To write about radicalism was going to be easy, or so I thought. My personal jump off point should have provided good source material – a published book on the subject and a personality bent toward all things extreme. Personally, I like radicals and I started off this project believing I was one myself. The timing is good too. In our political season we keep hearing about the liberal left, the religious right, radical environmentalists, radical Muslims, and even radically branded Christians make the occasional appearance in the mainstream news media. It turns out that radicalism is big news.
First, we need to define radicalism. The origin of the word, the English version dating to the middle ages, is somewhat different from its current popular usage. It really means to "be rooted". The idea behind the word is to be so grounded, so deeply rooted into a lifestyle idea that one stands against the social and cultural currents that tear others away from that idea. It’s essentially building your house on a rock that doesn’t get torn down in cultural storms. So, to become a radical, is to return to one’s roots and stand against modernity’s eroding influences. So, you can see, by this definition any follower of Christ can be, or should be, considered a radical.
Modern radicalism is different, however. It has become more extreme than its historical relative (a more radical radicalism?). In our current setting radicalism is really closer to grass roots activism. It started with the American Revolution and worked its way through the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century; to the Lawrence textile strike in 1912; to the labor movements in the 1930’s; to the civil rights movement in the 60’s; to our 21st century expressions of radicalism seen in anti-abortion, immigrant defense, anti human trafficking, and pro environmental movements today. Many leaders for each radical movement in North American history were committed followers of Christ and his teachings. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez are great examples among many. Both were deeply committed to their faith. A migrant worker from the strawberry fields in California, Chavez employed traditional radicalism (including fasting and prayer) to successfully organize farm laborers and migrant workers to fight for equal rights and justice. He died in 1993 and 50,000 people attended his funeral. I make note of the fact that historical radicals operated from a community of faith and the wisdom that comes from Scripture. It turns out that while many people live with a post modern, poly-theistic value system, radicals like the wisdom of the ancients because it’s over 5,000 years old and still works just fine.
While on business in various cities around the world I began asking people about their view of radicalism today. I posted the question on The Ooze and other emergent outlets to capture what the average thinking was about radicalism today. Some said the Amish were the best example. Some mentioned Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, and Bono.
I began randomly interviewing people. One woman, in her mid 50’s, with a friendly face and shoulder length colored hair sat on an airplane next to me between Portland and Denver. She looked a lot like Greta VanSusteran (sp) from Fox News except she was a bit older, prettier, and she was sitting with me in coach. This time, I asked her to share her view of Christian radicals in particular. She told me that modern radicals have hi-jacked their own faith traditions and changed the original intents. She mentioned people who picket abortion clinics as the perfect example. “They don’t seem very smart to me because they don’t understand the teaching of their own faith. They shove it down people’s throat.” She said thoughtfully, without indicating what faith she adhered to. “Those people are on the fringe to me”. She concluded by saying that she has no respect for anyone who is on the fringe. Before she returned to her Suduko game she had a remaining thought, removed her glasses and leaned over to say, “Actually, the anti-war protesters of the Vietnam era were a good kind of radical.” Hmm. This research is going to be more difficult than imagined, I thought to myself.
I needed to go someplace where real radicals hang out. I needed to find that anti-war, anti-Starbucks, wheatgrass eating, Yoga practicing population of Ralph Nader supporters. So I head to Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, Oregon. It has the nickname of Portland’s Living Room because people just hang out there all the time, rain or shine, playing hacky sack, and eating their hotdog stand giant pretzels. The square covers one city block bordered by the metro train, an old courthouse (the original Pioneer courthouse), and Nordstroms. A few people in the square pass out flyers about various causes and meetings taking place throughout the city. Someone hands me a slip of paper that points out our country spends $486 billion on military spending and only $29 billion on diplomacy. Man, this place is a radicals breeding ground. This bunkered in bastion of liberal anarchy has taken some big business hits because there is a thriving Starbucks located on the Northwest corner. But I am not discouraged. I venture inside for an Americano with steamed soy and I find more anti-war flyers on the tables. Out in the square, through the big window I can see a guy holding a binder and trying to stop people walking past him. He’s trying to gain their support for something. He’s about 28 years old, wearing a skull cap, and sporting a full beard. Perfect.
