Part Two: How Not to Radicalize
For good or for evil, the role of any given leader is to build a sense of shared identity. On the evil side of the spectrum, this shared identity becomes the psychological fuel for terrorist activity. Intriguingly, most individuals and subgroups in terrorist networks don’t render slavish obedience to the leader, but find unique and creative ways to advance the group’s agenda. Not so much dictatorship, but group identity glues these networks together.
Stephen D. Reicher and Alexander Haslam conducted research in which they created a facsimile prison in order to observe the dynamics between prisoners and guards. One particular prisoner became a cautionary tale as to how radicalization occurs. This prisoner initially emerged as a would-be guard, seeing himself as capable of uniting the guards, promoting himself as a political savior, and ignoring the teasing of fellow prisoners.
But everything changed when then the guards overlooked him and promoted someone else. His claim to group identity had been publically rebuffed and his ego stung. Quickly his demeanor transformed from a model inmate who shunned fellow prisoners, to one who strongly identified with them. He became a key instigator in rebelling against prison authority.
Reicher and Haslam propose four stages in the formation of a radical:
Aspiration to belong, to be included, to be appreciated and valued by the group.
Misrecognition on the part of the group, failing to value that individual, identifying them as an outsider.
Disengagement on the part of the individual, pulling back from the pain of wanting to belong.
Disidentification from the group.
Once radical is fully severed from the group once cherished, polarization has occurred, and terrorism can ensue. But notice the process began with a frustrated desire for inclusion. As the church, many of our fragments might be reintegrated if we recognized and dealt tenderly with this basic human desire. We must maintain order, we must have standards, but we should keep the rules simple and few, and maintain them with utmost compassion and love.
As a young person, Kelly[i] was suspended from academy. Although she deserved it, she quickly reevaluated her actions, determining to mend her ways and return to school. Giving the academy strong evidence of change, she expressed her desire to be included again. They said no, and Kelly’s teenaged hopes and dreams shattered into a thousand pieces. Not one staff member reached out to her in compassion.
Kelly recently attempted to attend her ten-year academy reunion but flashed back on the trauma of rejection and couldn’t even enter the building. To this day she doesn’t consider herself a Christian because, as she says, “Religion separates people.” If only the academy had read what inspiration had to say about expelling students: “They are in this action thrust upon Satan’s battle ground to cope with principalities and powers without armor or defense, to become an easy prey to Satan’s devices.”[ii]
The wound of rejection tends to reproduce itself in counter-rejection. Let us ask God to show us whom we might reach out to in compassion, confessing our sin of unChristlikeness. It’s time to gather up the fragments that remain.
[i] Kelly is a pseudonym.
[ii] Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 277.