrested within an hour after he arrived in Washington for trespassing on the White House grounds, apparently attempting to give a message to the President.
The third conversation was very brief. I had been involved in some discussions with concerned church people about the problem of discrimination in housing. The reason I had become involved was that persons who were attempting to find suitable housing for a minority family had been rebuffed by an apartment owner who was a member of the Mennonite Church. To make matters worse, the owner was an ordained minister! I publicly expressed my regret and apology that this kind of attitude and action should come from a member of my own brotherhood. I also expressed my support for the concerned members of the community who were volunteering their services to further fair housing practices. The next day my telephone rang. When I answered it, a [4/5] voice on the other end said, “Hey, what kind of a nigger-lovin’ nut are you, anyhow?” and hung up.
These conversations may give us more of a feel for our topic. My friend’s reference to some of the hard sayings of Jesus refers to attitudes of dedication, singleness of mind, unusual conviction, enthusiasm, and commitment. When these attitudes are linked to the mind and spirit of Jesus, the result is a way of life that is extreme in the sense that it is far from that of our society. That is not the kind of extremism that concerns us here. Faithfulness and fanaticism may sometimes be confused but the difference is clear: the mind and spirit of Jesus.
The young man explaining the war in Vietnam illustrates two tendencies which many persons would consider extremist. One was the oversimplification of his analysis of Vietnam. I am sure there is too much tragic selfishness involved in the prosperity of a war economy but that is hardly the only reason for the United States being in Vietnam. The second tendency some would consider extremist is the way he chose to express his belief, by deliberate violation of a law which had no intrinsic connection with the substance of his belief.
The phone caller who was concerned about my attitudes on fair housing exhibited the same tendencies toward extremism in the same two areas: belief and action, Apparently, he believed that certain citizens of the community should be treated differently from others simply because of the color of their skin. His method of expressing this belief was by means of an anonymous phone call. Both his attitude and action were beyond the bounds of reason or responsibility, let alone Christian character and charity.
In the following discussion we want to discuss some of the themes suggested by these illustrations and others that hopefully will add up to a deeper understanding of extremism.
First, we will look at three levels or dimensions of extremism; what we believe, how we hold those beliefs, and [5/6] the way we express those beliefs.
Second, we will describe some characteristics and temptations of extremism in a wide variety of patterns that cut across all three levels.
Third, we will try to discover some of the sources of extremism, in the nation, in group life, such as the church, and, most important, in ourselves.
Finally, we will look to the gospel and the Christian community for resources to prevent and combat extremism.
To Avoid Misunderstandings
But before going on, perhaps a few preliminary statements will clear the air for the discussion to follow.
1. The term “extremism” should not be used as a derogatory label to slap on any person with different ideas with which we happen to disagree.
2. The purpose of examining extremism is not to label others, but to identify tendencies in attitudes, patterns of thought, and expressions to which all of us are tempted. The purpose is not so much to identify the “crackpot” out there, as the “crackpot” within.
3. Examples used are intended to illustrate such tendencies and do not necessarily mean that particular persons or organizations merit the label extremism. As mentioned before, the term is not very useful for discussion if used in the sense of a label or absolute position.
4. Warnings against extremism must not be interpreted to suggest that the Christian way is discovered by finding the exact middle between two extremes. The only “golden mean” for the Christian is the mind and spirit of Jesus, depending on the kind of society in which the Christian is living, that “golden mean” will appear extreme.
5. Nor should the avoidance of extremism mean hesitation to take a stand, or a lack of conviction, enthusiasm, determination, or sense of urgency about moral ethical issues. [6/7]
Levels of Extremism
What We Believe
The first level of extremism is the content of what we believe. In political and social questions, it has been traditional to refer to the contrast of these beliefs as liberal or conservative, left or right. But this is meaningful only if we remember that continuous than to fixed points. Reduced to a diagram it might look like this:
Liberal | Conservative
At both ends of the scale are positions generally considered extremist, but some idea “further out” can always be found. The definition of what is extreme always depends on the viewpoint of the observer. Take, for example, the question of race relations in American life. Most Americans would consider two groups crowding the ends of the scale; on one end the Black Nationalists, on the other the Ku Klux Klan. Between them there is a vast body of opinion representing many points of view. Closer to the center is a general consensus representing the majority view in America. But several things should be remembered about this continuous scale.