His name is Nate and he’s the local head of Greenpeace. I tell him about Relevant Magazine, and this story idea, and I ask him if he considers himself to be a radical. “I can see why people think we are on the fringe, but I don’t think we are radicals at all”, he says it, and more, with a genuine smile and a knowing look. “Greenpeace was actually started by a Quaker – a Christian!” He sees that I am visibly shocked by this claim, which I later found out to be mostly true. The founding members, most of them, were devout Quakers based in Vancouver, BC. “Back in 1971 the US Government was planning a nuclear test off some islands near Alaska and this Christian guy thought it was wrong. So he got another crazy guy to loan his boat to the cause and they all headed up to put themselves in harm’s way… to stop a US military nuclear test. He tells me their motivation was based on the value of stewardship for all creation. He actually used that word – stewardship. He called it “non-violent resistance to protect all life”. He tells me their mission failed to stop the test and the founders were arrested in the process, but it started a peace movement that continues to this day. Regardless of what Greenpeace has become, the original intent was established by some very average Christians with above average convictions. I left Pioneer Square that day with a new realization that true radicals don’t normally think they are radical. In fact, the ones who say they are radical probably aren’t.
I didn’t stop there. Relevant writers have to be at the top of their game so nothing but a global search of the most obvious radicals would be necessary for this story. I walked the streets of Chicago in search of someone more like a Christian radical. I dunno, someone with a Jesus sign hanging on their back. In the middle of February I found myself in Denver and didn’t find a single radical there either. Not the obvious kind anyway. I was looking for the kind that the Greta look-alike spoke of… people on the fringe! Nothing.
I headed to Delhi, India for a business trip and did some prior research hoping to find a radical on the other side of the world. I’m not the first to do this. Shane Claiborne writes about travelling to India to meet Mother Theresa because he felt she might be the only true Christian in the world at the time. I suppose I’m looking for something like that too, a true Christian radical who is going against the tide in a part of the world that has little stomach for Christianity.
I’ve been there four times, enough to know that I don’t really like Delhi. I'm not drawn to anyplace with severe pollution, the kind you clearly see; the kind you can taste in the evening when you go to bed and dig out of the corner of your eyes when you wake up in the morning. Dogs and cows roam around with impunity. Men urinate on the sides of the crowded roads without a thought. The poverty is unreal. Many people, millions of them, are so poor they live in small huts made from cow manure and have been known to eat dogs to stay alive. India is not a fun place to visit.
When business concludes I set out to meet a man, a true radical, named Rick Coffin. I learned that he and his wife moved to Delhi from Atlanta to help plant non-denominational Churches throughout the country. India is a place where Christians are regularly harassed if not fully persecuted for their faith. So I prepare to meet my first real Christian radical. Because of the inherent risk of such a mission and the difficulties associated with planting churches in India, I expect to meet someone who looks more like Indiana Jones than John Edwards. To my complete surprise, I find Rick to be perfectly normal on the outside. (Hmmm. Maybe he’s trying to hide his true radicalism from Hindu spies?). He wears glasses to read and drive and, well, to do anything. He has slightly graying hair that is cut like a Chicago businessman and he wears perfectly normal clothing. He is not big or muscular or sporting any hardware pierced through his nose, eyelid, or ears. (I chose not to ask about anything that may or may not be impaled in or near his navel area.) It takes me some time to just admit that he looks like my dad. Yet he and his wife are successfully raising indigenous leaders to plant home churches throughout India and Tibet. They don’t make much money, haven’t written any books, and they don’t get any airtime on Christian TV. But I am overcome by their warrior hearts.
Later that same day I met Ramesh who is a new local pastor, church planter, and living example of the ministry, mentoring, and classical radicalism of Rick and Ellen Coffiin. Ramesh has been discipled by Rick, one on one, for years. He and his wife and child are headed to Northern India soon to plant a new church for a Napalese (sp) people group.
