An article came out that was a rather obvious, though explosive, comment on the demographic on those who join ISIS. Surprise, surprise, most who joined their ranks were not extraordinarily devout strugglers for Islam. They were not mystic Sufis with a bent for violence. These types, realistically, are very rare. Instead, they were disaffected, educated, alienated, and angry young people. They were caught on a wave of the West’s proliferation of a listless materialism. So instead of being like one of our own American youths, and other Westernized people, be content with mindless, ‘no-strings-attached’, sex, recreational drug use, sports addiction, fitness cults, and corporate ladder climbing, they chose a different way.
Violence and bloodlust have always been powerful pathways for people trying to forge meaning. “Life is in the Blood”, so the Lord spoke, and it is true. Shedding blood gives an exhilaration which paradoxically makes us feel more alive, and yet kills our humanity. This blood-shed doesn’t even have to happen in our own hands for us to revel. All to often it is vicarious bloodlust, and we, though sanitized, continue to live out this truth in the West.
The line between sport and blood-sport has always been a precarious one, and should make us, the Church, tremble when we consider it. Not in fearful fleeing, but in concerned reflection. As a recent lecturer pointed out, the differences between gladiatorial combat, medieval chivalric jousting, and the heavily commercialized UFC are nearly void. Yes, in gladiatorial combat people might die, due to the whim of the host and the cheer of the crowd. But there were rules. There were referees. It wasn’t mere bloodshed, but it had an art about it.
Violence has a deep and abiding allure to it. We become powerful in being able to execute life and death decisions. We are exalted as the enemy is defeated. In some sense, the ability to kill is a practice of idolatry. We, or whoever we lift up, become gods able to take away life. In the hands of a State, it is combined with the ability to proffer life. We brought you into this world, we molded you, we send you to bring death to our enemies, and we will see you out. So they say.
ISIS is just another manifestation of Nationalism, though it is not nationalism as the word is usually defined. It is perhaps similar to our American context, which relies less on blood or land, but on a philosophy of life and the god we worship. As I’ve drummed on before, America is a cult of the empty shrine. We can worship whoever or whatever we want as long as it is within our cultural orthodoxy. As long as we don’t call into question ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, then we are safe. It is just like Rome, who allowed any gods who did not interfere with the Imperium of the Capitol.
Perhaps that is why vitriol for ISIS is so harsh, fitting as it does in the Islam/West culture-clash paradigm that has spread deep roots since the fall of the Soviet Union. ISIS, like the Soviet Union, is a competitor for the hearts of the world, blending sex, violence, pride, and purpose into a single way of life. No American governing official would ever admit such, but that does not negate the truth. The idolatrous ‘Freedom’ is the god that holds us all together. Right or Left, it’s the same vision, but different details. The Left might advocate free sex or free definition of one’s person; The Right might advocate free use of weapons (the prevalence of militia culture) or free markets. At the end of the day, it’s working within the same legacy, but pulling in nuanced directions. Even these lines are blurred as some on the Left have a global market ideal, and those on the Right are quite comfortable with fetishizing scantily clad females.
Yet, unlike ISIS who has vitality, the West has lost much in a malaise. Perhaps it’s battle fatigue, going from an ideological war against the Communists to the Islamists. Anyway, there is little draw to banging the patriotic drum, sexing up the American flag, and finding purpose in the nationalism of decades past. Not that there aren’t efforts. But they are becoming more and more forced and plastic. 9/11 certainly resuscitated the power, but the god of Americana is hungry.
ISIS, on the other hand, is able to bring in young men and women. To the former, there is a mission, a sense of destiny and power, and a structured and purposed life. They are to fight against the encroachments of the West, bringing unity and national identity. There is adventure and emotional high in fighting for a new way. One needs only look at the revolutions of Europe in the 19th century, the French Revolution, hell, even the American revolution.
For women, there is a sense of adding one’s femininity to the conflict. Western girls went overseas to join ISIS. They wanted a sense of deep and communal belonging. They wanted to be married both to convicted, purpose-driven, husbands and a cause. There was something attractive about a man with a mission. Sadly, they found only lust and ‘hungry’ men. And worst still, they felt justified in what they did. Still, the attraction doesn’t stop even if the dream fails the reality. Of course, all idolatries are the same. Pray for these girls.
