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.Continue reading