1. The meaning of the labels change and at best are vague and ambiguous. The classic liberalism of the nineteenth century, for example, favored the least government possible. Contemporary liberalism in political thought is usually assumed to favor enlarging government structure for social ends.
2. A person’s views may place him at different points on the scale on different issues. The late Senator Robert Taft was known as “Mr. Conservative,’ but as an ardent advocate of public housing he took what was usually considered a “liberal” position. [7/8]
3. A person’s theological and political beliefs are not necessarily at the same place on the scale. It has sometimes been assumed that if an individual has a “conservative” theology he will have a “conservative” idea of public policy. But there is no necessary correlation. Evangelical Methodist ministers were active in the formation of the Labor Party in England because their parishioners were victims of the economic injustices which the party was designed to correct. The early Christians were considered social radicals in their time, accused of “turning the world upside down.”
4. Useful conversation about differences of beliefs are not helped by labeling a participant’s total viewpoint as “liberal” or “conservative. Each issue must be considered on its own merits and the question must be asked, “Liberal or conservative in relation to what standard?”
It is true that within national communities at any given time, there are rough boundaries which can be drawn around certain ideas to which we give the label, “liberal” or “conservative.” The labels are not entirely meaningless. They have a literature and history which define them. These are within the bounds of reason and responsibility. But beyond these, in both directions, one heads toward extremism. Some beliefs will be clearly recognized as such, as when the head of the John Birch Society stated his belief that Dwight Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the Communist Party. On other beliefs there will be a difference of opinion.
But because the labels are relative does not mean that we are left without any guidelines. I would suggest that the content of a belief or idea tends toward extremism to the degree it departs from the following three tests:
1. Does this belief accord with the observed facts so far as they can be known by thorough and objective inquiry.
2. Does this belief have as its concern the welfare of persons in the total community rather than the advancement of a particular group, cause, nation, or ideology?
The first two tests are ones which can be applied by [8/9] everyone, and the third subsumes the first two and is the ultimate test by which the Christian must determine the validity of a belief.
3. Does this belief conform to the mind and spirit of Jesus?
How We Hold Our Beliefs
In trying to understand the extremist style of thought and discussion, it is as important to know how we hold our beliefs as what we believe. Much of the damage of extremism to community and group life comes more from the way in which beliefs are held, the patterns of thought and reaction (what the psychologist would call the structure of belief) than the content of beliefs. For a diverse group to function without destructive conflict, there must be an openness to consider other points of view and an acceptance and tolerance of those with differing views. This does not mean that everyone in the group must think alike, or that no one believes anything deeply.
But it does require two characteristics in the way we hold our beliefs:
1. On the intellectual level we must be able to recognize new information which might alter our preconceived conceptions and be willing to alter them accordingly.
2. On the personal level we must be able to distinguish between the person and the beliefs or information he offers and be willing to accept the person while questioning or testing his beliefs or information. Related to this is the willingness to accept each individual as a person in his own right without covering him with the cloak of a stereotype that robs him of his individuality.
An example of the first would be a person in a church discussion group in a community near a large city who insisted that whenever Negroes [sic.] moved into a community property values declined. When shown a report of an extensive survey conducted in a part of that same city which showed that property values actually rose when the community was inte-[9/10]-grated, he refused or was unable to assimilate this new information and alter his conclusion. We shall refer more to this problem later.
An example of the second characteristic would be the individual who refused to believe any information about the church in the Soviet Union offered by a speaker from the Soviet Union. This person could not accept “anyone the communists would let out.” This characteristic works in reverse also. We may become so attached to a friend or a strong leader that we accept uncritically anything he has to say.
