What Terrorism Teaches Us about How Not to Do Church


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.

3 thoughts on “What Terrorism Teaches Us about How Not to Do Church

  1. Fred Bischoff Reply

    Thanks for quoting FE 277. I have long thought that FE Chapter 36, “The Suspension of Students” is an amazing, practical exposition on the faith of God. It meets its high point, it seems to me, in these words: “If we wish to do good to souls, our success with these souls will be in proportion to their belief in our belief in, and appreciation of, them. Respect shown to the struggling human soul is the sure means through Christ Jesus of the restoration of the self-respect the man has lost. Our advancing ideas of what he may become is a help we cannot ourselves fully appreciate.” The chapter seems to be one of EGW’s greatest concentrations of the word “love”—5 paragraphs, with 279.1 having 5 occurrences, 280.1 with 15 (including the plea, “Had we not better try the love process?”), 282.1 with 11, 283.1 with 2, and 284.1 with 2.

    This chapter is an extract of Letter 50, 1893 to Brother and Sister Prescott, a couple involved in the educational ministry. Brother Prescott was running Battle Creek College, and two years later would be with Ellen White in Australia helping get Avondale going, preaching the Armadale sermons, etc. The insights in this letter are examples of what Ellen White wrote in 1887 to A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner: “If the eye was single to God’s glory, what a flood of heavenly light would pour upon the soul.” (1888 26.4). This flood of light brightens every ministry and relationship of life, even extending to physicians, their need to understand physiology, and their dependence on drug use (see 20MR 117.2-4, a letter to Brother and Sister Maxson, a couple involved in the medical ministry, with Dr. Maxson at the Rural Health Retreat, now St. Helena).

    May His heavenly light continue to brighten your path and ministry.

  2. Jennifer Jill Schwirzer Post authorReply

    Fred, this is my favorite comment on any blog post of mine, ever. I loved the chapter on expulsion of students because of how it came down so hard on the side of mercy, and I love it even more now that you’ve proven its support of the faith of Jesus concept. I’m brought to tears and even more determined to believe in this person whose sense of self-respect was violated by well-meaning, but uninformed brethren.

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