How might we differentiate between religious activism and extremism?

Presentation at Radical/ized Religion Conference at the University of Chichester June 2017

Julian Burnside, the prominent Australian advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, in seeking to explain how he a successful barrister who was interested in the Arts, and not at all interested in politics came to be involved in this issue tells and perhaps retells a mythical story that I think is pertinent.

“There once was a family whose ten-year-old son had never spoken a word. The parents had passed from anxiety to despair to resignation: there was no organic reason for his silence.

One morning as a novelty, the mother decided to serve porridge at breakfast. She had never served it before.

The ten-year-old took a spoonful of porridge, looked up sharply and said, “I think porridge is revolting.”

His parents were astonished.

“It’s a miracle! You can speak! Why haven’t you spoken before this?”

“Everything has been satisfactory until now,” he said.

I think nearly all of us who are politically active and are seeking change have had our “porridge” moment. For some it comes very early and for some it comes late. For many it has been the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit vote.

I was in my early thirties when a developer bulldozed a small stream near where I lived to make a residential canal estate. When I investigated, I found a string of lies issuing from the developer, the politicians and the local press and this made me very, very angry.

Anger is both a useful and a dangerous emotion. Useful in that it provides energy, clears debris and fosters creativity. Unwisely used, it slips easily into violence against others, and the chaotic contagion that violence begets.

In this presentation I will be exploring the question of the difference between religious activism and extremism. At the outset, however, I need to acknowledge that this binary is very much socially constructed. When I was active in the environment movement there were many people who thought and also told me that I was an “extremist”. I remember after one talk a well-dressed lady from the Conservative party, pearls flying, descending upon me and informing me that I was the “rudest” person she had ever met. I suspect her social set was rather limited. Nevertheless, I was regarded by her and many of her kind as someone posing an “extreme” threat. And in this they were not entirely wrong. I had contributed to the defeat of the local conservative MP in a supposed safe seat and I did go on to stop a major canal development on environmentally sensitive land. I was a threat to capitalists trying to make unethical money and those who dreamed of doing so. So I have to live with the tag of “extremist” to a certain extent if one is to define extremism as someone utterly opposed to a value many in society perceive as an undeniable good, ie, the ability to make lots and lots of money without thinking too hard about the methods of acquiring it or of the social and environmental consequences.

That being said, I don’t regard myself as an extremist, but remember no one ever does.

I would like to turn now to religious activism. I am a Christian and an activist who has consistently tried to align his Christianity with his activism. Does this make me a religious activist? I am not sure. Religious activism seems to take several forms of which my activity may represent a minor branch. The dominant form of religious activism appears to be when members of a denomination or religious group work together to protect their social and economic issues for example the funding of church run schools or hospitals or tax exemption status. Yes, culturally religious but not necessarily theologically informed. A more recent development has been the so-called rise of the religious right which aligns capitalist individual values with a literalist fantastic version of the religious tradition. Is Isis an Islamic version of this? The utter moral bankruptcy of this position is shown in the solid support given to Trump by most of its American supporters. This is not a definition of religious activism that I want any part of.

What then does my religious activism then consist of? It has its origin in a “porridge” moment as I have outlined above. Something is so wrong that I feel impelled to take action. Yet impelled is not quite the right word as it implies that I am forced, but I am not. I could choose to ignore the situation, and many do. “Called” is another verb that is not quite right; it implies an external caller but who or what or if anything is doing the calling is not clear. The philosopher Jack Caputo, following Derrida, talks of an “insistence” a term that gets close to the feeling. Indeed, I think Jack is onto something when he claims that God does not “exist”, God “insists”. My religious activism cannot rely on an existing backstop God that will make everything right and who justifies my actions. My faith is the extent I respond to the insistence. It is a leap into action (and sometimes inaction) rather than a belief in a number of creedal dogmas or doctrines. Yet at the same time, I think I rightly call myself a Christian. I am a person who consistently tries to follow the way of Jesus despite all the uncertainty of who or what he is, and what he did and did not say or do. My faith can be said to embrace this uncertainty. Indeed, if I was certain, then would it be faith?

Perhaps this faithful uncertainty, protects from certain types of violent extremism. One has to be pretty certain to kill others or oneself for a cause or a God. Of course the Christian faith has a long tradition of actively participating in the killing of others. On the day I first visited this country over 30 years ago, the IRA planted a bomb in Hyde Park that killed and maimed a number of innocent people. Many of the Protestants in Northern Ireland were just as blood thirsty in their desire to kill and maim. Going back in time, there is a long and bloody history, the Crusades, numerous Jewish pogroms, the Inquisition, the Lutheran suppression of the peasant revolt and the actions of Cromwell, to name just a few that spring to mind. The insistence to “love your neighbour” including your enemy appears to be more often ignored than responded to. This seems such a strange paradox within the Christian religion.

In the 1990s the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who is a committed pacifist, was travelling in Australia and he gave an interview to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In it he said, “Everyone who knows me, knows that I am a mean sonofabitch but it is my Christian community that keeps me honest to my ideals.” But what if your church community doesn’t try to keep you honest, but rather panders to your worst inclinations and biases, and feeds you lies and half-truths and never challenges you. You will have certainty but at a huge cost.

Before I bag religious certainty too much I would like to stress I understand its attraction especially if you are poor and oppressed and don’t see much hope of improving your situation in this life. I now speak from a relatively wealthy position, wealthy enough at least to travel internationally to attend this conference. It was not always thus, and but for a series of fortunate events it could have been otherwise and I could have lived a life of poverty and destitution. In such an alternative present I can see how certainty could have been very attractive, yet it is still an illusion. Maybe for some it is a necessary illusion. However, it remains an extremely dangerous one: it becomes the opium of which Marx spoke.