The manner in which our mind operates to accept and hold our ideas may also be represented by a continuous scale:
Open | Closed
The closed-minded is characterized by rigidity, dogmatism, resistance to change, an authoritarian outlook, and intolerance toward those of different beliefs, often reinforced by ethnic, national, or racial prejudice. Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist who has attempted to study more precisely the divergent tendencies toward open-mindedness or closedmindedness, suggests that the open mind depends more on logical relationships.3 The closed mind accepts beliefs more on the basis of unrelated internal drives and the arbitrary reinforcement from authority. The open mind seeks information from all sources including those with opposing views. The closed mind tends to secure information from second hand sources. The open mind tends to view his environment as friendly. The closed mind sees the world around him as threatening and therefore views it with suspicion.
The intensification of the characteristics of the closed mind leads toward extremist thought and behavior. The continuum of belief structure cannot be superimposed over the continuum of belief content. Persons with closed minds are found on [10/11] both the left and right extremes of ideas. In fact, there is a remarkable similarity between the closed thought patterns of widely different extremist views. Earlier we referred to the contrast in ideas between the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Nationalists. But in terms of the rigidity and dogmatism with which they hold their ideas they are very similar.
A study in an English factory of two groups of workers, one communist and the other holding far-right political views, showed that both exhibited the same characteristics in the way they arrived at the views and the narrowness with which they held them. The same phenomena were illustrated by the remark of a young minister from the Soviet Union after we tried to talk with a picket protesting the Russian’s presence in the United States. The response was a hard, snarling refusal to discuss issues or to think beyond preconceived notions, followed by a parrot-like recital of his leader’s line. As we walked away, my friend said, “I have met that kind of personality in Russia. They are the most fanatic party members.” The point is that the closed mind may hide ‘many different kinds of ideas or ideologies, but it is characterized by a rigid resistance to a rational exchange of ideas on the basis of mutual respect. It is this frame of mind and attitude that leads toward extremism.
The Way We Express Our Beliefs
The third level of extremism concerns the methods used to express our beliefs. An individual may believe an outrageous idea and hold that belief with an utterly closed mind. The social damage may be little if he does not express that belief or seek to force it on others. On the other hand, even worthwhile causes can be advanced by the wrong methods. So it is necessary to consider the way we express our beliefs, and the manner in which we hold them.
Here again it may be helpful to think of a continuous scale, but this time a vertical one with the ideal at the top and [11/12] deviations proceeding downward from it.
Mind and Spirit of Jesus
Ends Justify the Means
The ideal for the Christian is the mind and spirit of Christ. In terms of methods used to express beliefs that ideal is given practical guidelines in the biblical injunction, “speaking the truth in love.” These two criteria have concrete connotations: respect for the truth, conscientious attempts to ascertain all the facts and all sides of the question, and the refusal to distort or delete in order to prove a point. All these are elements in expressing our opinions in truth. The reasonable use of logic in argument and greater reliance on induction from observed fact than deduction from presumed principle are additional elements in discussing differences that conform to the ideal.
The lower end of the scale is the philosophy that the ends justify the means. If the person thinks his cause is good, he is tempted to use any means to advance it. The tactics of the enemy may be borrowed for the sake of a good cause; so goes the reasoning in the Blue Book of the John Birch Society.4 Study the tactics of the communist; become like him in order to beat him! One might expect extremist ideas, held in dogmatic extremist fashion, to be expressed by extremist means. But even those with more honorable ends maybe tempted to distort the truth for the sake of advancing their cause. Quotations taken out of context are a frequent example of this method. But truth is not well served by error.
Neither is it served well by lack of love. This is the second criterion in the ideal suggested by the mind and spirit of Christ. To speak the truth in love means that there is as much concern for the persons involved as the facts. To advance opinions or causes in a manner that tramples human dignity, violates human personality, and shows no concern for the personal needs of the participants in the discussion [12/13] is diametrically opposite to the spirit of Christ. The furthest extreme of such methods is violence, murder, and war. But long before one reaches that extremity violations to truth and love stand equally outside the pale of those who seek to allow the Spirit to enhance their own persuasion by the means and fruit of the Spirit.
