In the range of responses to the attacks in Paris on November 17th some have concentrated on the political situation. Some have concentrated on what our response should be. This week, I found an interesting response from David Brooks of the New York Times*, who was commenting on the most recent book ‘Not in God’s Name’ by Jonathon Sachs, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. His starting point in response to ‘Paris’ is to try to understand the mindset of Islamic State.
For Sachs, the problem is one of ‘pathological dualism’. Dualism sees the world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘black and white’. Then comes what for me is the interesting part of the quote. Brooks, quoting Sachs, says that pathological dualism is a “… a mentality that divides the world between those who are unimpeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad. The pathological dualist can’t reconcile his humiliated place in the world with his own moral superiority. He embraces a politicized religion – restoring the caliphate – and seeks to destroy those outside his group by apocalyptic force. This leads to acts of what Sacks calls altruistic evil, or acts of terror in which the self-sacrifice involved somehow is thought to confer the right to be merciless and unfathomably cruel.”
The bit that resonated with me was the question of how one reconciles ones ‘humiliated place in the world’ with ones sense of ‘moral superiority.’ I resonate with this, because I think this tension was part of my own social milieu as a Methodist, growing up in Brisbane. It is a formative thing to grow up in a community that is not made up of the parents of one’s classmates. Our community was the families of the Church. ‘Not such a bad thing’ I hear you say. Well yes. Except that belonging to the Church brought with it humiliation and a sense of moral superiority.
So what did I do in response to this same sense of conflict?
These things are not written in chronological order, but in a kind of ’emotional order’. The first ’emotional’ thing I want to say is that I became an Anglican! When I was growing up, ‘Anglicans’ were the ones who went to private schools. They were the ones who were ‘socially superior’ in school. Anglicanism has within it a sense of being able to work ‘in the World of ‘the acceptable’. Becoming an Anglican was a way of resolving my sense of ‘humiliation’ with my ‘moral superiority’ as a Christian, by identifying with those who were ‘Christians’ but who seemed not so humiliated and isolated as I was.
Mind you, this got me into a bit of trouble later on, because, still keeping much of my Methodist sense of things, I was sometimes accused of ‘sectarianism’ by Anglicans who are sometimes suspicious of much that does not overtly affirm that ‘God is in the World’ as much as anywhere else. At any rate, identifying with what sometimes looks like ‘the established religion’ is one way of being ‘less humiliated.’
For Muslims, the problem is that the extremists see their humiliation as coming from ‘the Christians’. It is not possible to ‘identify’ with them (which is ‘us’). My route out of humiliation is not open to them.
But the next thing I did might be. My next step was to discover what it really meant to be and to think like a ‘Christian.’ Here is just one example of the kind of thinking that I have learned (Mostly from Jurgen Moltmann). A lot of people make the case for ‘The Resurrection.’ They say ‘It is an historical event’ and go on to offer proofs from various sources. The problem that I find with this is, that this mode of thinking has been shaped too much by ‘The World’ and its idea of history. From Moltmann I learned to say “The Resurrection is not an event within history, but the singular event that makes possible what ‘worldly history’ cannot: a New Creation.” The right question is not ‘Did the resurrection happen?” But “Given its proclamation as the beginning of the “New Creation in Christ” what now can I hope for?” This formation in “Christian Thinking” helped to take away the humiliation. It gave me a system of thought which, while not formed by ‘worldly thought’, was able to give an equally good account of ‘reality’ but from within the faith. This humiliation was not taken away by a retreat into a religious world, but by an ‘advance’ and a determination to meet ‘worldly understandings’ with Christian accounts of ‘how things are’.
This too gets me into a bit of trouble from Anglicans! In ‘the world’ people do good works because they ‘want to’. Because of this they are called ‘volunteers’. But in Christianity, people do things because God calls them. The question that was asked at my ordination was not ‘Do you want to volunteer to be a priest?”, but “Do you believe that you are truly called to be a priest in the Church of God?” In the Church, people do not ‘volunteer’ but are ‘called’ to ‘minister’. In church meetings I have resisted the idea of calling Christian ministers ‘volunteers’. I get into trouble with my own group, but it is my way of dealing with the problem of dualism: by seeking to sink ever deeper and more purely into the life of God in thought, and in devotion. Muslims can do this too. I think the idea of providing prayer rooms in public places, and the wearing of the Hijab is a legitimate way of becoming ‘more Islamic’ within a world in which Muslims often feel humiliated.
The other thing I did was to try to ‘build bridges.’ In some senses I identify with those people who are ‘not Christians’ because I don’t fit without some ‘rubbing’ into the world of the Church as she is. People say to me ‘You don’t look like a priest.’ Well, I don’t know about that, but the sense of humiliation and alienation that I felt, as I experienced the difference between me and my classmates makes me want to make friends with them, and having made friends with them, to present the Christian faith in a way that resonates with them but which does not ‘water down’ the faith
either. This kind of ‘reaching out’ has
always been a part of my priestly life.
This was the method that John has
Jesus use in his Gospel, and which
became the characteristic name for Christians who died for their faith. John has Jesus say “I came as a witness to the Truth. Anyone who listens to the Truth, listen to me. “ And the early Christians became ‘witnesses’ (literally martyrs) to their truth. They eschewed violence but did not stop being witnesses to what was true for them. In the long run it was this willingness to endure but to continue bearing testimony that helped to give them the victory. I think that the Muslims could do the same thing. No one is likely to want to kill another person whom they’ve eaten with.
This reflection is quite personal, in the face of geopolitical forces that do not take such stories into account. But for me, reading the report on Jonathan Sachs’ book, invited me to reflect on how much I too am one who has not reconciled my sense of humiliation with my sense of moral superiority, and to reflect on what I did about it to prevent me from becoming an extremist.