What does it mean to be radical?

There has been much talk this past week about President Obama’s refusal to use the term “radical Islam” in describing the motives of the person who opened fire in a gay bar in Orlando. Why is this such an issue?   In today’s op-ed piece, E.J. Dionne, Jr. cites the authors of “The Politics of Unreason,” who say that “right-wing extremists have always highlighted the magical power of the word. Just saying the right thing, believing the right thing, is the substance of victory and remedy.”

I agree with the President’s decision to avoid using the term “radical” in the way right-wing politicians want, because it can fuel the flames of Islamophobia in this country, but I have been pondering how the word “radical” has come to imply violent extremism, when it means, according to my dictionary, “arising from or going to a root or source.” Its Latin origin is radicalis, having roots. (Think of radishes, a root vegetable.)

Quaker faith is often called radical, meaning that it is a return to the source, the root, the direct experience of the Divine. “Radical Quakerism: From Roots to Shoots to Fruits” is a program that has been offered at Ben Lomond Quaker Center and elsewhere in the West. In historical reviews of Quakerism, the early acceptance of ministry from women was considered radical. Is that because it was beyond the norm of the day or because it reflected a basic belief that all people have direct access to God?

It is interesting that the words “radical” and “extremist” are often used interchangeably, or even simultaneously, but isn’t “radical extremist” an oxymoron? “Extreme” means “away from” or “outermost.” Not close to the root, in other words.

I believe we are called to be rooted and grounded in love, and that our actions, the shoots (the garden variety), come from that source.




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