Tendencies and Temptations of Extremism
Within the context of the three levels of extremism suggested above we now want to describe in more detail some of the patterns of thought and action of extremism. The title, “Tendencies and Temptations,” is used for two reasons: First to suggest that there are identifiable directions that lead toward extremism, and although there might be differences of opinion about how far down the road one must go to warrant the label “extremist,” the beginnings of the trails can be discovered and should be clearly marked for danger. Second, including the description, “temptations,” reminds us that the tendencies we are describing are not only characteristics we can discern in others but in some measure in ourselves. If we find ourselves succumbing to the tendencies listed below, we have already started down the road toward extremism.
1. The tendency to oversimplify. Faced with problems of great complexity, unable admit that they may be insoluble, or frustrated by “the way things are going,” many people look for an easy answer or a scapegoat on which to heap the blame for an unbearable situation. Unable or unwilling to sort out the many factors which may be involved in the movement of history, the temptation is to see a single conspiracy behind the whole course of events which go against the grain of our prejudices and desires. This “devil theory”’ of history is used by extremist movements on the right and the left. Eric Hoffer has noted that “mass movements can rise and spread without belief in God, but never without belief in a devil.”5 The communist sees all [13/14] the trouble in the world caused by capitalists; thus the simple key to utopia is to get rid of capitalism. The ills of the world have often been blamed, for example, on conspiracies of “the Jews” or “the Vatican.” The most common expression of this kind of oversimplification in America today is that some see all the problems of the world caused by communism. The communists can be blamed for anything that someone has reason to dislike, whether it be the Supreme Court, fluoridation of water, the ecumenical movement, or the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
2. The tendency to select facts to support preconceived notions. We are all tempted to accept as proof only those facts which support the conclusions we have already reached. Psychological experiments have shown that we have mechanisms which may screen out information that we are not prepared emotionally or intellectually to accept. There is a sense in which we see what we want to see. When this happens, “facts” appear that suit our purpose, which upon examination may turn out not to be facts at all. A speaker at a rally protested certain actions taken by Mennonite churches and referred to a Mennonite newspaper reporter who had indicated at a press conference that he “did not know if he was saved.” Upon investigation I discovered that the reporter was not a Mennonite at all and apparently the only reason the speaker concluded he was a Mennonite was because the reporter had grown a beard!
There is a kind of pseudo-scholarship which characterizes much extremist literature. A great emphasis is placed on “documentation” without realizing that “documentation” can be found to prove almost anything. Only recently I received in the mail an anti-Semitic tract containing the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion.6 Often documents are quoted in part or out of context. The widely circulated book, None Dare Call It Treason, by John Stormer, relies heavily on the Congressional Record for sources, yet many unsuspecting readers do not realize that any kind of material may be [14/15] inserted in the record by any member of Congress for any purpose whatsoever. The fact that an article appears there is no proof of its authenticity. An extensive study of Stormer’s book by the National Committee for Civic Responsibility, whose chairman is also the first vice-commander of the Thirteenth District of the Ohio American Legion, reveals repeated instances of the misuse of materials.7
Sometimes the Bible is misused as a source in the same manner. Recently I heard a radio preacher pluck a passage out of his memory to support a point he was making about the futility, if not downright iniquity, of the War on Poverty. The connection was somewhat dubious, but his comment was, “Isn’t it wonderful that we can always turn to the Word of God and find a verse to support our point?” Wonderful, indeed— often ingenious, but a philosophy of exegesis that is not using the Word but abusing the words.
3. The tendency to divide the world into two extremes. This is another variety of oversimplification. All moral issues are black or white. The lines are sharp and clear and no segment of reality can escape being forced into the dichotomy. For example, on the extreme left some insist that everything in the United States is hypocritical and corrupt and its actions toward other nations and people completely evil. Some on the extreme right feel that their country can do no wrong and all who disagree are evil. The picture is never that simple or one-sided. But some persons never feel comfortable and secure unless every person and every issue is lined up on one side or the other of the ledger.
