In the aftermath of the terror attacks in San Bernardino there has been a great deal of media chatter about how the two killers became “radicalized.” How, that is, they went from presumably normal, peaceful Muslims to the type of Muslims who would assemble an arsenal of guns and explosives and use it to slaughter innocent people in Allah’s name. What malign influence caused that transformation?
It’s interesting how we’re using “radical” in this context—to mean extreme, not-mainstream, at the margins, way out there. For the word comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root” (hence the English word for those crunchy red veggies). To be radical, then, literally means the opposite of on-the-fringes; it means essential, to-the-core, the purest, most basic expression of something.
Now, there’s no small debate under way as to whether Islamic terrorism is radical in that strict sense of the word (that is, rooted at the core of Islam) or whether it’s radical in today’s popular media sense of extreme and far-flung. Muslims who take seriously the Quran’s admonitions to violence would say the former. More peaceable Muslims and their Western fellow-travelers would say the latter. Since Islam is fractured and without a central teaching authority, there’s good reason to think the answer is plausibly “both.”
But no matter which construction you put on radical when applying it to Islam, the word has come to signify that religion’s darkest aspects: violence, misogyny, religious intolerance, and draconian precepts. Just about everybody on every side of the debate agrees—radicalize a Muslim and you get a threat.
What about radicalized Christianity? What does it mean to go to the root of our religion? I think it makes for an interesting contrast.
Radicalize a Christian and you get a saint. You get a Quaker or a hermit. You get a missionary, a martyr, a homeschooling mom. Radicalize a Christian and you get someone who wants to actualize Christ’s most difficult teachings about love of neighbor, death to self, and detachment from the world.
Radicalize a Christian and you get someone who follows the way to perfection that Jesus models in the Gospels: the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).
“There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matt. 9:12).
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).
Historically in the Church, the evangelical counsels have been the province of religious priests, brothers, and sisters—those who take vows to remain celibate, eschew possessions, and submit their will to their superiors. (Diocesan or “secular” priests do not take a vow of poverty.) But although this kind of literal radicalization is practically possible only for a small number who have removed themselves from the world and its day-to-day demands, those of us who are in the world can still live according to the spirit of the evangelical counsels. Our radicalization may not mean selling all our possessions, kissing our spouses goodbye forever, and retiring to a cloister, but it does mean letting our life choices be informed by the way to perfection that Jesus sets out before each of us.
So, as we begin a new Church year awaiting the birth of our Savior, let’s get radicalized. Let’s go deeper into the root of the Faith by striving to practice the evangelical counsels in a way appropriate to our state of life.
Maybe we can’t embrace total poverty because we have a mortgage to pay and children to feed. That’s part of the life God called us to. But we can give more freely to those in need; we can reduce our possessions and simplify our wants.
Perhaps our husbands or wives wouldn’t be too excited if we decided to live in total celibacy. They shouldn’t be—sex is a holy part of the married vocation. Nonetheless, we can go deeper into the perfection of chastity by doubling our efforts to remain continent in word, thought, and deed. We can raise our moral standards for what we watch and listen to. We can even—if we really want to be radical—practice temporary abstinence, “for a season,” as an aid to prayer (1 Cor. 7:5).
And if it doesn’t make sense in our lives to submit our freedom to another person, we can still imitate that obedience in other ways. Try letting your spouse pick the movie or the meal, or giving up a night out to make yourself available to your kids. Reflect on those areas where you’re used to getting things your way, and practice relinquishing them through little acts of death to self.
For the remainder of this Advent and beyond, be a radical Christian by making yourself a closer imitator of Christ, and thus more ready to recognize him when you stand face to face before him.