“Extremism is a powerful alliance of fear and certitude; complexity and humility are its natural foes.”[i]
Girolamo Savonarola was a charismatic and engaging priest in the city of Florence during it’s Renaissance. His passionate preaching drew the attention and allegiance of countless in Florence and beyond. From his position of notoriety he spoke out against abuses within the church. He stood up for the poor and downtrodden in the city. Much of what he believed in was powerful and needed to be heard. Then, he attained more power. With the ruling family, the Medici’s exiled from the city, he became a moral authority and powerful leader. What began as much needed reform became dangerous extremism, ending in the bonfire of the vanities, where many artistic works including those of Sandro Botticelli were burned.
How does something that starts out so well, end so badly? We’ve seen similar stories in our time. Pastors who reach thousands only to later have their ministries crumble. We’ve watched as charismatic non-profit leaders impacted the poor and helpless for a time, but then have their work end, barely resembling the powerful good that it began as. How does this happen? Or, more to the point, how do we avoid it?
I stumbled across the quote at the beginning of this post in a book by Jon Meacham entitled, “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.” It’s a scary to think that something as simple as fear (which we all struggle with) and certitude can get so out of control that they lead us to extremism. It’s a truth that has played out over and over throughout the course of history, however, and is still at work today. For Savonarola, fear revolved around the second coming of Christ, which for many is a comfort. For him, it became a way to pull people in by stoking their fears. The comfort of Jesus coming back to set things back to their right order became a story of a God who was angry and would finally get even if you didn’t do what you were supposed to. His certitude came in the form of rejecting advice and input from others around him who cared for him, once his power began to grow.
What fears do you have that are threatening to take control of your life? It’s normal to be afraid at times. It’s not healthy, however, to be constantly plagued by fear. When our fears get too big, they cause us to act in ways we would not normally act and say things we wouldn’t normally say. Many of us have fears about our children’s future. That’s why when they misbehave or bring home a grade lower than expected, we sometimes lash out. Even our parenting can become extreme if we aren’t careful.
A second important question to ask ourselves is this: are there places in my life where I am refusing to listen to others? Am I so sure of myself that I have become unwilling to take advice There’s nothing wrong with being confident in what we believe, but our confidence must always be paired with a humility that remembers that I can always grow. I can always learn something new. I may find that I’ve been wrong, and I am able to change course if need be.
Are there areas of your life that started out healthy, but have swung to an extreme place? Are you only eating one leaf of spinach each day? Do you say three Hail Mary’s anytime someone mentions the name, Harry Potter? We can all get carried away at times, but taking a few moments to evaluate those areas can be a big help. Also, reach out and ask the people who care for you the most about the areas in question. That sort of honesty and humility will protect us from the dangerous extremes that we can all swing to from time to time.
[i] Meacham, J.E. (2007) American Gospel: God, The Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. Random House Trade Paperbacks.