Such a mind never comprehends those problems which have more than two sides. This leads to such futile and inadequate alternatives, as in the slogan, “Red or dead,” as if those were the only choices. Recently I heard a speaker quote me as being in favor of the admission of the People’s Republic of China into the United Nations. Afterward I talked to the speaker to find out the basis of his quote. He recalled a conversation we had where I had [15/16] declined to state that under no conditions would I favor the admission of Red China to the United Nations. What I had said was that there are many alternative solutions and that we should not assume that none of them will forever be unacceptable to both Chinas. But my friend wanted a yes or no answer. Ifs, ands, buts, or other conditions were unacceptable. He lived in a world of either/or. The only trouble is that in the real world most issues cannot be so easily divided into black or white, good or evil.
4. The tendency to appeal to fear. This tendency follows from the inclination to view all adverse developments as the result of a conspiracy. Fear of that conspiracy, often intensified by hatred, is the breeding ground of extremist attitudes. Most extremist movements have their favorite targets, whether they be Big Business, Labor, Jews, Negroes, the White Race, Communists, Imperialists, etc. This enemy provides a psychological focus which gives meaning and unity to those joined to oppose it. Many skillful leaders have noted the usefulness of focusing attention on a common enemy. When Hitler was trying to mold the German masses for his own purposes, he is reported to have said, “If the Jews did not exist, we would have to invent them.”8 A similar phrase is credited to other leaders who were trying to consolidate a mass movement.
Recently the official Chinese communist press referred to the United States, “This enemy is indeed most hateful and harmful to us, but we must see that its existence has also beneficial effect on us… will keep us always on alert…” The appeal to fear exaggerates the potential of the enemy which in turn produces greater fear. Then the reaction to threat tends to be disproportionate. The biblical contrast between a ‘spirit of fear’ and a “sound mind’ contains a profound insight.
5. The tendency to be negative. Extremists incline toward destructive rather than constructive attitudes and action. Their writings and slogans are full of negatives. One pamphlet which recently came to my attention contained only a single [16/17] positive suggestion, but was loaded with negative suggestions, such as impeach Earl Warren, get the U.S. out of the UN, eliminate the graduated income tax, and don’t buy Xerox, which had sponsored television program this organization didn’t like. The one positive suggestion, borrowed from the off-the-cuff remark of a well-known general, was “bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age,” which, it must be admitted, is hardly a positive suggestion. There is a much-needed place for honest, clear-sighted, constructive criticism. “But when an organization or an individual spends most of its time attacking, destroying, and negating, it is time to check the road signs to see if that trail is leading to extremism.
6. The tendency to personalize leadership. There is a legitimate role for dynamic leadership, but extremists of the left and right tend to elevate an authoritarian leader and give him uncritical allegiance. Such leaders usually find it difficult to work where there are divergent points of view. This leads to schismatic tendencies and a resultant proliferation of groups espousing similar ideas. One reason for this tendency among anticommunist groups in the United States is their emphasis on individualism, a doctrine that stems more from secular philosophy than biblical theology. The Overstreets have characterized this emphasis as “a kind of atomism, each nation for itself, each race for itself, each man for himself.”9 Paradoxically, followers of mass movements usually grant their leader the freedom to act on the basis of an extreme individualism while themselves denying that profession by slavish adherence to the leader. In any movement, including the church, when the cause is overshadowed by the leader, it is time to look in the mirror to check the real motives and intentions.
7. The tendency to avoid discussion. To deal responsibly with differences of opinion requires the willingness to compare evidence, to welcome criticism and questions and answer them, to deal with differences rather than evade them; in other words to engage in honest and open dialogue. But the extremist has little use for discussion. He already has the answers. [17/18] When answers to arguments are difficult, he prefers to attack motives or character of other participants in the discussion. Within extremist organizations there is scant attention to democratic procedures. The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, for example, is quite explicit about the need for rigid lines of authority and the danger of democratic procedures where diversity can be tolerated. For the extremist, there is usually only one way to deal with the nonconformist—throw him out. In times of group stress, willingness to understand the nonconformist decreases. If the war in Vietnam continues, the pressure against dissent will increase as the majority will have less inclination to enter into meaningful discussion with those who take a minority point of view. It is not impossible that Mennonites and others who have taken a traditional religious position on conscientious objection may find increasing opposition as the pressures against dissent blur over the differences between their position and that of other war resisters. There is no time or willingness to discuss the difference when the threat of national survival fans patriotic fervor and stimulates extremist tendencies.
