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9/11 Reminds Us of the Power of Radical Extremism

Hatred is a terribly powerful thing.

It has a way of infiltrating the heart like a cancer; hardening it, darkening it, destroying it. When someone submits to rage completely, when they are fully diseased with contempt for another, they can do the most unspeakable, unimaginable things. This kind of extremism in a handful of a heart-polluted people can bring down buildings.

And the truth is, you can’t fight the disease of extremism with more of the same.
You can’t simply respond to violent radicals with greater hatred, with more anger, with deeper darkness. That only serves to metastasize the terror. It turns you into a contagion. You end up becoming the cancer. The only way radical, hateful extremism is overcome, the only way it is defeated—is through its most radical counterpoint.

From the moment the first plane hit on that September morning, the other extremists went to work…
They carried incapacitated strangers down thousands of steps in the choking blackness.
They ran headfirst into creaking steel towers, when every human instinct was to run in the other direction.
They pulled dust-covered corpses from the twisted wreckage and breathed life into them.
They stood in line to give blood to those whose own had been emptied out, not knowing the recipients.

And as the days and weeks unfolded, the extremists didn’t stop.

They drew crayon love letters to grieving strangers.
They gave away freely what they used to charge for.
They attended the funerals of people they’d never met.
They chose to see commonality with others, where they once chose to see division.
They even chose to forgive unforgivable people.

Love is a terribly powerful thing.

In the face of the disease of hatred it has always been the cure, the antidote to all the afflicts us.
It has always been the most dangerous anti-terrorism weapon humanity has had or will ever have.

This kind of extremism confounds the hate-poisoned heart because it does what is counterintuitive to it.
It doesn’t respond in a way that makes sense.
It doesn’t fight the way the enemy wants.
It changes the whole dynamic of the war.
It makes up new rules of engagement.

When a person becomes radicalized by love, they can’t be broken by force because they are no longer breakable. Wounding actually strengthens them. It gives their hearts space to expand their capacity for benevolence and forgiveness and goodness.

“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” – Jesus

As a person of faith, the greatest response I can hope for in the face of such bitter sickness, is to live the life of a radical extremist whose sole cause is Love.

It may sound like a flowery cliché or an empty platitude, but to me it’s a sacred calling that is far more valuable and far more costly than replicating toxins.
It’s what the best of our spiritual traditions are supposed to be made of.
And if we dare to call ourselves people of faith, morality, or conscience, it’s what we need to be made of.

This kind of extremism is a confounding, expectation-defying, hate-rattling choice to love in the face of abject rage and blind intolerance.
It’s the greatest thing a human being can aspire to: not might or force or payback or revenge.
In a world of empty culture wars and wasteful battles over territory—compassion, generosity, goodness, and love are the only worthy hills to die on.

This was true on the September 11th, 2001 and it is still true. In this very day, people of every religious tradition, political affiliation, and nation of origin are still fully committed to perpetuating bigotry, inflicting injury, and generating terror—and we are being called to pushback with something more redemptive and life-giving.

Friend, this is a time for remembering, for grieving, for honoring.

And as you do, remember too, the power of radical extremism done in the name of Love, and celebrate it.

More than anything though, may you practice it.

The world needs the extremists now more than ever.

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