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Should You Be a Religious Extremist?

Do you want a radical faith?

In a world where radicalism makes the news every day through suicide bombings, wars, terrorism, injustice and reckless violence—all in the name of God—is it even acceptable to say yes?

Radicalism in the World

One person who knows about the implications of radicalism is Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the author of My Year in Radical Islam. Gartenstein-Ross converted to Islam in 1997 when he was in college, and after his graduation he took a job with the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation in southern Oregon. Al-Haramain is now specially designated by the U.S. government as a global terrorist entity, and has been fingered as one of the major sources of funds for Al-Qaeda.

“When I went there, I didn’t have extremist views. I didn’t know the depths of what Al-Haramain was involved in, or the tenets that it held,” he says. “What I didn’t realize was that over time I would find their religious arguments to be persuasive, and in fact started to adopt them myself.

“Over time, my idea of religion shifted: I no longer thought that religion was something that should make you feel comfortable. Rather, religion should be forging a relationship with God, based on the truth of God. This attitude led me both toward and ultimately away from radical ideology.”

Gartenstein-Ross left Al-Haramain when he went to law school. During the summer after his first year, he went through a time of spiritual seeking. Reading the Bible, and studying the Koran and both Christian and Muslim apologetics, he eventually became convinced of the case for Christ. By the end of the year, he became a Christian.

For Gartenstein-Ross, a faith becomes radical in a dangerous sense when people believe their religious views can be forcibly imposed on others. “God’s will is not the forcible imposition of certain religious norms on other people, and certainly not with the threat of violence,” he says.

He notes some people use the term “radical” in a positive context with respect to faith. “You can define radicalism with respect to violence or rejection of society, you can define radicalism in ways that are positive.” Gartenstein-Ross defines radicalism in the positive sense as life transformation. “When your relation with the world is transformed by your relationship with God, it transforms the way you relate to others, it transforms the way you do your work, it transforms the way you live your life.” 

The Radicalism of Jesus

Did Jesus call us to be radicals? Certainly there were many things Jesus said and did that would fall into the “extremist” category during His ministry. The Bible records Jesus telling His followers they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life. The people who witnessed this were upset and many left saying: “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:53-60)

But was Jesus a proponent of violence for religious cause? Jesus said: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Suddenly, the pastoral scene has changed to a battlefield. Is Jesus really this kind of a radical, the kind that’s empowered by violence and coercion and calls His followers to do the same?

We don’t have to look far for answers.