However, empires come and go, God’s Kingdom remains. But there is still a deep problem in all of this. God created us men and women, and there is something distinct in the fact that we have sexed bodies. There has been a trend that many have bought into the Western presuppositions, rather gnostic, that our ‘gender’ is merely a cultural construct. Despite the lusts of the heart, and the round-about way the Liberal West has sated them, the general message is we need to grow up and get over it.
Strangely, we are commercially sold a dual message of boyish/girlish anesthetized sexuality, and then told it’s all a construction. I guess it makes sense: if we’re all idiot children, then what’s the harm in a game of make-pretend. Men are given a vent in releasing a little machismo, women dress up, smoothed over with perfect skin, perfect breasts, perfect hair etc etc. Yet men are told to not be manly. It’s ok to have muscles, but no chest hairs. Girls are told not to be girl. Girls are to be brash, demanding and commanding, yet wearing revealing clothing.
I don’t really understand all the currents that flow and move in our society, or which ones self-identify themselves as having any universal value. I’m not sure if anyone really knows why they do what they do. Our hearts, and the societies that boom around us, give us a million mixed signals. I suppose, at the end of the day, everyone is racing here and there looking for life. We desire to be Human, though have no idea what that means. We look for Eternity, but have no eyes to see it.
However, the Christ does provide a vision, being the First Born from the Dead. This refers not only to His bodily Resurrection, but to the Resurrection of the Creation. The Bible refers to this as the Age to Come, the Kingdom of Heaven, yea, even the Reign of Christ.
Jesus talks of us ceasing to be given in marriage, that we’re to be like the angels, but despite much pondering, how much do we really know about the angels? According to one tradition, they can reproduce (and did with mortals, and were punished accordingly). Regardless if this is true, the Eschaton will not bring about sexlessness. We will still be male and female, as we were made. Of course, this might invite questions of intersexed peoples, but those merely highlight the falleness of our persons, and each example requires thought.
Well, I can only speak to my own particular case of being a man, which is desperately needed in our society of feeble conceptions of masculinity. The examples are that either men are a bother, a plague, or a strange vestige, or, a hyper-assumption of their identity, in either cartoonish displays or in actual, violent, displays.
I could write on and on about the many concrete examples of both. Let’s say the former manifest in the many comedy portrayals of dads as useless, posturing, fools. This bleeds over even into standard portrayals in common commercials. Men become full of shame for being foolish and useless as the media tells them. The other side is in men joining the military or a gang to find purpose, to be men, and meet their hearts desires. This also comes in ‘bro’ culture, full of binge drinking, sports obsessions, and faithless sex.
In the midst of that, Jesus stands as the ideal man, who lays down His life for His friends, His people, even His enemies (none of these categories are exclusive). The Messiah sheds His blood for the whole world, accomplishing the forgiveness of sins and the regeneration of the cosmos, a new creation. This self-sacrifice is boiled down for Paul in his admonition to husbands to be as Christ is for His People(the Church), but this self-sacrifice can be thought out more generally.
This is not to say that women are not to sacrifice themselves as well, we all, collectively and individually, live as living sacrifices, offering our lives to God. But there are distinctly male and female ways to do this. The age old polarity of male-female, perhaps reflected in external-internal acting, is brought to a close in the Messiah. Both are joined together. Christ built a new Kingdom (external), and birthed a new world (internal). There is no male or female in Christ Jesus. Yet, those we are of ontological equality, and the polarity is shattered, we still live as men and women.
For men, this self-sacrifice is brought about in ways that are distinctly male. Instead of our violent passions killing our fellow men, in word and in deed, our violence is brought down upon our flesh. Instead of being the subject of lust, our passion is for being one with Christ, forging a unity with our friends that we call our community, our church. Our quest for mission is brought to a head with the knowledge of God’s Spirit sending us to live as a people, in exile, on our way out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, making disciples of all nations.
None of these are exclusively male, nor comprehensively male, but mere examples. Our sex is not determinative of our person, but one of the many features of our being. First and foremost, if we call upon Jesus, we are His disciples, we are Christian. However, the Church is in need of understanding our maleness and femaleness in true and good ways. It is too easy to go with the current of society, embracing the definitions (or the sexless lack thereof) provided, instead of turning to the Messiah.
We must look to Jesus, as the Bronze Serpent in the desert, and live.