8. The tendency to exaggerated reactions to change. A key testing ground of extremist tendencies is our reaction to change, whether on the personal, group, national, or international level. The responsible person recognizes that change is part of the process of growth and attempts to aid that change which is necessary to human welfare. He recognizes the continuity and flow between the past, the present, and the future. The extremist on the other hand has an exaggerated response to change, either opposed to all change or in favor of sudden, violent change. Preoccupation with a past that can never be recreated or a utopian future may prevent a person from adopting a constructive attitude toward change. In the contemporary political scene, the radical right usually appeals to a past that never really existed, and the radical left appeals to a vision of the future which never can be realized in history. [18/19]
9. The tendency to equate the nation with ultimate values. This seems to be a particularly strong temptation “for Americans. Seymour Lipset notes that the concept of “Americanism” has become a compulsive ideology, not simply a nationalist creed. It is a political creed, like socialism, communism, or fascism, rather than a designation of a nationality like German, Italian, or Russian. Therefore, “more than any other democratic country, the United States makes ideological conformity one of the conditions for good citizenship.”10 The political creed takes on religious sanctions as the conflict with communism is seen as a battle with atheism. Religion becomes a support for the state, a tool of nationalism. Too easily there is an identification of a particular way of life with the order of the gospel. The enemies of the state are quickly labeled as the forces of evil and the national destiny identified with the welfare of the kingdom of God.
An example that approaches such identification can be found in the Christian Beacon magazine for February 10, 1966. The editorial comment suggests that there are two viewpoints on the liberal spectrum. One is concern for the threat of nuclear holocaust and the other is that “America just has to overcome her egotistical drive to force her type of government down the world’s throat.” However, the editor continues, “Christians—conservative, fundamental, Bible-believing, born-again Christians (and there are no others)—cannot accept either viewpoint for obvious reasons… the idea that Americanism can’t be taught to Asians is hardly acceptable to Christians who view as their primary mission in life the teaching of Christ as Redeemer and King.”11
The tendencies just listed are not an exhaustive catalog of the ideas, attitudes, and methods which, if unchecked, lead to extremism. But they are some of the most prevalent. Most of us are tempted in one area or another some of the time. But the person who exhibits these tendencies consistently is far down the road toward extremism. He may have much enthusiasm, but it will be “zeal without knowledge.” [19/20] And when he joins together with others who share his distorted view of reality and warped spirit, such association will spread poison in the body politic by embittering debate and beclouding issues. Most tragic, the person who allows himself to travel too far down the road of these extremist tendencies will end up with a brittle, rigid mind and a suspicious, judgmental attitude, suffocating the creativity of his own spirit and ignoring those gifts of the Holy Spirit— love, joy, forbearance, humility, and peace—which could turn him in the opposite direction.
The Sources of Extremism
What forces stimulate extremist tendencies? Why do persons reach out for extremist answers? What is the appeal of oversimplified, dogmatic ideologies? How do minds become dosed instead of open? What are the sources of extremism within the personality and from the environment outside?
The answers to these questions must be tentative and suggestive, for knowledge of the processes of personality development and group dynamics still contains large areas of mystery. But there are enough insights to help us understand our reactions and responses to the changes taking place around us. It is likely that our earliest family experiences begin to shape the structure of our beliefs, the way we accept or reject new ideas and experiences, and the degree of rigidity or flexibility in dealing with differences. Authoritarian patterns of family discipline may enforce habits of power, submission, fear, and judgment more than love, trust, and reasoning together. If these early influences predispose us toward a closed rather than open mind, it does not mean that we are doomed to continue in that direction. Self-understanding is the first step toward openness. The gospel promise of freedom certainly must include release from the captivities of our own development.
