Being radical

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Herod was on to something!

Let’s be clear: I am not endorsing a ruthless, blood-thirsty, maniacal, despotic tyrant. This is the guy after all, as reported in Matthew’s gospel, who was so angry at having been duped by the magi and being so suspicious and jealous and frightened that he ordered the slaughter of all of the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. It was by yet another angelic visitor that Jesus’ life was spared; Herod’s blood-thirsty plotting forcing Mary, Joseph and Jesus to flee, Herod turning them into refugees.

And yet, Herod was on to something. He didn’t know what, exactly. He wasn’t sure why he was frightened or jealous or suspicious. Clearly, however, all signs indicated that this child could be trouble. He was getting strange reports, people speaking of a new “king,” magi traveling thousands of miles in search of something, whatever this was – something was up. Of course Herod couldn’t grasp who this child was, what he was meant to be, how his power would revolutionize the world — but not in ways that Herod’s brutal, maniacal, tyrannical mind could have begun to comprehend.

Herod suspected something outrageous, something radical. And he was right. From the beginning, this child’s story is outrageous. His preaching, his witness, his self-giving sacrifice were outrageous. His preaching was outrageous: to forgive those who insult us, to turn the other cheek rather than seek revenge, to embrace the people everyone else rejected, to love others as we would love God our ourselves, to celebrate the return of the prodigal, wasteful son. What Jesus preached, what he witnessed to, what he did in giving his very life was outrageous, it was – in a word – radical.

The meaning of that word – radical – has been distorted in recent years. We associate it most commonly with people who carry out deadly Herod-like violence in Paris or San Bernardino or too many other places. Someone coined the phrase “Radical Islam.” Some refuse to use the term because they fear it endorses the terrorists’ motivation, which is not inspired by Islam, but rather a distortion, a condemnation. Some won’t use the term; others mock them for their refusal.

I realized how this word “radical” has been misappropriated during a recent discussion on a cable news show when one of the commentators referred to “radical Christians.” My ears perked up. I’d heard that phrase before; the idea of “radical Christianity” is not new. The guy referred to the man who shot up an abortion clinic in Colorado Springs killing three people as a “radical Christian.” No, I screamed back at my television. Regardless of the man’s confused, misguided rationale, what he did that day after Thanksgiving had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with what Jesus preached, with who he was, with who he inspires us to be. The man was a maniacal terrorist, not a radical Christian.

So what is a radical Christian? What does it mean to be a radical disciple? It means to recognize the teaching with which this child would grow to enliven and inspire us. It means to live by that gospel teaching in an oftentimes violent, selfish, hard-hearted world – to live contrary to that, to live the way of Jesus, to follow a different way – as the magi follow a different way, to not simply accept and find comfort in the same-old, same-old, to not be content with being lukewarm or mediocre. We don’t have to look far to find these radical Christians: some are the people around us all the time; others, we know their stories: Mother Theresa, Maximilian Kolbe, Francis of Assisi, Oscar Romero. These were radical Christians.

The question then for us as we join the Magi in honoring this child – regarded as controversial, radical even, from the very beginning of its life – The question is whether we are ready to be more invested, more engaged, more determined, more merciful, more loving, more generous, more patient, more just? Are we ready to be more radical?  TL

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