His essay assignment was an analysis of an historical document. He had his choice of two--Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" or Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." I asked which one he wanted to do.
"I'd like to do the Declaration because it's shorter," he said. "But I don't know. Something is telling me to do the Letter from Birmingham Jail."
When I asked him why, he said: "When I was drinking and using, I hated black people and wasn't very nice to them. I have no idea why I hated them, I just did. Now that I've been sober awhile, I realize I've got a lot of amends to make, and maybe writing about this is a good place to start."
But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."
Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."
Was not Martin Luther an extremist: 'Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God."
And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience."
And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free."
And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ."
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.
Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
Yes, we have a long way to go, but 50 years ago, Dr. King could not have envisioned the steps we have taken. Would an Obama or an Oprah have been possible in 1963?
We must go forward with Dr. King's vision, the way my AA friend was willing to go forward. We must be willing, as my friend was, to practice the 10th Step of AA, which is:
Continued to take personal inventory
and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
But in our disunity, we all fall together.