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:
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.