Factors in our religious background may also incline us [20/21] toward extremist tendencies. We may want to duplicate the certainty and assurance we feel about religious experience to all other areas of life. Sure and definite answers on questions of biblical interpretation and doctrine may give rise to the expectation that the same finality can be had on political, economic, and social issues.
Response to Threat
Various factors in our background may make it more difficult for us to adapt to change. But it is the threat of change itself which often provides the greatest stimulus to extremism. The nature of this threat is graphically described by Milton Rokeach:
Threat may arise out of adverse experiences, temporary or enduring, which are shaped by and which in turn shape broader human conditions. To varying degrees, individuals may become disposed to accept or to form closed systems of thinking and believing in proportion to the degree to which they are made to feel alone, isolated, and helpless in the world in which they live and thus anxious of what the future holds in store.12
This threat may come from external or internal sources. Externally it usually appears in the form of changes in the world which we do not like, cannot understand, or are unable to control. This leads to frustration which seeks solution in the easy answers of extremism. A recent commentator on the contemporary American scene described the kind of situation which provides fertile ground for extremism. “It is difficult to escape the feeling that the negative forces in American society—the forces of racial antagonism, of distrust of government, of blind frustration with other countries, other sections, other people—are in the ascendancy.”13
For many persons the rapidly changing world shatters their image of “the way things should be,” or “the way things used to be.” Those who assumed that the United States was essentially a white, Protestant nation are disturbed by developments of the last two decades. For many [21/22] Americans the invincibility of the nation was unquestioned until Korea, but now openly threatened in Vietnam. The demands of the nations in the southern half of the globe threaten an economic, if not a racial revolution. All of these changes appear as a threat because we cannot be certain about the future as the old world breaks up and new forms remain unclear. In response to this threat, the temptation to extremism is strong.
The threat may also come from within. Richard Hofstadter has suggested that politics is a projective arena in which many persons engage for reasons that have little to do with the substantive issues.14 The same could be said of the participation of many persons in extremist organizations. They attempt to find in those activities a substitute or fulfillment for inner drives that may have no relation to the issues about which they so dogmatically argue.
An illustration may demonstrate the point. In a certain community I was interested in talking with a former church member who was causing considerable turmoil by his leadership of a small group who were attracted to certain extremist causes. Other organizations that sought their loyalty and provided them with ammunition to use against the church may not have warranted the label extremism, but at least they encouraged the extremist tendencies of their adherents. (This is a familiar pattern; the followers in a movement carrying their leader’s logic to an extremist conclusion.)
The former church member talked for about two hours. The first hour he repeated charges I had heard dozens of times about the church and the nation. Gradually his conversation turned to his own relationship to the church. Soon he was expressing his bitterness at being ignored or rejected for responsibility. After another half hour he turned the conversation to his own family and expressed his deep disappointment at the way his children had turned out, contrary to all his hopes and teaching. He had turned toward [22/23] extremist causes as his response to internal threats.
We cannot simply write off the substantive arguments of those with extremist tendencies by crediting them to internal fears, disappointments, or inability to adjust to change. But we need to be alert to this possibility, because it calls for a solution on a deeper level than facts and argumentation.
Resources for Preventing and Combating Extremism
If the threat of change and uncertainty is the chief sources of extremist reactions, the problem will be with us a long time. On the personal level, the human condition is always confronted by new challenges. On the level of political and social developments, the possibilities of stabilizing the status quo are more remote than ever. How can we prepare ourselves to meet change? How can we minister to those caught up in reactions of extremism? What can be done to prevent outbreaks of extremism in the midst of frustrations and differences?
