Stopping Extremism

It’s really hard for me to not hate the people who make up ISIS. Jesus himself told us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44) but it’s times like these that make me want to ask God, “really? We’re supposed to love these guys?” I’m not there yet and I would wager that 99% of those who confess to be Christians aren’t there yet either.

Members of Islamic extremist groups willingly murder innocent people under the guise of religion. It’s pretty darn close to the definition of pure evil.

Unfortunately, I don’t think religious extremism is going anywhere anytime soon. Why? Because people seek meaning in their lives. It’s what we do. Religion provides that meaning for people, often times after seeking for purpose elsewhere has failed. And for whatever reason, extremism in Islam has taken a stronghold on hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Of course, it’s easy to blame religion in general and there is no denying that over the course of history there has been an awful lot of bloodshed in the name of somebody’s god. But religion itself doesn’t cause violence. It’s the fact that religion promotes the formation of groups of people who share a common purpose. That often transforms into conflict with people who aren’t part of the group. When taken to the extreme, this results in a mentality that divides the world into those who are good and those who are bad.

Extremists believe they deserve a certain status of power because their beliefs are morally superior to the beliefs of others. They seek a politicized religion (separation of church and state is a really good thing) – and they want to destroy people outside their group to achieve that power. Cue terrorist attacks involving suicidal murderers who believe their self-sacrifice gives them the right to be merciless and commit horrifying acts of violence.

It would be obtuse to deny the fact that military force is needed to win a war against these extremist groups. But that isn’t enough. We need some kind of idea on how to establish lasting peace in the areas overrun by extremists or other terrorist groups will emerge once ISIS is eliminated. Secular thought or establishing “Western values” in the Middle East isn’t going to do the trick. These are religious people – however warped their beliefs – we’re dealing with here so there has to be a shift in mentality by reinterpreting the holy texts. Much easier said than done.

The world’s great religions are all based in love and provide many of us with that purpose for being that I talked about earlier. Most of us would agree that love is a good thing but love can also lead to problems. Love, by its very nature, prefers one person/place/thing/idea over another. Therefore, love is exclusive. Loving my wife means I don’t love anyone else. Loving the God of the Bible means I don’t love the God of the Quran. Loving one holy text makes it extremely difficult to sympathize with those who love another one. This exclusionary aspect – when taken to extremist levels – can and often will lead to conflict.

However, religions also promote justice in addition to love. Love is particular and passionate. Justice is the opposite. Justice demands those who seek it to rid themselves of passion and respect others in order to find the universal truth that should apply to all people. Reconciling these separate but related moral ideologies isn’t easy. But religious texts – when read properly – offer guidance.

The irony is that the answer to ending religious violence is likely to be found within the religion itself by the followers who understand that the influence of religion grows when it doesn’t seek power. I realize that there may be a hesitation to look for peace in the same religious texts that extremists use to justify their views. However, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace their roots to Abraham who didn’t have an empire, didn’t work miracles, and didn’t command an army. Instead, he provided the world with a different example of how to believe, think and live. Maybe it’s time we look to our religious roots in order to move religion and the world toward peace in the name of God instead of violence.

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A lucky man. Also a lawyer. Classic oxymoron.

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