It hasn't been too many years ago that pastors, Bible study teachers and youth ministers challenged members to be "radical Christians." Those two words are hardly used together these days lest we are heard by others as saying something we never intended.
The adjective "radical" used with the name of any faith group these days usually denotes something negative or even violent, extreme and uncompromising, excessively biased and repressive, and capable of persecuting others.
Those negatives are hardly the exclusive attitudes or actions of any one group. Faith groups by their nature are passionate, and adherents to any one can "go to seed" and become something or take some actions the Creator never intended.
Many years ago, a friends who was proud of his conservative beliefs to the point that he called himself a fundamentalist once remarked to me, "Sometimes we fundamentalists can be as mean as snakes." The fact is, there is a part of every person that may sometimes be tempted to manifest his faith in hurtful, even devastating, ways.
These days we are keenly aware that extreme elements of particular faith systems are bent on eradicating an enemy, even though the vast majority within such systems finds such actions and beliefs abhorrent and repulsive.
Several years ago, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which conducts evangelistic meetings throughout the world, quit calling those events crusades.
In days gone by, so-called Christian Crusaders put on their battle gear, grabbed their weapons and wreaked bloody havoc on their ideological and cultural enemies, all in the name of faithfulness to God.
Like many words, radical has not only negative connotations but some rather winsome meanings as well.
One of the word's definitions refers to forming a basis or foundation or getting to the root or origin of something. We refer to getting back to the fundamentals; by some definitions, this is a radical step. We smile knowingly when we hear a believer give testimony to his faith and changed nature by saying Christ has made a radical difference in his or her life.
In the best sense, the word is used to describe actions that are so self-giving that they astound recipients and witnesses to those actions. They reflect Christ.
The New Testament is filled with them. At his own stoning, Stephen prays forgiveness for his executioners even as his life ebbs away. That radical response prompts a seed of belief to be placed in the heart of a persecutor known as Saul.
Christ told parables that demonstrated radical responses in the very best sense of the word. It must have been shocking for listeners to learn that a beaten traveler's last and only hope was a benevolent Samaritan. Radical indeed.
Jesus demonstrated a radical commitment to God by spending time with sinners such as tax collectors, people who were terminally ill, loose women, foreign occupiers and the like. Radical faith stands out in predictable times.
On a mountainside, Jesus preached a radical sermon explaining in some detail how followers were to order their lives and how they were to relate to God and others. Even though that choice can be risky, the world needs more radicals in the Jesus sense.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.