Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Worth dying for?

Well, it's been a while. My head hurts, I seem to have had an ongoing issue with migraine headaches for years which I've heard peak at around the age of 40. I'm 40, so I'm bang on for that one. Fortunately, I can't complain though, as my migraines tend to be mild to moderate; I've known people who get headaches a lot worse than myself. As long as I can do what I need to do on a daily basis, I'm still happy to be here.

Maybe the reason I start by mentioning that though, is because my head feels much like my heart does these days as I'm writing this. The haze of emotions, strange disorienting numbness, the bewildered fatigue staggering toward one eye. I didn't begin blogging because I wanted to attack anyone personally, but I tend to feel like I can't win in a culture that really doesn't allow for critical thinking where competing religious ideologies are concerned. When any kind of search for objective truth is viewed with suspicion, where image is valued more than what may lie beneath the surface of appearance. I just want to know the truth. I want to dig beneath the surface of things. I'm not a journalist, but isn't that what journalism used to be about? I know I need to do more digging. I know these are complex issues, and yet there is the realization on my part that as hard as I try to make sense of things in a confusing world, and as hard as I try to be balanced, when you start discussing very divisive issues openly, there's no way you're going to be everyone's friend.

But I do try. I've been talking with Muslims a lot lately, mostly online, a portion of whom interestingly appear to be former Christians. Yet, if there's one thing that becomes clear when you begin interacting with people from all over the world is that there is no box. I have been struck by some of the people I have found myself talking with lately, orphans, students, so many young people, many of them young Muslim men for some reason. Some of the conversations you find yourself in when no smart comeback will do, when someone tells you how or when they lost their family member, or what caused them to flee their country of origin, and in some cases they blame the west. They blame Christians. So, I answer for Hitler on a regular basis. I answer for the Inquisition and the Crusades, the abuses of the priesthood, all while trying to remain calm and explain that these are not the teachings of Jesus, even if it is the actions of supposed Christians. Seems simple enough, at least in theory, if not conspiracy theory. I see a lot of that too. I'm not a very political person to begin with I should mention; I'm more of a spiritual person with spiritual motivations, but in some cases it becomes painfully obvious that religion is rather beside the point of what someone is struggling with internally.

With that last comment in mind, a number of weeks ago I came across a headline of a young Canadian who was killed in Syria while fighting for a rebel group opposed to the government of Assad. I told myself at the time to hold on and not jump to conclusions. Canada has many ethnicities and religious groups after all. We are a multi-cultural and multi-religious society. Don't assume you know anything about him, Marg, I reminded myself. I still don't know much, but I have since learned that the person in question was formerly named Damian Clairmont, was originally from Nova Scotia, from a Roman Catholic and Acadian background. Well, that was noteworthy to me because I'm originally from Nova Scotia. I'm from a Roman Catholic background and to a limited extent, also have some Acadian roots. Small world, eh? Good thing I didn't jump to conclusions.

So, not surprisingly, I find myself scratching my head. What possesses a Canadian Roman Catholic kid originally from Nova Scotia to run off and get himself killed fighting for rebels in Syria? Hmmn. It's a question we must ask isn't it? I am not commenting here on the political situation in Syria. Not long ago I was talking to a friend from a Syrian background who told me he has lost his best friend because they are on opposite sides politically of the issues that are ongoing in their country of origin. I know it's a difficult situation and I'm not taking sides on what needs to happen there. But that's the tricky thing with Islam, because so often it is hard to know where the spiritual ends and the political begins.

Yet, one thing is clear from Clairmont's comments online, that he saw himself as fighting and being willing to die for a cause: "I am here because I believe in something." It is that statement that interests me, coming from a young person from a cultural Christian background. Memories of my own family history growing up in a small town, where the only thing to do on a Friday or Saturday night was to drive up and down Main street yelling out of the windows of cars. Where the only thing going on in church on any given Sunday was to watch if a kid fell over the pew in front of you. Week after dumbfoundingly boring week, unless you started to drink I suppose.That's when things seemed to get interesting for the people who surrounded me.

