The first time I really began to take Christianity seriously was when I first opened a copy of The Violence of Love whilst travelling in South America. It is a collection of homilies by Archbishop Oscar Romero from the period leading up to his assassination in El Salvador. Prior to that Christianity had been something, in retrospect, propositional and something abstract but Oscar Romero grounded it for me. When I was younger I was inspired by the early chapters of Acts but whenever I heard someone preach from the book the caveat was added ‘but of course that would not be practical today’. Christianity I knew was costly but I understood it as something that was not practical and this idea of sensible Christianity struggled to hold any appeal, it was tiring and pointless. I want to do something that strives against the meaninglessness of the world. As a young(er) man I wanted a challenge, something to give my life meaning that didn’t just change my life but also the society I found myself in. I still want that, although I have a great deal more responsibilities these days. I still believe the Kingdom of God is in the midst of us.
In light of my own context and disposition I find the work of someone like Scott Atran appealing. Atran is an anthropologist best known for his book ‘Talking to the enemy’ in which he interviews Islamic extremists and terrorists to find out their motivations and reasoning. He suggests that, in a general sense, these Muslims feel alienated or unfulfilled by the world around them and see themselves as part of a counter cultural revolutionary Sunni revivalism. I find this interesting because, being honest, I can sympathise with those motivations I just disagree with the response. In light of this Atran’s latest piece published online entitled “ISIS is a revolution” is compelling reading.
Humans make their greatest commitments and exertions, for ill or good, for the sake of ideas that give a sense of significance. In an inherently chaotic universe, where humans alone recognise that death is unavoidable, there is an overwhelming psychological impetus to overcome this tragedy of cognition: to realise ‘why I am’ and ‘who we are’.
Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2016
Theres something in the appeal of ISIS that is more than something distinctly Islamic, its the belief that your life, and the world, can have meaning. Its the conviction of sorts that compels you to shrug off comfort and if necessary your life for some greater cause. Some might see it as simplistic, too binary but at its most basic level is the alternative a better option? Wasn’t Jesus himself in a fashion an extremist?
Growing up this is what I didn’t understand, we were meant to be followers of Christ and proclaimers of his Gospel. The Gospel itself changes the world and restores all things to God, we didn’t have to live in our own strength anymore. We talk about how amazing it is, make the right noises and say the right words. Yet I very rarely saw anyone who acted like this was true. Especially not from the people teaching me about Christianity. I saw this in the life of Oscar Romero, the Desert Fathers and the Early Church but today I looked around, and still look around wondering whats going on. I understand why the church is declining, its because I’m not sure if deep down we even really believe in Christianity badly enough to want to save it in our country. We’re more comfortable with the world as it stands, we’re not angry enough, we’re not disenchanted enough, we’re not shameless enough in our beliefs and ultimately we don’t trust God enough to go out there and start risking our lives in order to start baptising the world.
We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood,the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.
Oscar A. Romero,
Most Christians I know don’t see their faith as central to their identity, pragmatically it isn’t the hinge the door of their life swings on. I think I include myself in that, we believe with all conviction but our lives largely look like those around us. The medium of our life is fairly mundane for the overwhelming majority of us and largely undistinguished when contrasted against that of the world. If, as McLuhan suggests, the medium really is the message then Christianity doesn’t really offer that much for many reasonable well-adjusted middle-class people outside of what they’re already getting, any change is largely internal. This Christianity doesn’t rock the boat and its just one option among many for which people might medicate themselves in response to any number of ills possessing the world.
This isn’t a desire to uncover some form of religious utopia, which I feel ISIS is, because we fully embrace the world as it is. We aren’t trying to change the world but to follow the will of God and follow his example, the world changing is the fruit of this and his spirit at work in the world. However a business as usual lifestyle with added theological baubles isn’t appealing to anyone, but it feels like this is what we offer people sometimes.
People are willing to do terrible things for what is seen as the right reasons. Atran at the beginning of his article draws parallels between al-Baghdadi and Robespierre, leader of the french revolution, for their blending of terror and virtue. He later goes on to draw further lines between the appeal of the Islamic State and the Nazis citing Orwell’s review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Hitler knows… that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene … and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.
George Orwell, Review of Mein Kampf, 1940
The Nazi’s fought harder than both the Russians and the Allies in World War 2 pushing well past the threshold at which most military units would capitulate in a battle. The reason for this was that they genuinely believed in what they were doing, even if it was terrible. Atran in his studies defines four criteria by which to measure the determination of an individual to their cause.
- Disregard for material incentives or disincentives: attempts to buy people off (‘carrots’) from their cause or punish them for embracing it through sanctions (‘sticks’) don’t work, and even tend to backfire.
- Blindness to exit strategies: people cannot even conceive of the possibility of abandoning their sacred values or relaxing their commitment to the cause.
- Immunity to social pressure: it matters not how many people oppose your sacred values, or how close to you they are in other matters.
- Insensitivity to discounting: in most everyday affairs, distant events and objects have less significance for people than things in the here and now; but matters associated with sacred values, regardless of how far removed in time or space, are more important and motivating than mundane concerns, however immediate.
Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2016
How do we compare, even if we are not extremists, when we consider the things we believe? What things would these criteria reveal to us as actually sacred in our lives? Jesus repeatedly called us to leave everything behind and follow him. Do we in fact do that? If we did I imagine churches would look a good bit fuller today. I imagine it would look a lot more like the book of Acts.
When we asked captured Islamic State fighters in Iraq: ‘What is Islam?’ they answered: ‘My life’
Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2016
The other factor Atran outlined that gauges a persons commitment to a cause, or willingness to fight, is what he calls ‘Identity Fusion’. Identity Fusion occurs when an individual no longer makes a distinction between themselves as an individual and the group they associate with. We might not need to fight but should we as Christians seek to more closely align our self perception with the Church? I imagine those most willing to share their faith in the public sphere see little to no distinction.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
These things of course are no indicator of the truth of the beliefs or convictions held. Yet if someone believed something truly it is arguable that these indicators Atran outlined would be present in an individual. In the case of the Islamic state, the only people he found to have comparable sincerity, out of those he interviewed, were the Kurds. I imagine other groups like the Assyrian minorities in the region would probably score in a similar way. Atran described the people who still saw a distinction between themselves and their faith as ‘not fully converted yet’. Are we fully converted? If we are, what are we converted to?
Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.
Scott Atran, ISIS is a revolution, 2016
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
I am writing to you, dear children,
because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives for ever.
1 John 2:1-17