The San Bernardino shooting has many of us thinking about what causes homegrown terrorism. The male shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, was born in America, one of many examples of American and British citizens subscribing to the ideas of the Islamic State.
Why on earth would anyone do that? we might wonder.
We have long wrestled with questions not terribly different from this. As David Brooks noted on Tuesday, Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book The True Believer did a great job of investigating the psychological and sociological reasons for radicalism. And there’s an amazing quote from George Orwell that speaks almost precisely to what’s happening with home-grown terrorism today:
[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a 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.’
Orwell correctly notes that socialism and capitalism both put too much emphasis on materialism—and not enough emphasis on man’s spiritual drive—but I think it’s interesting that this indictment can also be said of most modern Christianity in the Western world.
They say you can’t play blues in an air-conditioned room, and maybe there’s something to that. The Islamic State is a horrific organization that does great evil, but they also promise “struggle, danger and death.” They offer, in other words, something transcendent and romantic—even if it’s also perverse and evil. Conversely, American Christians sit in in padded pews in sanitized sanctuaries. We have “ease, security, and avoidance of pain” (for the most part), but (until perhaps recently) the notion of martyrdom—-or even mild sacrifice—-sounded absurd to our post-modern ears.
It’s not like nobody noticed that the domestic comforts of “playing church” fail to inspire or provide a purpose for young men. Books were written—Wild at Heart and Raising a Modern-Day Knight—-to urge churches and families to find a way to positively tap into the virtues and tendency for a sort of wanderlust, a search for meaning, that most young people, until it’s beaten out of them, so crave. It will be interesting to see if, by necessity, Christianity now becomes more dangerous, and thus, more romantic.
Today, to be a Christian is to be counter-cultural. And there is something ironically cool and attractive about that. Something potentially powerful in it, too.
With all due respect to Orwell, Communists at least understood this problem (even if their ideology didn’t satisfy it). As Douglas Hyde, a prominent Communist turned Catholic wrote in his book Dedication and Leadership,
… I have travelled in nearly every country of the world, and everywhere I have gone, I have found that young people are idealistic. I can only conclude that that is the way God wants them, and I do not believe that it is good sense, quite apart from charity or justice, to sneer at the idealism of youth. Young people will have their dreams; they will dream of a better world; they will want to change the world and if we have no patience with them or make them feel that this is some kind of infantile disease, they will still pursue their idealistic courses; they will do it outside the family instead of within it.
Thankfully, the Soviet Union is no longer with us. Ultimately, no matter how powerful you are, drab nihilism in which the meaning has been bled from all structures isn’t much of a galvanizing force.
So how shall we respond to the terrorist threat? American Christians shouldn’t fall into the trap of becoming more political—that’s just embracing another form of materialism—or saying the kind of things that Jerry Falwell Jr. just said.
Quite the opposite. If Western civilization is going to combat Islamism, it strikes me that one of the many necessary components will be for Christianity, as the West’s still-dominant religion, to offer an alternative path to a more positive and challenging form of spiritual fulfillment (and no, I’m not suggesting any sort of conflation between the church and the state, or some kind of “holy war” between two great faiths).
Rather than spending their time pushing Republicans to get tough with terrorists (not necessarily a bad thing, by the way), American Christians should focus on providing adherents with a sense of mission and purpose as a way to rebut the creeping hopelessness and apathy that radical groups of every stripe exploit. As Churchill once noted, “material progress,” as great as it is, doesn’t answer “the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’”
“No material progress,” he continued, “even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.”
Bob Dylan put it another way: You “gotta serve somebody.”