Yesterday we learned that another American journalist was beheaded by ISIS. Stephen Sotloft, an American journalist, was killed in the same barbaric fashion as James Foley. I have not seen the videos showing their murder, and I hope not to. This grotesque display of brutality, which is intentionally broadcast to the watching world, does not warrant my viewing. It does, however, demand some reflection.
Quickly moving through flashes of outrage and contempt, my mind eventually settles on the question of motive. Why would anyone do something so horrendous to another human being? What could possibly explain such inhuman behavior?
Here in the West, the conventional answer to that question is ‘environment’. People do dreadful things to others because their circumstances are so deplorable that they have lost touch with their humanity. Disenfranchised, oppressed, and beleaguered, their situation has reduced them to beasts of violence. The solution then, is to address their circumstances and grant them greater opportunity. When marginalized people are granted upward mobility, there is a corresponding decline in barbarism.
Or so we are told.
The problem with this rationalization is the growing number of recruits that ISIS is drawing from western countries. The knife-wielding executioner of Foley and Sotloft comes from London! In fact, there are so many British-born wanting to enlist in ISIS, that Prime Minister Cameron is seeking legislation that will allow the government to seize the passports of England’s radicalized youth. These young men are ready to abandon first world opportunity to participate in the fight for a caliphate. Nasser Muthana, a star medical student from Cardiff, with amazing professional prospects in the UK, walked away from it all to be included in ISIS. Obviously ‘environment’ cannot explain his motivation.
A more satisfying answer is ‘belief’. People don’t act savagely because they are desperate but because they are persuaded. They believe that the action, while drastic, is legitimized by what it will ultimately accomplish. The members of ISIS are not seeking better living conditions; they are motivated by a vision of Islamic hegemony. It’s what they believe about the next life that informs their actions in this life. Believing that jihad pleases Allah and will secure future reward, they are willing to massacre the infidel. People are dying because there is a popular belief system that justifies their death.
Grappling with this reality is hard for westerners who have drunk deep from the well of postmodern subjectivity. We have been told that all ideas are valid and all are benign. Everybody’s opinions are deemed worthy and welcome. Undergirding this perspective is the assumption that our beliefs are immaterial to our experience. What we conclude to be true has no real impact on our neighbors and so we are free to indulge in whatever belief system appeals to us. Belief dwells safely in the realm of the mind and doesn’t spill into daily living.
But ISIS is killing this illusion; they are bringing death to this dream.
What we are seeing in the news is that belief determines action. This has always been so, but it is now translating into life and death. What people believe to be true has a radical impact on others, and these beliefs are not always benign. We need to take belief more seriously. For behind every action rests a truth claim. Before every choice is a core conviction. As we believe so we live.
An old idiom claims that those who are too heavenly minded are no earthly good. The opposite is actually true. Those who think of things above are most often the most impactful below. When Scripture and The Spirit inform our beliefs we are propelled into lives of purpose. Actions informed by God’s truth are always transformative.
ISIS is a geo-religious problem that requires an international response. Our inability to understand them is also a religious problem, but one that requires a personal response. Until we come to appreciate the power of belief we will be dismayed by horror. Until we come to inform our own belief we will be without conviction, purpose, or power.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, ESV)