Narratives and Otherwise

From the New York Times, The Global Clash of Emotions:

The war that is unfolding is one that the culture of humiliation cannot win, but it is a war nonetheless and one that the West can lose by continuing to be divided or by betraying its liberal values and its respect for law and the individual. The challenge is not figuring out how to play moderate Islam against the forces of radicalism. It is figuring out how to encourage a sufficient sense of hope and progress in Muslim societies so that despair and anger do not send the masses into the radicals’ arms.

One of the immense strengths of the radical message that swept Iran by way of the Ayatollah was its ability to combide Quranic principles of social justice and righteousness with a powerful narrative of revolution infused with socialist, Marxist even, overtones. Not only was the power of Islamic social action (with its strong emphasis upon egalitarianism- at least within the Islamic community) tapped, but so were more modern ideas of leftist revolution, and in the aftermath a centralized welfare state economy was erected, again channeling a fusion of Islam and revolutionary spirit. While this specific course of narrative and action has not been repeated in precisely the same manner, its basic parameters have been picked up throughout the Middle East. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah draw much of their power from such a narrative of justice, social action, and militarized Islam.

This is hardly anything new, of course- Marxist groups of the twentieth century (and to a lesser extent, this century) constructed narratives of social justice, morality, and action linked with a specific militarized ideology. The Peruvian Maoists Shining Path, for example, sought (initially) to exploit inequitable and unjust situations of the Andean and Liman poor to create a base for its ‘people’s revolution.’ In the face of increasingly diminished support from the people, it resorted more and more to simple brute violence to support an ever more vicious narrative of revolution by blood-bath. 

Shining Path, and most other such groups, rejected religion out of hand. Many modern groups- ‘terrorist’ and otherwise- however have ideologies strongly shaped by religion, or at the very least, ethnic identities closely tied to religion. Like earlier groups, they exploit the situations present at the ‘fringes’ of the globalized world, drawing people- particularly in the Islamic world, where, as the above author notes, there is an ongoing reality of decay, with a culture that has to a certain sense internalized that feeling of decay- into their narrative of justice, righteousness, religion, and violent action.

What is to be done? The above article lends the beginnings of an answer: an alternative vision must be offered. Against the narratives offered by the fusion of religion and violent ideology there must be a more compelling, more powerful narrative. And that narrative cannot be one of free-market economies, or welfare-state socialism, or democracy and civic society- whatever the merits of those things may be. Rather, what narrative is more compelling than that of the Gospel, spoken in such a way as to meet the very real and very valid concerns of people at these fringes of the globalized world- fringes that in many ways form the centre? For hopelessnes and despair, decay and inequity and injustice, are hardly confined to the Islamic world. Rather, they are forces thick over the entire world, even if they seem hidden behind a facade of McDonalds, Starbucks, and international airports.

Christianity possesses the narrative of all narratives, the message that proclaims the truth about the world, and offers hope and life beyond anything presented by other narratives. Eschewing violence, it proclaims a God incarnate and crucified for the life of the world, speaking hope to the poor and downtrodden. It is not a narrative of raw power or economic force, but instead of humility and powerful love: ready to meet the humiliated, the inhabitants of a decaying world. For us to carry this narrative means living it into the world, as people who love actively and wisely, recognizing the other in the light of Christ, and approaching the evils and inequities of the world honestly.

Democracy will not save the world. Representative government will not solve the ills of the Middle East. Only the incarnately spoken truth of Christ crucified will set men truly free, whether in Tehran or New York.

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