Terrorism? Or Something Else?

This blog entry began as a sermon preached on October 26th. Just before I went into the service, I was forwarded an excellent article published in the Globe and Mail on October 24th. What I say below takes a particular perspective on the points made in that article.

How could this happen in Canada?

That was the feeling earlier this week. How could people, born and raised in Canada, do such terrible things: killing two members of the Canadian military, injuring and wounding others, both military and civilian; terrifying so many. How could they do that?

It is important so say first that this is not something to be blamed on Islam. On Wednesday, while we were still watching things unfold, I heard someone say: “we should round them all up and send them back where they came from.” That stunned me! I never thought I’d hear a real person utter those words and mean it.

I was much happier when I heard the outcome of the situation in Cold Lake, Alberta, a town with a large military presence. The local mosque was vandalized: windows were broken and “go home” was spray painted on walls. Non-Muslim people from the community went to help the Muslims clean up, and someone put up a sign saying: “You are home!”

The two men who targeted Canadian service personnel were relatively recent converts to Islam, and were both disconnected from any Muslim communities. One had even been asked to leave a mosque in Vancouver because he was criticizing them for not being radical enough.

The word “disconnected” is an important one here, since both of the men were disconnected from their families and their communities. They both struggled with mental health issues, had looked for relief in drugs, and had become involved in crime. Both had ended up looking for meaning on the internet, where they were hooked by the radical language of groups like ISIS. I strongly suspect that they had convinced themselves that they were doing something of value: that they were serving a higher purpose, without having an understanding of the underlying values of the religion they claimed.

They weren’t even connected to the terrorist group whose ideas they were following, although ISIS will be delighted to take credit for their crimes. I remember the 1970 October crisis, and the FLQ, with its disjointed cell groups: connected loosely, but tight internally. These men were not terrorists like that.

We have an absolute need to stay connected to other people. Is is an important way that we remain human in our dealings with others. Jesus understood that. That’s why, when he told us which commandment is most important, he actually gave us two.

In Matthew 22:34-40, we are first given the most important commandment: to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. The clear intent is that our love for God should engage every part of our lives. You might even say it should be all-consuming.

Now if you stopped there, you could use this commandment to justify terrorism. Really!

Left to ourselves, we can come up with some pretty funny ideas about what God wants. If the people around us bother us in some way, it is not hard to look at what they are doing and decide that they are somehow sinful, or evil, or simply opposed to God out of a kind of spiritual laziness. Once you start condemning people like that, it becomes a lot easier to justify doing something extreme that you think will shake them out of their complacency, or perhaps will scare them to God, or to see the truth.

The human capacity for self-delusion is amazing, and if we ever focus on God to the exclusion of all else, that focus can become one of the most dangerous delusions in our lives.

That is why Jesus insisted on adding in the second commandment: to love our neighbours as ourselves. We can be abstract about God all we want, and can avoid having our ideas challenged, but it is a lot harder to be abstract about our neighbours, those real people around us.

It is our constant interaction with others that keeps us grounded in reality. If we take this commandment seriously and actually try to love our neighbours, then that requires us to try and put ourselves in their shoes. We have to make a real effort to understand them, along with their needs and their issues.

It Is harder to delude ourselves when we deal with the people around us, because their lives will regularly intrude on our imaginations. Other people are visible, we bump elbows with them, we hear them and smell them: their reality keeps us real. God, on the other hand, is invisible. Looking for God in creation or in any scriptures requires interpretation, which opens the door to mis-interpretation.

It’s always easy to love an idea. One of my favourite Peanuts cartoons concludes with Linus saying: “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.”

If we say we love God but can’t manage to love our neighbours, then we have to ask: do we really love God, or just our idea of God?

The people who have terrorized us this past week were disconnected. They were following an abstraction. We could label them as social outcasts, as wannabe terrorists. But these, like other labels, are not very helpful. We certainly don’t do anyone any favours if we elevate these men to the status of real terrorists by claiming that what they did is symbolically important, or anything close to a Canadian equivalent to 9/11.

What they have done is real. It is terrible that they have taken the lives of two innocent people, and have messed up the lives of so many others. We need to pray for the people killed and injured, their families, friends and loved ones. We certainly need to consider what policies need to be in place to keep people safe.

But symbolically, this is not so much about an assault on democracy, as it is about how we deal with troubled individuals in Canada. It is about the care we provide for people with mental health issues. It is about how we deal with people with serious addiction problems. It is about how we care for people so that they don’t become dangerously desperate.

We should view these killlings the way we viewed the Montreal Massacre. The women killed were targetted by Marc Lepine because they were studying engineering and other traditionally “male” subjects. It was a terrible thing. It was an attack on our people and our values, but we all knew right away that it was not an attack from outside.

This week’s pair of attacks came from inside our society too. They were rooted in alienation and isolation They came from people who (it appears) felt week and marginalized, and who want to prove they had power and worth by striking out at those they saw as powerful.

I doubt that it is any comfort to those in uniform to know that these delusional men saw them as powerful. The people of our armed forces have volunteered to serve Canada, and know that they may be putting their lives in danger for their country, for us. They would not expect that risk to be faced here in Canada: off duty and minding their own business, or standing guard at a national memorial. Now they may be targets, just because they are wearing our uniforms. That is, if other people decide to work out their issues in the same way these two disturbed men did.

These incidents should not be reduced to simple labels, as tempting as that may be. To choose between “ideology” and “pathology” is to miss the fact that this is about a complex combination of very human issues.

I would suggest that we owe it to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, and to all those who serve us in uniform, to find a way to deal with the issues that produce the “wannabe terrorists”, or the “lone-wolf terrorists”, or whatever other names we may call them. We need to find a way to address people who are alienated and isolated; the disconnected people who end up looking for meaning on the internet; the people who try to solve their problems with drugs; the people on the streets suffering from serious mental illness and cannot find the treatment that they need.

As people of faith we can see the dangers of faith that is cut off from human reality; of faith that is abstract and heartless.

As people of faith we can offer up an alternate vision: a community where we create a space for everyone, even those who have the hardest time fitting in, where even the most outcast can belong. We can offer a community of healing and of reconciliation. We can offer a place where our passion for God is always informed by our love for the people around us.

We are even called to find a way to love the ones who scare us; the ones who want to terrorize us.

Since Jesus lived under the brutal terror of the Roman Empire, he knew exactly how tough it could be to follow this commandment to love our neighbours. But still he called us to that love, which suggests that he believed we could do it. Now it’s up to us to try.

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