In the New Testament, Jesus encounters a rich young man who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.1 He has upheld all the commandments but wonders if he must do more. Jesus then says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). In all three synoptic accounts, the man walks away sad, unable to part from his possessions. Jesus then turns to his anxious disciples, stating, “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold…” This narrative and others like it from various traditions (both religious and secular) have unsettled and inspired many to “radical” lives. It is commonplace to call the lives of exemplars like Francis of Assisi,2 Dorothy Day,3 Paul Farmer, or Martin Luther King Jr radical. These individuals seem different than “normal” people like you and me. This usual use of the word radical often renders such lives distant, unattainable, and “other.” 

However, originally in medicine “radical” was employed in light of its traditional definition: “of or pertaining to the root.” When one performs a radical procedure, one gets at the “root” of the pathology. Uptake of the term in health care is most famously attributed to William Halsted, the Johns Hopkins physician known as the “Father of Modern Surgery.” Influenced by the science of the day, Halsted believed that cancer invaded “centrifugally,” outward from the original mass via the lymphatic system. Therefore, he developed the radical mastectomy to excise all the cancer in the breast and surrounding tissues. This procedure was quite morbid, comprised of “removal of the breast, the pectoral muscle, and the regional lymph nodes en bloc” to ensure that no cancer was left behind.

According to oncologist and medical historian Siddhartha Mukherjee, employment of the term radical is a “seductive conceptual trap. Halstead had used it in the Latin sense of ‘root’ because his operation was meant to dig out the buried, subterranean roots of cancer. But radical also meant ‘aggressive,’ and ‘innovative,’ and ‘brazen,’” thereby drawing surgeons and patients into a trap—for, when dealing with cancer, who will not choose the most extreme measure to survive?5 Others began to excise the collar bone alongside the other structures, mutilating women long after the science began to call into question the nearly-mythologized Halstedean approach. Instead of getting to the legitimate root of the disease, surgeon and patient sought the most “extreme” approach. Today, the Halstead radical mastectomy has largely fallen by the wayside in favor of far more local interventions such as lumpectomies and/or simple mastectomies, alongside adjuvant chemotherapy/radiation. Other radical procedures such as the radical prostatectomy—though far less morbid—remain a part of regular surgical care for cancer. Halsted’s story stands as a cautionary tale of a medical imaginary furthered by linguistic ambivalence causing significant harm to many women seeking a cure for their cancer. 

The danger of mis-using and mythologizing “radical” approaches and people is further demonstrated when considering war and nationalism. In GI Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion, Jonathan Ebel explores “an American cultural and civil religious metaphor…that of the soldier as savior,” as a means to “study the emotional and theological core of American civil religion.”6 Pat Tillman, the man who walked away from the NFL to fight in Afghanistan, figures prominently in his account. After he was killed in combat (by friendly fire, as revealed later), he was lauded as a hero, a man who, in the words of Ebel, “proved all doubters wrong and made himself an elite athlete. From the promised land of professional football he heard the call…[and] gave up wealth, career, and finally life for the cause of freedom.”7 A man became a myth. 

Tillman’s story has been told by people in support of the Iraq War/American militarism and by those who stood against it. Ebel instead argues that, “the most important lesson, the most fundamental fact of the entire Tillman saga from enlistment to service to combat to death to memorialization is how ordinary it all was.”8 He admits that “to describe Pat Tillman as ordinary or common is to contradict nearly every word written about him to date,”9 yet contending that “[t]o designate someone as uncommon, extraordinary, or exotic is to risk losing track of meaningful connections between that subject and the society in which he or she exists.” He believes we need to be aware of how “awe or reverence . . . [can] short-circuit efforts to explain and to understand,”10 justifying further war-making, mythologizing, and sacrifice of the “G.I. Messiah’s” body.11 Rendering a soldier such as Pat Tillman as the ordinary human that he was—a man who was like many other, formed in a culture that lauded military service as the “ultimate sacrifice”—makes space for a fuller understanding of the realities of war and the people that participate in it. 

