Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard many friends and colleagues in Germany say that the Islamic extremists who recently launched bloody attacks in Paris and San Bernardino were blinded by hate. To them, what these religious extremists are doing is inconceivable. But I want to call that into question. The explosive coupling of worlds and counter-worlds—which every theologian, historian, and political scientist should understand—can provide ample motivation for religious violence. And not only is this violence fundamentally religious, it is actually rooted in what I call ‘desperate hope’.
What do I mean by “counter-worlds”? To imagine the world as a different place and to work for its realization is a mark of human life. Any expectation of change is driven by a vision of a different world. This other state of affairs might be political or transcendent. Counter-worlds can be widely shared and create emotionally intense “imagined communities” spanning across continents, nations, and cultures. We overlook the dynamic relationships between worlds and counter-worlds when we focus exclusively on other kinds of meaning-making—like hate, failure to be integrated into society, and lack of economic opportunity.
To better understand how European nations are responding to—and participating in—current world-political conflicts, the German historian and public intellectual Herfried Münkler brought into the debate the conceptual tool of ‘post-heroic societies’. These are societies that have dispensed with the notions of “honor” and “sacrifice.” Heroism only survives in highly segmented special institutions: firefighters, police, soldiers, etc. Since post-heroic societies don’t demand and don’t expect forms of sacrifice, many people in Europe are even surprised when soldiers are killed in combat.
By contrast, the United States is to a much lesser degree a post-heroic society. In August 2014, when a terrorist attempted to shoot people on an express train to Paris, it was a group of three American citizens who overpowered him. Many people in Europe wondered why only American citizens had the courage.
One of the major changes in post-heroic societies is that martyrdom becomes an abnormal social role. That people might be willing to die for their faith seems impossible. That people might be willing to kill for reasons of faith appears to be equally unlikely. The idea that someone might combine both killing and being killed for the sake of a religious counter-world is even more unthinkable.
And yet, it is not inconceivable for the religious extremist, whose hope for the conversion of the other people and the transformation of society turns sour and becomes “desperate hope.” He or she still hopes for his or her own afterlife, but does not expect to transform the given worldly society by peaceful means. This “desperate hope” is violently impatient.
Deeply religiously motivated terrorist attacks, which the perpetrators often see as acts of martyrdom, challenge post-heroic European societies. I don’t want to simply praise heroic societies. Emotions and values like honor and pride are certainly some of the most politically exploited elements of human existence. However, thorough immersion in a post-heroic culture might mislead and even blindfold us to the real reasons behind religious violence. To understand and decode religiously motivated violence, it’s important to understand that in committing these acts of violence, religious people are acting out of strange combination of impatience, despair, and hope.
I want to acknowledge the following: violence can be rooted in religion, and more specifically, it can be rooted in religious counter-worlds as formations of religious hope. We need to see that if hope becomes desperately impatient, it can become violent. In the United States, some Christians who believe that life begins at conception have bombed or attacked abortion clinics, as recently as last month. In their eyes, they are ultimately preventing many murders and defending unborn babies who cannot defend themselves. These extremists cling to a specific counter-world and want to give up the patience that’s necessary for peacefully convincing the other.
Christianity addresses the problem of impatient religious hope in a specific way: Hope must not be separated from love, which always is tied to the concrete life of real people in the real world.
What is the conclusion to be drawn? We need to articulate how faiths like Islam and Christianity address the problem of impatient religious hope. We need to analyze and understand the powerful yet ambiguous role religious counter-worlds play in all attempts to enhance life. Religious extremists believe they are enhancing life. We need to acknowledge the need for critical theological reflection of the thick textures of belief – within our religious traditions and “in-between” them. Such exchanges are as difficult as they are necessary. The terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris—and acts of religious extremism all over the world—remind us of that. The uncanny power of counter-worlds must not be overlooked. This power calls for responsible public reflection. Only if we properly understand religious extremists’ motivations can our response be driven by insight, rather than blindness.
Read a Q&A with Günter Thomas about his research here.
Photo courtesy of Takver via Flickr (Creative Commons license).