1. The gospel provides help to those confronted by changes in the familiar landscapes of the political and social order. The key is to discern those things which are not intrinsic to the gospel and give them a lower priority of allegiance. The gospel frees us from slavery to the things of this world which makes it difficult for us to give them up or see them altered. The answer of faith in face of change has been suggested in a beautiful and profound passage by Herbert Butterfield:
Christians have too often tried to put the brake on things in the past, but at the critical turning points in history they have less reason than others to be afraid that a new kind of society or civilization will leave them with nothing to live for . . . if one wants a permanent rock in life and goes deep enough for it, it is difficult for historical events to shake it. There are times when we can never meet the future with sufficient elasticity of mind, especially if we are locked in the contemporary systems of thought. We can do worse than remember a [23/24] principle which both gives us a firm Rock and leaves us the maximum elasticity for our minds: the principle: Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.15
2. The responsibility of Christians for others caught in the temptations of extremism is one that must be discharged more on the level of the spirit than the mind. What the extremist usually needs is acceptance more than facts. It does little good to argue, although we cannot avoid the necessity of hard labor to check the facts and acquire full information. But fundamentally, the solution to extremism will be on the level of interpersonal relationship at a level deeper and more demanding than intellectual exchange.
3. But exchange of all kinds must be provided. The church must provide opportunity for dialogue between those of differing points of view. Otherwise the discussion becomes polarized at the two extremes. The church must develop creative uses of controversy, not avoid it. An atmosphere of acceptance must be developed that encourages freedom of expression of differing points of view within the brotherhood rather than forcing diversity outside.
4. The church should provide leadership in the study and understanding of current affairs and international developments in the light of the Christian faith. There are innumerable voices ready to fill the vacuum with distorted, prejudiced, or inadequate views. To “speak the truth with love” we must at least know the truth.16
5. But love is still the key to dealing with extremism. We have suggested that the mind and spirit of Christ are the criteria for judging the extremism of the content of our beliefs, the way we hold those beliefs, and the manner of expressing our beliefs. That mind and spirit offer a practical example in the life of One who came, not to destroy men’s lives but to save them, not to be served but to serve. The best defense against the temptation of extremism is to be filled with that spirit. [24/25]
. Astrid Bötticher, “Towards Academic Consensus Definitions of Radicalism and Extremism” Perspectives on Terrorism 11.4 (August 2017): 73-77.
2. For further biographical details see Edgar Metzler, “An Autobiographical Stroll Through Sixty Years of Mennonite Peacemaking” in Re-Envisioning Service: The Geography of Our Faith. Ed. Ray Gingerich and Pat Hostetter Martin (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2016).
3. Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality (New York: Basic Books, 1960) – Ed.
4. Robert W. Welch Jr., The Blue Book of the John Birch Society (Boston: Western Islands, 1961). For an analysis of this text see Natalia Gutiérrez-Jones, The John Birch Society: The American Far-Right’s Struggle for Respectability. MA Thesis. Simmons College. Boston, Massachusetts (2018). – Ed.
5. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), 89. – Ed.
6. For reliable information on the Protocols see Stephen Eric Bronner, A Rumor About the Jews: Reflections on Antisemitism and The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000). – Ed.
7. United States of America Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 88th Congress, Second Session. Volume 110, Part 17, page 22296 (September 17, 1964). – Ed.
8. Adolph Hitler made this statement in 1934. For details see Yosef Govrin, The Jewish Factor in the Relations between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union: 1933-1941 (Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2009), 7. – Ed.
9. Harry Allen Overstreet and Bonaro W. Overstreet, The Strange Tactics of Extremism (London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1965). – Ed.
10. Seymour Martin Lipset, “The Sources of the Radical Right (1955)” in The Radical Right. Ed. Daniel Bell. 3rd Ed (London: Routledge, 2017), 321. – Ed.
11. The newspaper Christian Beacon was edited by N.J. Collingswood and has been published from 1936 to the present. – Ed.
12. Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind, 69. – Ed.
13. Source Unknown. – Ed.
14. The allusion is likely to Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” Harper’s Magazine. November 1964. – Ed.
15. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (London: Bell, 1949), 145-146. – Ed.
16. Ephesians 4:15. – Ed.