Ashes to ashes...

This morning's NY Times showed a provocative photograph - children in a cage surrounded by bombed-out rubble and fire - and it is captivating. You can't help but gawk at it much like rubber-neckers passing a car crash on the Interstate. It is horrifying and alluring both at the same time.
The headline, "Children Caged for Effect," tells a challenging story, one involving the 200,000 Syrians who have been killed since the start of the civil war and the "displacement of more than one third of the nation's population." These deaths, unlike the Tarantino-like executions of IS, have largely gone unnoticed - certainly quickly forgotten - by most of the world because they have sadly become part of the status quo. The Times reports:

And that difference in Western perception of the two threats exists partly because shock videos work. Even in Saudi Arabia, where beheadings are the state’s method of capital punishment, they are not broadcast. When images of a recent execution leaked, they created a scandalBut the perception gap is also because the shelling of cities in Syria has become almost numbingly normal. It is as if the value of trauma and shock has undergone a hyperinflation that neuters all but the most exaggerated images of violence. That, in turn, has pushed human rights advocates and activists to search for eye-grabbing images of their own. Baraa Abdulrahman, an anti-government activist in the Damascus suburb of Douma, desperate to direct the world’s attention to government airstrikes that were killing scores of people, set up a scene that echoed the Islamic State video in which the caged Jordanian pilot, in an orange jumpsuit, was burned alive.He ordered an iron cage from a blacksmith and placed it against a backdrop of collapsed buildings, and then filled it with a gaggle of neighborhood children dressed in orange. As the camera rolled, he waved a burning torch, asking why the world responded to the killing of the pilot but not to the deaths of children in Douma. Some of the children in the cage, he admitted, were frightened and cried.

Yesterday's Times printed an insightful column by David Brooks, the conservative liberals love to quote, in which he called out the incomplete and fundamentally useless political analysis of Islamic extremism currently being advanced in most Western, secular circles. "From the very beginning, we have treated the problem of terrorism through the prism of our own assumptions and our own values. We have solipsistically assumed that people turn to extremism because they can’t get what we want, and fail to realize that they don’t want what we want, but want something they think is higher." He then goes on to note what others have been wrestling with  since at least the time  Steve Earle wrote "John Walker's Blues."

Religious extremism exists on three levels. It grows out of economic and political dysfunction. It is fueled by perverted spiritual ardor. It is organized by theological conviction. American presidents focus almost exclusively on the economic and political level because that’s what polite people in Western capitals are comfortable talking about...In short, the president took his secular domestic agenda and projected it as a way to prevent young men from joining ISIS and chopping off heads. But people don’t join ISIS, or the Islamic State, because they want better jobs with more benefits. ISIS is one of a long line of anti-Enlightenment movements, led by people who have contempt for the sort of materialistic, bourgeois goals that dominate our politics. These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year. They’re disgusted by the pleasures we value, the pluralism we prize and the emphasis on happiness in this world, which we take as public life’s ultimate end. They’re not doing it because they are sexually repressed. They are doing it because they think it will ennoble their souls and purify creation.

One of the reasons I continue to work in the Church - not the only reason but certainly one that I have made a conscious choice about - has to do with exactly what Brooks describes in "The Nationalist Solution."  Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.

I am convinced that post-modern, compassionate Christianity CAN celebrate the heroic impulse. It CAN offer a life-changing, counter-cultural alternative to the cruel and greed-filled bottom line that continues to pollute Mother Earth while corrupting our best selves. It CAN burn just as wildly in our souls as jihadism - albeit in a peace-making mode. True, passionate and counter-cultural Christian spirituality often frightens those raised on "nice" religion, polite church and well-mannered rituals.  But Brooks is right when he writes:
Young Arab men are not going to walk away from extremism because they can suddenly afford a Slurpee. They will walk away when they can devote themselves to a revived Egyptian nationalism, Lebanese nationalism, Syrian nationalism, some call to serve a cause that connects nationalism to dignity and democracy and transcends a lifetime. Extremism isn’t mostly about Islam. It is about a yearning for righteousness rendered malevolent by apocalyptic theology. Muslim clerics can fix the theology. The rest of us can help redirect the spiritual ardor toward humane and productive ends.

One of the ways that progressive Christian Church in the United States can be a part of the alternative rather than a root cause of the alienation and boredom, is to reclaim our wild spiritual roots. We can reclaim the heroic impulse of our rites of passage - and put them into action. We can train our young women and men to be warriors for peace and combatants for compassion. We can challenge them in sacrificial ways that test their bodies as well as their hearts and minds. We can insist that our liturgies become more than book reports. We can weep and laugh, carry one another when our grief is too much to bear and celebrate the real benchmarks of authentic living. We can refuse to hate - and embrace one another by seeking common ground even in the midst of riddicule and fear. We can walk shoulder to shoulder with those who are oppressed, make circles of safety around mosques and synagogues, speak out and up for those without a voice and TRAIN our young people to do so humility and wisdom. 

I know that one of the reasons why I haved ached for my up-coming sabbatical is so that I can return to the struggle for the souls of our young people refreshed. I've seen churches waste the time our children share with us. I've seen us burden them with tasks that don't matter and push them to the periphery until they give up on us in frustration and boredom. And I've seen their deepest fears and anxieties minimized and ignored. Because I know that there is some real work to be done with our kids:, I pray: God give us the strength to seize this moment.

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