Our current conception of terrorism and mass violence, is that it’s a huge anomaly, a bizarre occurrence, and that it somehow spreads, like a virus, through a mysterious radicalization process.
That may be true, as far as it goes, but the deeper reality is that human beings, by inborn nature, have a tendency towards horrible violence and destruction. Perhaps it dates back to a past where fighting for survival was a more common part of every day life. Perhaps it’s part of what keeps us at our peak. Either way, the fact is, humans are naturally violent, and the greater portion of the socialization process we call “civilization” is aimed at taming, controlling, eliminating or sublimating that impulse towards violence.
What really happens, I would argue, when someone becomes radicalized, is they find an ideology, or something else, that offers an excuse to discard that peaceable socialization, and to give in to the violence inside. And the weaker the socialization was in the first place, the easier it is to overcome. This is the reason the often raised suggestion of just wiping all the terrorists out never is more than temporarily successful. The disease isn’t out there in a bunker somewhere, it’s already within ourselves. Our best, perhaps our only effective weapon against terrorism, therefore, is not force, but virtues and values, and a larger moral framework within which those virtues and values can live.
Christianity –at least during some points in its history –has been one of the most effective moral frameworks in terms of guiding people to choose peace over violence. But just as Christianity’s message has sometimes been perverted and distorted in the past in order to justify violence and other crimes, so too in the present has the institution of American Christianity abandoned its real Christian values to the point where it can no longer sustain a true moral opposition to the violent ideologies of the world.
First, the embrace of materialism and capitalism, as in the so-called “Gospel of Prosperity” has no legitimate theological grounding. Second, the recent endorsement of Donald Trump, who boasts about his philandering, by any number of social conservatives who have loudly proclaimed their allegiance to Christian values, demonstrates both the shallowness of their commitment to those values, and the hypocrisy of their inconsistent promotion of a profoundly un-Christian judgmentalism around issues of sexuality. Third, the unjustifiable hostility towards the concept of “Creation care,” as promoted by environmentally responsible Christians, but as opposed by those more interested in party affiliation than moral responsibilities.
As an American Protestant Christian, I think it’s time we take an example from the extraordinary new leadership of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, who has almost singlehandedly renewed their church and rehabilitated its moral reputation by embracing profoundly Christian values of social justice and creation care, challenging the corruption of materialism in the church, and taking a non-judgemental stance towards issues of sexuality. That’s the real way to win the fight against terror.