When Martin Luther King, Jr. was in solitary confinement during a jail sentence for taking part in a civil rights demonstration, he wrote a letter. The letter was directed to certain of his colleagues who urged him to cease his program of nonviolent resistance since it was extreme. His letter has significance in view of our national holiday this week on January 18 in honor of this great man who stood for the equality of all men and women endowed with inalienable rights regardless of race or color. It also has significance as the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., approaches on January 29.
At one point in his letter, Martin Luther King, Jr. observes that all of us are and have to be extremists. He states, “So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice – or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, three men were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and truly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment.”
The message of the equality of all people and their God given rights is at the very heart of the Gospel. Prejudice and discrimination are evils against which we always have to be vigilant, especially in our society today. During this past year, our nation has realized more and more the insidious mask that prejudice often wears.
No one is more committed to the basic message of Martin Luther King Jr. than the Catholic Church. The Church’s teaching abhors discrimination, prejudice and injustice against any individual. An infringement against the rights of any person should be viewed as against the rights of God Himself. At the same time, no one is considered more extremist today than the Catholic Church and this is why the insidious mask of prejudice wields its sinful force even against the Church.
The Church is considered extremist because she speaks for the rights of the unborn, defends the sanctity of marriage as derived from God Himself, protects the lives of the elderly and infirm against euthanasia and assisted suicide, speaks for the immigrant, stands for the rights of criminals and is consistent in her teaching regarding the inadmissibility of capital punishment. Basic fundamental human rights are protected by the Church and her teaching is considered extreme. Prejudice ensues against the Church precisely because the Church opposes prejudice in any form.
Quickly following our national holiday in honor of the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. is the January 22 anniversary of the tragic Supreme Court decision of Roe vs. Wade (1973) which legalized abortion in our nation founded on the right to life of every human person. On Friday, January 29, many will gather in Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, to march prayerfully for life in peaceful opposition to this decision and to persuade our legislators and judges to reverse it. Again, such a peaceful march will be viewed by some as that of extremists who wish to deny the rights of others. On this day, let us join in prayer for the protection of the right to life of the unborn and for a renewed appreciation on behalf of our society for the sanctity of all life.
Participation in the usual events in support of life are limited this year due to the safety restrictions in regard to the coronavirus. However, we can participate this year in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 9 Days for Life novena (January 21 – 29), as well as the March for Life rally (January 29) by contacting https://bit.ly/january-virtual-2021. While we, in the Diocese of Palm Beach, cannot have our own usual prayer vigil outside the West Palm Beach Courthouse, we will gather at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola on Friday, January 22, from 11:00 am – 2:00 pm for an outside lawn vigil (with prescribed distancing and masks). More information can be obtained from our Respect Life Office at (561) 360-3330 or email@example.com.
The Church’s teaching in regard to the sanctity of human life of all people and at all stages may be considered extreme in the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s insight that we are all extremists one way or the other. Adapting his words, the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist we will be. We want to continue to counteract the prevalent culture of death by not being afraid to be extremists for the Gospel of Life. In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill, Jesus Christ, God’s Divine Son, was an extremist for life and He gave His life that we might have life and have it to the full (c.f. John 10:10). Our faith is one in the gift of life. Our belief in God is contingent upon our belief in life and its goodness. God did not create us so that we would be His creatures, but so that we might share His life. God would be God for all eternity and perfectly happy whether He decided to create us or not. But He chose to create us out of His love and to share His life with us. Even when sin entered the world, God did not destroy human life but took that life to Himself in the Incarnation that He might restore us to life.
As we recall the great legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s stand for the rights of all people, we also recall the tragic decision of our nation to deny the most basic right to the unborn. Society may consider the pro-life teaching of the Church as extreme. However, we are on the same extreme as that of our Lord, an extremist for life. In answering Martin Luther King, Jr’s question, “What kind of extremist will you be,” when it comes to the gift of life, the answer is a clear one for us as men and women of faith.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
January 15, 2021