This Holy Week, I am feeling the need to participate in some Catholic extremism.
Now of course, we live in a time when religious extremism is a major threat to the world. That’s why I find it all the more distressing that so may Americans have a warped view of what constitutes extremism. The Barna group conducted a major study of American attitudes towards religion, and some of the results are very alarming. In one part of the study, the researchers asked a random, representative sample of U.S. adults to identify the degree to which a number of different activities and beliefs appeared extreme. Using religion to justify violence was widely considered to be extreme (as one might expect). However, take a look at some of the activities that fall under “Category 3, Often Considered to be Extreme” (“factors that generated extremist concerns among at least one out of five adults”): Wearing special clothes or head coverings for religious observance, adhering to special dietary restrictions for religious reasons, fasting or refraining from food, waiting until marriage to have sex. By these standards, I guess I hail from a hotbed of extremism.
It’s wrong to label these day-to-day aspects of faith and practice extremism, because it dilutes the meaning of that word considerably. How can we give chastity or tithing the same label as terrorism without rendering the category nonsensical? All people of good will, and especially people of faith, should be concerned with rectifying this mismatch of word and meaning.
I theorize that one reason these normal religious practices have been tarred with the “extreme” brush is that folks outside a religious tradition rarely see that faith in action. It’s easier to dismiss something like wearing a religious head covering as benighted if I’ve never seen a friend, peer, or public figure do it. A chapel veil, a yarmulke, or a hijab seem less scary and alien if there’s a face I know beneath it—especially someone whose judgment I trust.
What America needs, in short, is exposure therapy. We should take enough joy and pride in our religious practices to share them publicly when appropriate. We need not to be so shy and tactful about our faith, because that diffidence allows people to lump all the religious activities they don’t see in the broad, bad category of “extremism.”
Tomorrow offers us a concrete chance to do this. In many cities across America, there will be Stations of the Cross processions passing from church to church. In New York, the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation will lead the Way of the Cross over the Brooklyn Bridge. This is a solemn commemoration of Christ’s Passion with Gospel passages, choral music, and readings, all free and open to the public. I love the way the procession seeks to weave the beauty and depth of this Triduum observance into the life of city, even stopping at Ground Zero—to remind us that Christ has taken on human suffering and tragedy, in order to offer us redemption from it.
Perhaps this sort of procession is indeed extreme, an invasion of the liturgy into the world. But this sort of invasion of peace and beauty is what we should pursue as a daily witness. New Yorkers, please join me tomorrow on the Way of the Cross. To all others, ora pro nobis.
Alexi Sargeant is an assistant editor at First Things.