“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” — Jesus
It is a fact of history and of psychology that people kill and will die for faith. Whether this is seen as devotion or extremism depends on who is doing the killing and who is doing the dying. It is one thing to die because of one’s faith; it is another thing to kill for one’s faith. What drives people to this? And does extremism hold logically?
If this isn’t a phrase, it should be: “Show me an extremist, and I will you show you a desperate man.” Human beings are futural creatures, meaning that we are bent towards the future, propelled towards projects, goals, and ends. When futures are denied, when meaningful projects are stripped away, men become desperate and turn to any sort of meaning-making activity. This is where extremism sets up; it begins where hope dies and despair is born, in order to create some sort of quasi-hope. For the hope that extremism offers is non-worldly. But truest sense of religion, and the best of it, is entirely worldly, that is, concerned with creation and the redemption of this time and this place. Become a Zealot, a Jihadist, or a Zionist, and you will be rewarded by God in an everafter, which is ultimately reserved exclusively for the people like you, the elect, the holy, or the righteous.
The denial of the world is the first step on the path of insanity. To deny existence is to deny yourself (in the worst, ontological sense of that phrase). To claim to know the mind of God, which is what is needed to justify a rejection of the world, as well as the violence perpetuated in it, is another level of the insanity. And any ideas of purism or unblemished-ness also tip in the direction of madness, since there is nothing in existence that is one, united, whole, but all things are fractured, broken and various, and this is the gift of life. To deny this is to deny life and reject the very basis of it all: difference.
So it must be a deep despair indeed that drives people to die and to kill for an idea so far removed from what they are steeped in: life. It takes experiences of death — whether actual, cultural, personal — as in the denial and destruction of dreams and possibilities — or ideologically. And in the ensuing free-fall, any safety net is just that: a net, a web of connection and belief that makes the world make sense. Extremism is the last recourse of desperate men (or the actualization of wicked men, but that is another kind of insanity altogether).
But the greatest insanity of extremism, which I have alluded to already, is that is ultimately breaks down in its own terms. This happened the National Socialists in Germany, and it happens across all extremist sects. Their reason cannot hold because it allows for no difference, yet all there is is difference. It is like a snake devouring itself. Its strength is its weakness; it provides a net, but only one set of interpretations and not the myriad encountered in the reality of life (the disparate and differing identities we all move between; that is, the suffering of life in all its goodness).
What is the response to extremism? Or in the words of King of Rohan, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” I will not advise the same response — to go out and fight, although that might be required at times (my personal jury is still out on this). I would say: stop it, before it even starts. Commit to the creation of possibilities, the creation of life, in all places of the world. Through schools, through hospitals, through an engagement with the struggles of all opposed and disenfranchised peoples. Go and show solidarity with them, learn from them, grow with them, and discover a future and a hope with them. To do this is to show the love of Christ, the love for this world, and the love for all people.
Post Scripta: To explain the quote from Jesus given at the start of this post would be its own post, but I need to acknowledge the problem of its interpretation. Many extremists have abused this quote, but Jesus is not talking about actual warfare or physical death, but one of love and justice. Jesus will divide between those who love and those who hate; of those who practice mercy and love and those who kill and persecute the innocent. The fire and the baptism is one that will transform the world into something new, a new creation, but that does not spell prosperity for most of us. Who among us loves like Jesus? Who would not find a sword dividing her own soul, or a fire purifying his own heart?