So when I hear that Clairmont dropped out of school and drank antifreeze, spending two months in a hospital afterward, "I'm here because I believe in something" reminds me of another thing that Clairmont and myself have in common. I believe in something too, something that transformed my life, but I think it's ironic, having discovered in adulthood that the Catholic church actually has an incredible intellectual tradition, having produced without a doubt some of the greatest thinkers in western history.

And that is where I continue to see the irony here, having studied something of Christian and Muslim history. I know that Islam is based largely on the testimony of one person, while Christianity and Judaism have a considerably greater grounding in history. I also know that many of the first Christian Apostles died for their faith, having gained nothing in this world for doing so, while arguably that is not the case in early Islam. There was no booty for St. Stephen when he was stoned, no spoils of war for St. Peter when he was crucified upside down, no newly raided caravan for St. Paul when he was tortured and beheaded under Nero.

So I think it's pretty dang ironic, pardon my English, when a young Roman Catholic kid, lost to western society finds meaning in fighting a foreign war for a foreign God. How much research do you think he did? How much history do you figure he studied? How much comparative religion or philosophy 101 did he have before deciding that he had found the truth? You may argue that these were extremists not moderate Muslims but regardless, it becomes obvious that the lingering cultural Christianity of the west is ill-prepared for Jihad recruiters who may not have the best arguments or grounding for what they believe, but boy do they have conviction.

People are entitled to their personal beliefs, I can't argue with that, and to their subjective religious experience, but I find myself wanting to challenge young people like Clairmont in saying you don't have to die, because Jesus died for you. And I find myself wanting to say to the many young Muslims I find myself talking to: you don't have to be a servant or slave of Allah, you can be a son or daughter of God. The victory has been won, if Jesus was who he claimed to be then evil has been defeated, nailed to a cross for the iniquity within. Yet, it is tragic that while Muslims are so quick to dismiss the sacrifice of Jesus for humanity, they are slow to question the sacrifice of their own sons and daughters. I plead that this world consists not of a physical battle, but a spiritual war between good and evil. Love your enemies, do good to those that oppress you. Pray for those who persecute you. I think it's still that message that has the power to change individuals as it has transformed societies.

Yet the larger society that I find myself in, much like Clairmont observed, seems much more interested in the consumerism and self-destruction of a dying culture. What do we stand for? I think the west does still stand for something, in honouring the individual and the right of the individual to make choices, for the record, and I'm not prepared to give those freedoms up. May I ask though, why do I feel like the larger culture would rather settle for a watered down version of Christianity, where everything is something, and something means nothing? I wish to affirm a competing marketplace of ideas, where within that context there is room for serious debate and serious questions. I don't ask that everyone agree with me here, but Oprah style it's all the same Oprah wasn't enough for Clairmont, and it's not enough for me; some of us need to be challenged. We need meaning, we need purpose, and despite how hard I find it sometimes, I suspect that is the reason why I will continue to engage with young Muslims online. As I stated earlier, sometimes the things that find us have less to do with the religious doctrine itself, and everything to do with where we find our support.

In conclusion, I believe in the freedoms of the western world. I'm not ready to give up our cherished respect for individual rights, but I think there is something very unhealthy about a culture that does not allow young people to think critically about competing religious or social ideologies. I also think it's a fair question to ask, would Clairmont be here today if he had been given more of a grounding in his own religious tradition or if the culture that surrounded him had allowed for more criticism and debate about the dangers of radical Islam over the feel good assumption that all beliefs are the same? As a Christian may I also ask, if all we give our kids in church, is not all that far off of what the culture is giving our kids, and all the culture has to offer is self-indulgence and consumption...something tells me that Damian Clairmont isn't going to be the last Canadian kid dying in Syria. My question is, is what they are dying for, more than the sum of the reasons that lead them there? Is all that offers meaning worth dying for?

Thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey

Damian Clairmont:











Deaths of the Apostles:


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