To bring Ebel’s framework in conversation with this reflection on the importance of linguistic precision in disciplines like theology and medicine, I will share my own experience with one of the “radical” individuals cited at the beginning of this essay—Dr. Tom Catena, medical director of the Catholic Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. When civil war broke out in 2011, he and a few expatriates chose to remain with the Nuba despite warnings that the area would be overrun by the northern regime. I had the privilege of working alongside and learning under Catena in Sudan for three months in the spring of 2023. There, it became clear that he is less an exceptional, extreme individual, and more the product of formation in communities that cultivated an imagination where a life in solidarity with the marginalized was rendered possible. He grew up hearing stories of St. Francis and, while in college, learned of medical practitioners working in austere environments as a form of service and witness. Just as Tillman’s military service was, in many ways, ordinary and unremarkable within the culture of American militarism, Catena’s formation enabled that which many deem “radical” or “extreme” to appear within reach. 

In a recent paper, theologian and social scientist Brett McCarty explores one’s ability to “see change” in the context of recovery. He writes,

For someone struggling with substance use issues, to witness a life transformed is to open one’s spirit to being stirred up both in the inspiration of the intellect (i.e., ‘there is a way forward that I did not know before; previously I thought it was an impossible situation’) and in the inspiration of the will (i.e., ‘I can now move forward in a way that I could not before’).12

This concept of witness serving to inspire the imagination and will—both making one aware of a path forward and making one capable of walking forward on that path—helps bring this essay to a conclusion.13 The mythologizing of individuals, be them soldiers or healers or religious leaders or otherwise, renders them superhuman and thereby beyond our comprehension—that is, “extreme” and other. When conceiving of fellow humans as radical there is risk of failing to confront the reality and humanity of the person, thereby suppressing the way their witness might inspire one’s imagination and will to emulate them—or to critically evaluate the communities that formed them. These individuals are kept at a safe distance so that one’s personal life or broader institutions are not disrupted. Instead, seeing such lives as normal outgrowths of lives of service and solidarity might change one’s imagination, making the radical seem “commonplace,” thereby inviting people of all traditions and vocations to consider a similarly “rooted” life. Returning to the Gospel—perhaps it might even be possible to heed Christ’s seemingly extreme invitation to sell all and follow. For, that which to many appears radical is nothing more than an ordinary response to a deeply-rooted call.

  1. See Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30, and Matthew 19:16-30 (NRSV).
  2. Brown, Raphael, ed. The Little Flowers of St. Francis. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1958.
  3. Zwick, Mark, and Louise Zwick. The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005.
  4. Michael P. Osborne, “William Stewart Halsted: His Life and Contributions to Surgery,” Lancet Oncology 8, no. 3 (2007): 256–65,, 260.
  5. Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, First (New York, NY: Scribner, 2010), 69.
  6.  Jonathan H. Ebel, GI Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 7-8.
  7. Ebel, 167.
  8. Ebel, 167.
  9. Ebel, 167.
  10. Ebel, 167-8.
  11. Ebel, 168.
  12. Brett McCarty, “Bearing Witness in the Basement of the Church: The Opioid Crisis, Recovery Ministries, and the Cultivation of Agency,” at the 2022 Society for Christian Ethics Annual Meeting, online, January 8, 2022.
  13. In speaking of the inspiration of the intellect, I think McCarty is gesturing toward something more like imagination than mere cognitive awareness.

C. Phifer Nicholson Jr., is an MTS student and MD candidate at Duke School of Medicine. He has a BA in Religion and Middle Eastern Studies from Wofford College, with professional and research interests including health equity, theology and medicine, ethnography, global health, and social medicine. These interests have been formed through engagement with the church, medical education, and experiences in contexts like Palestine-Israel. When outside the hospital and classroom, he enjoys music, reading, cooking (read, eating), playing ultimate frisbee, and trying to get lost in the mountains.