Confession: I was an Extremist.

I want to start this post by letting the families and friends of the victims of the latest attacks in Brussels know, that all our thoughts and prayers are with you. To all the family and friends of the victims of the brutal attack in Paris, our thoughts and prayers are with you.

But also, to the families and friends of the human beings who died in the attacks in Ankara, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Nairobi, Beirut, and Jakarta: You must not be forgotten.

And to the families and friends of the attackers: if you applaud your “martyrs,” I pity you. But if you are just as shocked and horrified by their crimes as we are (and I believe many of you are) then know that you are every much a victim of this tragedy and one’s family or friend’s crimes must not be stapled onto you.

Lastly, while I am at it, to the attackers themselves, at least the ones who are still alive: You are cowards. If your standpoint was truly so holy, you would not be so childishly terrified of differing viewpoints that you would accuse them of trying to destroy your own. You are the weakest, lowest type of human.

 

Those who know me may (or may not, as I’m not often forthcoming with such topics) know that in recent years I’ve swung to what is nearly a complete 180 degree turn on the political spectrum. Where I used to hold deeply conservative views and values I’ve now become more and more liberal in many areas, particularly in social and cultural areas. I can’t point to any particular event that caused me to flip around and run in the other direction. But the biggest shift occured during my year abroad when I was confronted with the idea that the suburban white American lifestyle is not the only one that exists, and it is absolutely not the majority for most people on earth, and it is most certainly not superior to any other.

To clarify the title and start this story, which highlights what I would describe as one of the darkest periods of my life thus far (I’m still young, there’s not that much life to work with), I will say that I am, and always have been, a believer in God, in some way or another.

Naturally, growing up in the rural South of the United States the very first worldview I was introduced to was that of conservative Protestantism, like many in the South. I don’t want to come across as regretful of this; every worldview on earth offers something to learn from. From an early age I was taught the way to live according to the evangelical interpretation of the Bible (New International Version, to be precise). I took it to heart. I’ve never considered myself an outgoing person, though I am much more open than I was as a child. As a child, I rarely spoke, crippled by a fear that whenever I open my mouth I said something stupid. It took me almost twenty years to learn to laugh at the stupid things I say instead of becoming frustrated and embarassed. Thus, the idea that as a Christian I could let my “actions speak for me” was terribly enticing. I was always terrified of outreach; I can’t even make small talk, let alone try to persuade someone to join my religion! So I was always the one sitting in the back, silently praying and hoping that God would bless me just for living right, even if I couldn’t talk right. It’s not hard to see, looking back, how this quickly turned into me placing a very high value on people’s actions, and I fell deep into the trap of hypocritical judgmentalism that plagues so many religious people. As I grew into a teenager it multiplied tenfold. My shyness led to me being somewhat of a social outcast, partially by choice, partially by the cruelty of ‘high school student politics.’ And, like every teenager, I had a “rebel” phase. The problem is that everyone around me was having their rebel phase too–but I didn’t want anything to do with them. I despised my classmates, mostly (if any of you are reading this now–I’m sure you know that that is no longer the case). And, though I never bothered to verify, when I heard rumors that the ‘popular kids’ were going to parties, getting drunk, doing drugs, fornicating and doing everything the Bible said you probably shouldn’t do, I internalized it and it became fuel for my fire. But I had no sympathy for those I deemed sinners. I need to take time to thank my family and friends for supporting me and especially for giving me a good old slap in the face, which I desperately needed. This story gets darker, so please take a moment to google “kittens” or “puppies,” and click images.

 

Feeling better? Good.

I was accused a few times, since I was the quiet kid who never smiled, of planning a school shooting. I always denied it of course. Some of you are now assuming I’m going to tell you that I actually was planning one. Nothing so shocking. I was too much of a coward to ever take any action on what I felt, something I am now very thankful for. In my mind, however, I had planned, plotted, and carried out a shooting. Why? Because I felt alone and alienated? Of course not! I had friends. I went out on the weekends. And I attended church frequently. At least, I would tell myself that these weren’t the causes. I wanted to do what I felt was the Lord’s work of ‘purifying’ the world of vice and corruption. I remember writing an essay for a class in which I described my opinion that the best form of government on earth would be a fascist dictatorship led by the church. Think I’m exagerrating? I wish I was. I actually had written the word ‘fascism’ at one point, but if I remember correctly I changed it to something more.. Acceptable.

 

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Let me explain to you who I could have been.

Most of us are familiar with Joseph Kony and his group the ‘Lord’s Resistance Army.’ Now, in practice they’re run like a cult which worships Kony, but in theory, their ideas are awfully similar to Islamic State-albeit a Christian version rather than an Islamic one. Imagine if there was a Christian State trying to take over a wartorn country and install a brutal, cruel dictatorship based on strict adherence to every statute of the Bible, bringing back Old Testament ideas like stoning fornicators, forcing rape victims to marry their rapist, and lots and lots of executions. It would be different only in name to the current Islamic State, but had there been such a place, as a teenager I would have been amazed, and supportive. I would have wanted to help, either by going and joining them or.. By doing what I could at home to support ‘the cause.’ Because I felt hurt and outcast, and I felt that nobody understood Christianity the way I did. And I felt that my beliefs were under attack by secularism and pluralism.

Again, I never took a single violent action in the name of Christianity. But I lived in a majority Christian environment. I was never harassed, bullied, or alienated on account of my Christianity (though I was ocassionally mocked for my ‘puritanical devotion’, something I now recognize as extremism).

In my mind, I am just as guilty as the Paris attackers.

 

So the point of all this: we can blame, bully, alienate, and try to keep other worldviews away. But extremism breeds like a plague in a hostile environment. And every time extremists cause chaos, radicals on the other side stir up fear and hatred and preach it as the means to ‘progress’. But fear and hatred lead only to destruction. Even if you never take a single action, I can tell you from experience that fear and hate are like poison to the mind.

 

So what are we to do? Just drop all security and be totally optimistic that everyone is going to do the right thing? Of course not. There needs to be a response to terrorism but the response must not be against innocent people whose only ‘crime’ is believing in the same God as the extremists (even though they have totally opposite ideas of what needs to be done to be a good Muslim). But when we choose fear and hateful responses such as refusing to serve muslims, or creating ‘muslim-free zones’ or trying to ban all muslims from entering the country while painting the picture that every single one of them harbors violent tendencies, it’s not only ineffective, it’s totally counter-productive. I’m not telling you to go to a mosque or stop what you’re doing and go hug a muslim. I’m not even saying that you should stop disliking Islam. You can dislike an idea without disliking people who follow it. This is something I think many Americans desperately need to realize. We are a pluralist nation of many cultures and many ideas, and trying to force one idea and one culture as dominant, is, quite frankly, infantile. By all means, put that nativity scene on your lawn at Christmas. Pray in your school. Read your Bible. But don’t suddenly claim that you’re being treated unfairly when people who follow other religions are allowed to practice their faiths in public. There are plenty of areas in the world where Christians and Muslims live in harmony because the people living in those areas understand that while they have different beliefs it is not religion that unites them but humanity.

In my life, I’ve met Christians, I’ve met Muslims, I’ve met Buddhists, Hindus, and people without religion. And I’ve come to know that happiness, real happiness, is not tied to whether or not you believe in God or what particular set of rules you follow. The world is simply too large for one single answer to be correct.

And with that, I’m out. Keep it peaceful. Keep it friendly. Don’t vote for Trump.

_____________________________________________________________________

Related: “Why did the bombers target Belgium?” (The Guardian)

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