It dawns on me, right then, in a humid coffee shop in Delhi, that true radicalism has horrible pay; it takes years to see its fruit; and it requires that quiet, under the radar kind of love for people that Christ gave his life for. God is not speaking more profoundly to the good looking loud ones. He’s moving powerfully through the simple ones who only wish they could have the time and money to be a snowboarder for Christ.
I fly home. I readjust to my clean freeways and, for a moment, catch myself wondering how my book is selling at Barnes and Noble. I briefly wonder if I should take that new job for better pay and move my family to another city. Then the Lord takes me back to my time with Rick and Ramesh and to the countless other radicals who have optioned for a life with fewer options than my own. I start to realize that I just couldn’t see them before in places like Denver and Chicago because I didn’t know what to look for. I’d been tricked into thinking that radicals were somehow flashy, famous, and dangerous. But they’re not. They’re just not.
But classic radicals, the real ones, are alive and well. They are like the nuns taking over for Mother Theresa in Calcutta without anyone knowing their name; anti-abortion activists who have been fighting a seemingly losing war for over 35 years, home schooling moms distributing food in La Chereca, Nicaragua, and big city environmentalists who never back down from well funded industrial law firms. I realize now they are all around us, tattoo or not, pierced or not, these people do affect our lives and culture. They are quietly praying and fasting for the sick in their church. They are taking in foster children. They are just doing the stuff that Christ would be doing - for the least of these.
As the definition of radicalism has been redeployed numerous times throughout history, so has its relationship to Christianity. For some bizarre reason our streets, churches, and even Christian magazines are filled with people who look radical - like pastors who ride a Harley to church, the emboldened lead singer of some band, and the extreme sports athlete who openly professes Christ. Who knows? Maybe most of them are sincere. But can you see it growing around us? A new Christian radicalism has emerged in the West that appears Christian on the surface but often moves without the traditional values of classic Christian radicalism and selflessness. It is called “radical” because it gets tattooed, writes books, does podcasts, speaks at conferences (for top fees), and never really sacrifices much at all. The honor and the pay are just too good. Like a decorated horse at the head of a parade it moves ahead proudly with a full commitment to American materialism, individualism, and clever self promotion without giving a second thought to the costly sacrificial nature of a real radical.
This fake radicalism is appealing but it’s not real. Can’t you see it? They’re handing us a placebo and telling us it makes life more interesting. So many of us feed the veneer without realizing we’ve taken a water pill of the safer path. As long as we can pay our bills we tend to just accept the mundane routine of half baked church life. All the while, Western culture continues to erode away the radicalism of well meaning followers of The Way only to replace it with a brand of faith that doesn’t really cost anyone their life. Not to mention our possessions, income, and relationships.
Classical Christian radicalism is definitively costly to the leaders and the followers alike. In the vein of MLK or Chavez, it begs for lasting change that takes years to unfold. And without agents or fancy contracts, it calls for warriors willing to fight long battles against institutions, ideas, and corporations that hurt people without a voice.
But listen, in a world with more fake radicals than coffee joints, true radicals are needed now more than ever. Right now, in our own backyards, we have human trafficking, illegal immigrant abuse by shady employers, racism, over-crowded prisons, very little healthcare for children and the working poor, and the issues go on and on and on.
At this point in my research it all comes crashing in on me. I realize that I am also part of the problem. Crap! I wrote a book on the subject, speak at conferences, and surf big waves with all the selfishness you can imagine. What’s more, with a good paying job and a life mission that doesn’t really cost me anything, I realize that I’m not radical at all. I am not what I thought I was. Even as a lay pastor I haven’t given up much. Reportedly, Benjamin Franklin once said that lighthouses were more helpful than churches. I know what he meant.
So, on a night when the outside world pretends to care less, I try to take that bittersweet pill of repentance, hoping to wake up tomorrow morning infected by the blood of Christ, diseased, and unable to extricate myself from His grip. I’m compelled to start right here in my small hometown, through my little local church, regardless of the cost or how long it takes. That is rooted. Will you join me?