Part One: How Not to Polarize
Forget the videos of ISIS militants sawing off heads; the numbers alone make our blood run cold. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, terror-related deaths have increased nearly 10-fold in less than 15 years. We’re up to 32,685 in 2014 from 3329 in 2000. Between 2014 and 2015, the death toll jumped 80 percent.
The increase in numbers, all out of proportion with population growth, hint as to what makes a terrorist. It’s not, as many have thought, a fatal personality flaw—there have always been sociopaths. According to research by Stephen D. Reicher and Alexander Haslam, the profile of a terrorist has little to do with innate personality and much to do with extrinsic, personality-changing group dynamics.
As it turns out, the religious radicalization that leads to terrorism is the result of group polarization. Group polarization occurs when radical thinking exacerbates rifts between groups, engendering fear and hostility. Any shunned group will eventually feel impelled to shun back. Reicher and Haslam say, “Although we often think of Islamic extremists and Islamophobes as being diametrically opposed, the two are inextricably intertwined.”[i] They call this process of polarizing “co-radicalization.”
Co-radicalization extends beyond Islam and terrorism into every aspect of life. Church members will agree that even theological and doctrinal disputes can lead to a kind of spiritual co-radicalization. Once in radical mode, we don’t generally saw off heads, but we saw off reputations. We polarize and hack and slash and burn with the best of the terrorists—only we do it on a spiritual level, and thus deem it okay.
But all this delays the coming of Jesus, who will return for a unified church. Some in reading this will think, “Well, that’s after Jesus purges out all the liberals (or conservatives) and only the good guys are left.” Not so fast. Maybe what Jesus really wants to purge is the polarizing attitude. The Lord’s messenger said, “The Lord . . . saw that the weakness, the curse of the church, would be a spirit of self-righteousness.”[ii] She pled, “It is high time that believers should stand shoulder to shoulder and strive together for eternal life, in place of holding themselves aloof and expressing by word and action, ‘I am holier than thou.’”[iii] Let’s listen to and influence one another in love, jointly striving to lift up the only righteous and holy One, Jesus.
[i] Reicher, S.D., Haslam, S.A., “Fueling Extremes,” Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016, p. 36.
[ii] Review and Herald, July 10, 1894
[iii] Testimonies to Ministers and Gospel Workers, p. 186.