A Curriculum for Radicalization

A Curriculum for Radicalization

“Radicalization” is the buzzword of the day.

We’re hearing that the couple who killed fourteen people San Bernardino were “radicalized” before they even met and married. Many are wondering what exactly makes someone become similarly radicalized. Others are anticipating that Donald Trump’s inflammatory proposals would not make us safer, but in fact give a great boost to ISIS’s effort to radicalize recruits to their cause.

Doubtless there’s a technical definition for radicalization in the literature on terrorism. But I wish they’d settled on a different word. Because the thing about fundamentalists and extremists—whether bomb-wearing terrorists, or a university president urging students to start packing heat, or a political candidate with fascist ideology—is not that they’re radical. It’s that they’re really not radical at all. They may dominate the news, and strike fear in our hearts, and inspire vehement denunciations on our part. But they are still playing by the rules of the world, and there’s nothing radical about that.

There’s nothing radical about using violence to make a point.
There’s nothing radical about rank tribalism that pits people against one another.
There’s nothing radical about whipping up fear and intimidation to get your way.
Such has been the way of the world for a long, long time. It may not always be cloaked in the language of holy war, but “I’m right and you’re dead” is an all too familiar refrain in human history.

Such violent acts are better labeled not as radical, but as the antonym of radical, which is superficial. Shooting up a room full of defenseless people is a cheap and shallow attempt to advance an agenda. And demonizing an entire religion of people because of the actions of a minuscule few is similarly cheap.

I don’t know whether our generation’s challenges are tougher than those of past generations. But I know the next several decades will test us in profound ways. Right now it’s the demonization of Muslims in the United States, despite the fact that they’re better educated than the general public, are largely accepting of gender equality despite stereotypes to the contrary, and have rooted out more terror suspects than U.S. government investigations. (Read more here.) But pick your issue: wealth inequality, racism, a broken political system. Global climate change may be the most looming challenge, with ripple effects in the areas of health, ecology, justice, economics, and yes, security and terrorism.

What we need are people who are truly radicalized—who don’t accept the rules of the game we’ve been conditioned to play… who care more about doing right than being safe and comfortable. Who are ready for bold, maybe sacrificial action when the moment presents itself. (Radicals will not sit quietly by while a Muslim woman is spit on and abused on a city bus, for example.)

As a follower of Jesus, he’s the one I look to for inspiration and guidance, but there are many places people might turn for such inspiration. Regardless of our various religious or philosophical perspectives, people of good will need to suit up.

It’s good to be kind, to give to the food pantry, to pay for the Starbucks order of the person behind you. But those actions, too, are rather superficial—and remember, the opposite of radical is superficial. That’s not the game-changer we’re after. So what does it meant to be radical, right where we live and work and play and serve?

I’ve been pondering that question a lot. I’m thinking we need a curriculum for radicals, but I need your help. Here’s what I offer as the most basic starting point for such a curriculum. What should we add?

Learn how to say “peace be with you” in at least five languages. I suggest two of them be Arabic and Farsi. Use them when the situation arises.

Intentionally seek out places where you are in the minority. As tribal people, we are most comfortable with people who look, think and act like us, and when we’re not, our lizard brain can kick in and we can feel threatened. But as our society gets more and more diverse, we (especially those of us who are white) need to be able to seek out different voices and see diversity as a strength.

Find beauty even in terrible circumstances. Being a radical for goodness will be long, grueling work, with more defeats than victories. We need the vision to see beauty even amidst struggle.

Catechesis for radicals: What are the stories we need to be steeping in as radicals? I nominate Eyes on the Prize, the documentary about the civil rights movement. In high school, my government teacher arranged for us to watch it after school, and if we made it through all fourteen hours, he gave us two extra points on our final grade—not our grade on the final exam, our grade for the semester. That’s how important it is.

All right, fellow radicals—what am I missing?


Image: metro_radical by Frederick Dennstedt, creative commons license

13 thoughts on “A Curriculum for Radicalization

  1. Chuck

    It’s radical to not sit idly by while a Muslim woman is spit on, but it’s not radical to not sit idly by while Muslim terrorists kill 14 people and injury even more? These are hardly equivalent! You also left out of your article the new fundamentalism … which is liberalism. Through its own terroristic tactics liberalism demonizes and castigates opposing views, much like you’ve done here. Your thesis is terribly flawed.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      I agree that liberals can be intolerant toward people with whom they disagree. When and if they use violence to make their point, I call it out, though those instances are much more rare than other forms of fundamentalism.

      I didn’t say we should sit idly by. In fact, the man who lost his life while shielding a co-worker with his own body is exactly the kind of action I’m talking about:

      I think fighting ISIS rises to the level of a just war, though I’m not sold on ground troops. But we’re foolish if we think this can be solved by brute force alone. Such force may be necessary, but it’s not radical in the way Jesus calls us to be radical.

  2. Celeste Kennel-Shank

    I encountered the quote below in a Lenten devotional and it has seemed especially relevant in recent days: “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” — Raymond Williams (1921–1988), Welsh philosopher

  3. Cynthia Cochran-Carney

    Thank you, MaryAnn, for giving words to many of my thoughts. I want to reclaim “radical” as a complete commitment to living a life reflecting God’s shalom, the big banquet table where all are invited, the Matthew 25 vision. After I read your blog, I read this piece in Huffington Post. So much to reflect on in this Advent season of waiting, of hope, of prophetic visions of God’s good and justice and peace. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peggy-drexler/are-radicals-mentally-ill_b_8768878.html

  4. Christine

    You asked for other ideas, may I suggest personally reaching out to our Muslim friends? Ask them if they are doing OK in the midst of the hateful rhetoric. Follow up with, “what can i do for you?”

  5. Trish Murphy

    I think the radical action most needed today is to move “safety” down one notch or two on our list of priorities. Our illusions of what is “safety” gets us in so much trouble as evident by gun violence. It also makes us hesitant to help those in need which ironically harms us in the end. This verse comes to mind… Luke 9:24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.

  6. Roy

    In our time, I think it’s necessary to find persons of other religions to befriend. That means sharing meals, engaging in honest conversation, listening to one another and asking questions that deepen understanding of each other. I believe that TRUTH is for all and therefore anyone who is genuinely seeking TRUTH need not fear when it comes in unexpected voices. What is TRUTH? In my Christian tradition, TRUTH is what leads to and mirrors righteousness, justice, peace, love, grace and mercy. TRUTH is what truly open conversation with others might yield; of that we have nothing to fear other than losing our lives.

    As to the catechism for Radicals: I would add the film Crash. It’s old but it tells the story well.

    Thanks for pushing us to be radical. Years ago, there was a journal called Radix that called for the same thing.

  7. Paul Carlson

    The word “radical” concerns me. I am not sure just what the word might be to describe what you are suggesting, but somehow the word “radical” is just loaded to me. I hear you promoting non-violence, ahimsa as I recall, and certainly Gandhi and King are the two prime examples in our time who have applied this principle to social change successfully. Jesus of course exemplifies this principle by the way he died, out of compassion for his enemies. I would want to study these two men-words and actions- and Jesus’ teachings as central to the spiritual awakening that is necessary to achieve what you are asking. A complimentary study for Christians would be the practice and teaching of compassion in Buddhism, particularly Thich Nhat Hanh, another marvelous example of this principle. Thanks for this excellent article.


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