Before we become too desensitized, let’s remember what it felt like in this country on 9-11. The trauma was real. Much of it remains. The emotions and fear were real, as was the anger. We each felt a sense of personal violation. That rawness is now all too commonplace in all too many places around our world, and—sad to say—how others feel in faraway places correlates more with how much we perceive our self interest to be threatened than with how we are outraged by injustice or feel empathy for the oppressed. The “casualty” figures in Nigeria, for example, would elicit much more response in the American body politic if gas prices were higher and the warfare threatened the supply of oil.
The thoughtful observer is tempted to think that extremism is much more common, that something is broken. It is popular to blame this upsurge in extremism on various causes and ideologies, and it is common for people—including political leaders—to attempt to score points by pointing a finger of blame. Leaving aside any theory of a “clash of civilizations,” we have to consider that any increase in extremism, and any resurgence of such old examples of hate-filled ideology as anti-Semitism, may be less about cause and more about symptom. In other words, the many things we can legitimately decry may not be the problem but symptoms of an underlying problem, of a root cause.
In Lent we name this root cause. It is sin, our fallen state, the ways in which we have distanced ourselves from God. What is wrong in the world, and what is expressed in extremist violence is not simply human dysfunction. Progress at a human level only, the type of progress we measure in socioeconomic terms, and the type we speak of when we speak of enlightenment, has been measurable and trumpeted in this same era of extremism—and let’s not forget that Nazism arose in a country and culture that by most measures was considered the most advanced in the Europe of the 1930’s. What is wrong in the world is not something that we can remedy by human agency, no matter how hard we try.
There are extremist groups, such as those in Libya and Nigeria, in which the separation of means and ends is not clear. Violence is used not as a means to a declared end, but for its own sake, the expression of a will of destruction. (Is this an echo of the Nazis’ “triumph of the will”?) Most individuals who espouse extreme ideology don’t, in fact, engage in violence, and most groups that do engage in violence declare themselves to have ideological ends that their violence is supposed to be a means to. In Lent we remind ourselves that regardless of our stated ends or agenda, that as Christians we confess that human agency will never and can never bring about the kingdom; that it is God’s will, and our assent to and cooperation with His will, by which He accomplishes the final consummation of all purpose.
I would pray to be the last person to defend the violent who claim the mantle of any faith to seek to justify their actions. They cannot justify their actions. But while we recognize this truth, and while we claim (not always with undivided heart) that violence cannot be reconciled with the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, let us recognize, as well, that we live in an era when the prevailing ideology is itself extreme, and that the extremists we condemn are at some level responding to what they perceive as threat. What is this extreme ideology? It is the prevailing belief that the only thing that matters is human agency; that we are in charge; that “truth” must always be named using quotation marks; that all problems are subject to technological solution; that our consumerist focus on pleasure is the definition of human flourishing. What now passes for culture is itself quite extreme when viewed through the lens of history or through the lens of cultures foreign to our own. When we realize and confess that we are not in charge, and that we don’t get to define (or define away) truth, we confront the first and most deadly of the sins to which we seek to die in Lent: pride (false pride, theological pride, the failure to acknowledge God’s sovereign will).
Let Lent be a season where we call to mind our sinfulness even more than our sins, when we seek our Savior because we know and confess that we are in need of salvation. Let this be a season in which we turn yet again to God, to seek His face, His will; to live in His love, that this love may be shared with all. It is the humble heart, and not the proud one, which is not so extreme as to claim any right to decide what true, and good, and loving, and beautiful, but which seeks all that is true, and good, and loving, and beautiful in the revelation of all Being in God.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg