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Christmas and the passion for purity

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A man lights a candle in Republique square in Paris on 14 November in memory of victims of terrorist attacks. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring.
A man lights a candle in Republique square in Paris on 14 November in memory of victims of terrorist attacks. Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring.

The feast of Christmas readily evokes images of innocence and purity, centred on the Christ-child in the manger at Bethlehem. Karl Schmude ponders the deep roots of the desire for purity, and its ramifications in history as well as in the current environment of terrorism.

As terrorist attacks command the increasing attention of world leaders, there is an insistent need to probe the underlying causes of this new surge of violence.

Many of the oft-cited reasons for terrorism focus on issues such as political instability and economic deprivation, chiefly in the Middle East but now also in Europe. These are no doubt significant, but they do not go deep enough to explain the brand of destructive idealism now in evidence.

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Political leaders tend to have shown a reluctance to link recent terrorist acts with Islam, believing that this would only serve to fan religious hatreds and marginalise the Muslim community; but in practice, it tends to reinforce the terrorist cause by ignoring the source and context of movements such as ISIS, which not only directly invoke the name of Islam but also conceive of their devotion in unmistakably religious terms.

In a recent commentary, the American priest-scholar, Fr James Schall SJ, focused on this fundamental misunderstanding:

“The ‘terrorists’ do not call themselves ‘terrorists’. Not accurately naming the problem enables one not to do too much about it. Indeed, no such thing as a ‘terrorist’ organisation exists except in the ideological minds of the West. ISIS is engaged in Islamic Jihad, nothing more, nothing less. What we insist on calling ‘terror’, they call war.” (MercatorNet: An ‘Act of War’, November 17, 2015)

Increasingly we realise how difficult it is for the contemporary West to take religion seriously as an intellectual and social force.

We can flirt with it as a phenomenon of exotic interest, like the strange practices of a fringe sect or the ornamental jewellery of performing pop stars, but recognising the significance of religious faith as a force of transcendental authority and the vitalising root of an entire way of life tends to exceed our comprehension.

Our cultural habit is to look at the material and social causes of movements and events, and to ignore the spiritual and intellectual impulses underlying them.

We struggle, for example, to give weight to the longings for deliverance and ultimate salvation that represent an essential part of human nature, and therefore of human culture, throughout the ages – and especially our own Judaeo-Christian tradition.

The most salient mark of a revolutionary movement like ISIS is actually a profound idealism, expressed in a passion for purity.

It is an intense yearning for a way of life untainted by corruption or weakness of any kind, and it is this which gives a spiritual power and psychological appeal to ISIS, and inspires so many young recruits.

The very term ‘suicide bomber’ is a misnomer, in that those who sacrifice themselves in this way do not see it as committing suicide (which is an abandonment and despair of life), but rather as engaging in act of martyrdom (dying for a higher cause that gives meaning to their lives and commands their unquestioning obedience).

As Fr Schall has further noted: “Young men persuaded by this faith only blow themselves up if they think they are accomplishing something noble and good. It is not an act of arbitrariness. Without a ‘cause’, they would not inflict it upon themselves. They would be shocked to think that they are killing ‘innocent people’. They reject any notion that they are killing just for the sake of killing. No, they are carrying out a ‘mission’ assigned by Allah to all of Islam, backed, in their minds, by Qur’anic passages and an historical tradition of conquest.”

Thus the description of a ‘cult of death’ does not sufficiently capture what is at the heart of our current dilemma. We face a ‘cult of purity’ prior to a ‘cult of death’; a spiritual passion that serves as a spur to political ambition and military aggression.

Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel, two American scholars of Middle Eastern culture, have recently emphasised the ‘obsession with purity’ shown by ISIS, and the ways in which the culture of jihadism finds its clearest expression, not in politics but in poetry.

It is poetry, they argue, that reveals the heart of the movement, making clear the mainspring of ISIS – and its fundamental fantasy.

For the jihadist, poetry is an inspiring way of giving witness to what they see as the truths of Islam – often in defiance of the seeming half-heartedness of parents and elders.

‘Surrounded by sceptics, the jihadi poet fashions himself as a knight of the word, which is to say, a martyr in the making.’ (New Yorker, June 8 & 15, 2015)

Until the West recognises the degree of idealism, however perverted and misguided, that animates ISIS, it will continue to misread the purpose and character of the movement – and, in a political and military sense, its plans and strategies.

The feast of Christmas has always given us the most beautiful images of innocence and purity, centred on the Christ-child and the Virgin Birth.

It also brings to mind the Massacre of the Innocents, celebrated as a Feast Day on 28 December, when we vividly recall how the powers of this world concentrated on the purity of the young – and strove to destroy the Child-Saviour.

Christmas is an opportunity for reflecting upon the spiritual and intellectual power and appeal of the idea of purity, and understanding its cultural expressions in the past as well as at the present time.

Christ’s statement in the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’, is a timely reminder of the central Christian insight that purity, in company with the other virtues, is based on an interior disposition rather than simply exterior behaviour.

The difference is implied in a statement of the ‘whisky priest’ in Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, when he queried whether washing himself was a waste of time, as he realised that the culture he now inhabited “had invented the proverb that cleanliness was next to godliness – cleanliness, not purity”.

The passion for purity has great spiritual significance. It has inspired innumerable individuals and movements in history, such as monasticism and the tradition of priestly celibacy, as well as specific organisations like the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart to combat alcoholism.

It forms an indispensable part of the Church’s liturgical cycle – the season of Advent purifying and preparing us for Christ’s birth at Christmas, just as Lent serves a similar purpose for His resurrection at Easter.

Yet we know that the desire for purification has not always found expression in good causes. It has historically had catastrophic as well as creative effects.

The French Revolution offers an instructive example, notably in the person of the Jacobin leader, Robespierre.

His puritanical pursuit of virtue was integral to his vision of the Revolution, which he saw as an event, not merely (or even mainly) political, but moral and religious in character. It involved the creation of a new moral order that embraced terror as a way of cleansing humanity of its corruption and remaking it in perfection.

In some ways, the Reign of Terror in France in the late 18th century might appear as an historical prefigurement of the practice – as well as the philosophy – of ISIS in the early 21st century.

A more modern illustration of the passion for purity was Nazism.

The Holocaust was caused by Hitler’s hatred of the Jews which drove him to impose the purity of the Aryan race by expelling every form of ‘racial infection’. It was so unappeasable that even the inevitable drift of Germany towards defeat in the final months of the war did nothing to stop the transport of Jewish and other citizens to the Nazi death camps.

Much has recently been made of the need to rally in defence of Western values, such as social tolerance and religious liberty, while working to ‘deradicalise’ young people perverted by Islamist ideology.

Unfortunately, this implies that the West itself lacks any radical strength in its own tradition, any comparable source of serious inspiration (which it has historically drawn from its Judaeo-Christian roots), that would enable it to counter and finally overcome Islamist extremism – or secularist sluggishness.

We may wonder whether the challenge we face is not radicalism as such – and the need to ‘deradicalise’ – but rather the oppressive and violent form it has now assumed.

The Christian tradition, after all, is intrinsically ‘radical’ – in the original sense of penetrating to the roots of one’s God-given creation and cherishing them; not ignoring them as though they are dispensable, or pulling them up so as to pervert and destroy them.

It is ‘radical’ in beginning with the conversion of the human heart.

This has historically led to vital advances and foundational reforms in society – arising from core beliefs such as the dignity of all human beings, which resulted in the abolition of slavery, and the assumption of natural order, which lay behind the pursuit of scientific discovery. All were infuenced by the moral and intellectual heritage of Christianity.

Finally, it is likely to require a Christian radicalism, in the most creative sense as a spiritual movement exerting a personal and cultural impact, to defeat a destructive radicalism.

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