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Imagine if you will a charismatic religious leader. He has gathered around himself a group of devoted followers, whom he has encouraged to follow him at the expense of their families and traditional religious authorities. He seems to be calling for an overthrow of the political order. He has been accused of breaching the peace, and despite repeated warnings from the watching authorities continues to preach to crowds of impressionable people, particularly from among the poorest and most vulnerable parts of society. When the authorities belatedly move to arrest him they are confronted with violence from his followers. Most extreme of all, he claims to be God.
Extremist? Certainly Jesus could fit that narrative. Why else, indeed, would he be crucified other than the threat he posed to political and civic power? There is also, of course, a positive Christian slant, that the claim to be the Son of God, the dying for the sins of all humanity and a new covenant, make for a radical re–ordering of the world. This may explain why 28% of the British public think Jesus is an extremist, according to a new ComRes survey done with ADF and the EA.
Unfortunately the raw data does not tell us why respondents thought Jesus was, or was not, an extremist. Do those who believe he is think so because, as Christians, they see him as a radical instituting a new covenant? Or are they people who see the fruits of Christianity today and think them nothing more than homophobic, sexist and bigoted and put the blame for that on Jesus?
The same survey may provide a clue in that regard. 41% of respondents believe it is extreme to think that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. That would place most of the larger Christian denominations into the extremism bracket – a worry if that results in government policing and monitoring church services in the same way that so many student Islamic societies now seem to be.
The Arch–Brexiteer and sometime great hope of the Tory right, Daniel Hannan, has recently written and tweeted at some length against a new statue of Engels in Manchester, on the basis that the result of Engel’s work can be seen in the evils of Stalinism and the Gulag. One wonders if Jesus too is being thought of as responsible for unleashing evils associated with Christianity. It would be interesting to discover the thoughts of the respondents. It would be interesting too to pursue Hannan’s logic and ask how far any public figure can be venerated when the results of their work lead to evil. Should we be binning busts of Nietzsche on the basis of the way some converted it into the evils of Nazism? Should Darwin College in Cambridge be renamed once its founding light is held responsible for eugenicists?
It is a legitimate fear to think that the net of extremism is being cast ever wider to incorporate a range of views and beliefs which may or may not be dangerous to society at large. The response of the government to recent terrorist attacks, though only natural in the aftermath of the horror of those events, have prompted fears that they are extending the definition too widely. Shutting down debate by calling something extreme is a dangerous affront to freedom of thought and conscience.
That said, there’s a case to be made for reclaiming extremism, as something not necessarily destructive and dangerous, but necessary and useful. We can abhor violence and destruction without condemning arguably “extreme” political and philosophical views that seek to transform society. Polling like this reveals the fluidity of where the radical edge of a position is deemed to lie. Anything other than an entirely stagnant intellectual space requires boundaries to be pushed. This is something Christians may want to reflect on. Jesus the extremist was crucified for his faith, while now only a minority think he was extreme. Has society become radically Christian, or have we become too much creatures of an establishment that no longer challenges people?
Ben Ryan is a Researcher for Theos | @BendictWRyan
Image from Wiki Commons available under this Creative Commons License 2.0