Arrived back in Providence last night, after 5 weeks in St. Paul. It's been a long time. First thing I did after removing luggage from car was to shovel enormous mountain of snow out of driveway so I could actually park.
This week Pres. Obama is hosting a big conference at the White House to discuss ways to counteract appeal & tactics of terrorism. Obama sounded the right note when he stated that government alone cannot solve these problems, but must work with individuals, families & communities. In fact, with respect to Islamic terrorism at least, this may be doubly true. Government, at least in Western nations, is necessarily, and rightly, secular : yet perhaps the most profound approach to the problem of religious fundamentalism is an approach which is itself grounded in religious belief, in theology.
Why? Because, from a religious perspective at least, the root of the problem of violent religious extremism is this : its perpetrators have lost, or have never found, God.
The lead propagandists of the ISIS phenomenon - cynically or fanatically, I'm not sure which - uphold a kind of caricature of God as an avenging judge. Allah & Muhammad serve as dual totem, or mythical facade (like the warlike friezes on Aztec temples), for an essentially political will-to-power, which is characterized by oppression, by tyranny, by the domination, victimization, and enslavement of others. The movement is akin in some ways to other totalitarian movements in history : it flourishes in the soil of a utopian, all-encompassing vision of unlimited power & glory on earth, and vindication in the afterlife.
This utopia of vengeance, violence and military glory is the essence of its seductive appeal to alienated young Muslims in both the Middle East and the West, and elsewhere in the world. One of the ironies is that ISIS may in fact be driven by aggrieved former officers of Saddam Hussein's regime - a regime which was characterized by a kind of Stalinist reign-of-terror program, cloaked (in later years) in faux-Islamic propaganda. If this is actually true, it would help explain a certain creepily parodic, surreal aspect to its gruesome demonstrations of public cruelty. This is an enterprise which uses violence as a tactic - as provocation, symbol, propaganda - with the dehumanized coolness of a Stalin or Hitler.
It seems to me that one way to defeat ISIS is to offer a clear public counter-message with a theological basis. Obviously this is something that Western governments are not in a position to do. But it is something that individuals and faith communities - Jewish, Muslim, Christian - can do, in different ways and in different spheres, on their own. They can offer to alienated, angry young men perhaps the one thing they need most : a true understanding of God.
The true Abrahamic image of God is that of a loving Creator, who loves all the marvels of a universe s/he has brought forth from nothing. This God has made humankind in his/her image; God's desire is for human beings to live in the benign shade of the divine wisdom, goodness, lovingkindness, righteousness. God wishes Man to draw near, by putting away the things that are not God, and recognizing the divine wholeness & goodness of all things.
One of the distinct historical endowments to the theological knowledge of God was offered right here in Providence, by the teachings and example of Roger Williams. Williams called himself a "Seeker". His imposed exile from the theocracy of colonial Boston hinged on the central emphasis of his preaching : that no government could impose belief by force. "Enforced belief" represents an oxymoron, a theological contradiction in terms, since God's greatest gift to the human person is free will. A person must choose wisdom and righteousness; they cannot be imposed by political means. Faith and wisdom are spiritual gifts offered directly to the person by God. Williams called this sense of things "soul liberty".
This spiritual orientation is obviously in direct opposition to the theocratic/propagandistic vision offered by ISIS and related groups. For Williams, it is the primal need for God which drives Man to become a spiritual seeker. Yet the God he finds is not a vengeful ruler or tyrannical authority : God is the opposite of all this. "God is Love." God is the root of human freedom and moral choice. Williams' newfound political entity (the colony of Rhode Island) was chartered - for the first time in history - on universal religious tolerance, and the separation of church and state.
Maybe what's needed in the U.S. and Europe today are three-person teams of "Abrahamic" spiritual advisors. A priest, a rabbi, an imam, working together with troubled youth, specifically to offer a different, more humane (& accurate) vision of God. This might be the most direct way to counteract the totalitarian/utopian propaganda of violent political jihadism.