One of the dangers of certainty is that it is open to manipulation by the unscrupulous and those who seek power for power’s sake. One of the ways to seek certainty in an uncertain world is to follow a so-called strong leader who has definite opinions and who promises the solution to all problems. If problems persist their cause arises from the “other.” This othering creates a secondary gain for the certain. It allows them to project all their own malevolent intent and violence onto the other, and in turn justifies their own continuing violence, both structural and physical.

Such othering, I would argue runs counter to the insistence that is at the heart of the Christian religion which insists on the love of both neighbour and enemy. The seminal Christian texts, the Gospels and the epistles, grew out of a time when Christians were the “other” of the Empire. At just such a time they tried to create communities which were radically open. Such radical openness is not easy. Nor is the outcome necessarily a good one. Building relationships with others who are different from ourselves is unsettling and potentially even dangerous. Yet such openness is also liberating. The world opens up in new and wonderful ways, not constricted by the fear of the unknown or of our own incipient violence.

For me then, I think, that an authentic religious activism during this time of history, requires a dual thrust. One thrust is back into the religious community, in my case the Christian one, in which I call attention to the way that my community is failing to respond to the insistence at the heart of our tradition. When doing this, I tend to use a religious language that would appear arcane to outsiders, but which has power and usefulness within the community. When speaking and acting outside the community, which is most of the time, I need a language that is able to connect with the “porridge” moments of others and links at the level of values, hopes and dreams.

In this later language an important word is “democracy”. The word democracy has been powerful in the west, linked as it has been with fairness and equality for all. Yet there are still within the west powerful forces, including many political parties, that oppose its expression.

Disenfranchisement has serious consequences, both for the individual and the society. For the individual it results in a feeling of powerlessness and often a resulting fear that life is being dictated by forces that not only don’t represent them but which may also be hostile to them. For the society, there is the prospect that they will come to be run increasingly by political elites linked closely to the rich and powerful. In this situation, the notion of the common good is drowned out by an increasingly self-serving notion that the State’s major function is to assist the rich to make more money. Gross as this may sound, we only need to look to the USA to see this scenario being acted out. It is more than ironic that the USA often projects itself as promoting democracy around the world when its own example is so abysmal.

As a Christian and an activist in a country with democratic processes I have the privilege, right and responsibility to become involved and enhance those processes. My first responsibility is to vote in elections. I am fortunate to live in a country that reinforces that responsibility by legislation. In other words it is illegal not to vote in Australia and you can and will be fined if you don’t vote. Last election there was a 91% turnout. It means that I don’t have to waste time, as I might either here or in the US encouraging others to vote.

However, the next action, being informed so that I and others can exercise an informed vote becomes crucial. Every activist knows that the mainstream media is not interested in the truth of complex issues. They want drama, preferably with conflict and perhaps some titillation. Several media outlets are also controlled by right wing moguls who don’t hesitate to propagate their own elitist and divisive views, or those of their major advertisers. While the burgeoning social media has created some opportunities, it is an ongoing and uphill battle to promote socially progressive views at least in the English speaking mass media.

I would like to show a brief YouTube clip of what I regard as good example of one type of religious activism. In it you will see the Afro-American activist Bree Newsome climb a flag pole in South Carolina and take down a confederate flag. A brief history of this action is this. The confederate flag was originally one of several flags of the losing confederate side in the American civil war. The flag had not been continuously flying since the Civil War. Rather, the state of South Carolina raised it in 1961 as a specific statement of opposition to the Civil Rights movement and a symbol against black people gaining equality. Efforts to have the flag removed from the Capital grounds had been going on for nearly 20 years when Bree Newsome took her action.

Ten days before Bree Newsome took her action, a white supremacist entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston and shot dead nine people at a prayer meeting. Photos of the shooter with a confederate flag later became available on the internet. At the time of the funerals of the Charleston nine, the American flag was flown at half mast, but the confederate flag was not.

Legislators were considering a motion to remove the flag at the time of Bree Newsome’s action. The flag was permanently removed 13 days later.

Link to Youtube

So was Bree Newsome’s action an example of extremism? She did after all break the law, she insulted a flag that is held dear by many Americans, she used aggressive religious language that was probably incomprehensible to many of her listeners. Certainly, many of the supporters of the confederate flag would have called her an extremist, and even a number of moderates questioned her actions as unnecessarily divisive when the legislature was likely soon to have the flag removed anyway.

This type of analysis has the disadvantage of ignoring the deep underlying anger and hurt that undergirded the action. The history and ongoing treatment of Afro-Americans in the USA is an abomination. As a sensitive Afro-American woman, Bree Newsome feels this intensely. Bree Newsome is also an artist and a film maker by profession. Her action, which involved in total about 10 people to make happen could also be viewed as a work of art. It was designed to deliver several messages and perhaps like all good art it probably delivered even more than was intended. The most obvious message was that Afro-Americans, especially the women, were strong and would not be cowered by the violence of the racists: they could and would act. There was also the message to the white Christian community that racism was unacceptable and racist Christians were fighting against their God. There was also a message about the possibility of white Americans and Afro-Americans working together – note the spotter at the bottom of the pole was a white American. Also, there was a message about the importance of creative non-violent resistance.


In conclusion what is the difference between religious activism and extremism. The difference I believe is uncertainty. While religious activists can be quite definite in their actions they retain a level of uncertainty that flows from a relationship with a God that is unknowable by human effort. Religious extremists on the other hand, whether they support the State or oppose it, have adopted a culturally conditioned certainty, that mistakes self-interest of either the individual or the group for the will of God.

Len Baglow