Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Terrorist," "Cultist" and Other Terms Used by Terrorists and Cultists

Forgive the wry title. And forgive the rambling, unkempt nature of what follows. But what happened to the word "cult" in the 1980s has now also happened to the word "terrorist." Religious scholar Gordon Melton, I believe, once defined "cult" this way: "A cult is a religious group that we do not happen to like." I would suggest this: "A terrorist is a soldier we don't happen to like." (The corrolary to this: "A freedom fighter is a soldier we happen to like.")

This is easily illustrated in both words' cases.

Jews for Jesus, whom I have much respect for as a Christian (and whom we've gladly had teach at our Jesus People USA community), is labeled a "cult" by various Jewish organizations and even charged with brainwashing. Evangelicals would quickly object. Yet we in turn slap the term "cult" on groups such as the Mormons (see acquaintance John Smulo's blog for his critique on a specific example). I don't suggest that Christians are wrong to critique Mormonism; far from it. But the use of the word "cult" prevents any sort of mutually-engaging conversation, and practically assures those so labeled will respond with hostility.

As Smulo rather testily observes,

Is it not hypocritical that we would use confrontational tactics and hateful propaganda to preach a loving God!? Let me slap you in the face and then tell you about how loving our God is!!! Do you think anyone in their right mind would listen!?

If I were merely a cynical soul (well, sometimes I am, but we won't go there now), I would end with a biting comment. Instead, as a lover of Christ, I am forced to offer more than that.

I beg my fellow believers to take a long, hard look at language being used as a club. Particularly when one word is so emotionally loaded that it becomes literally an eraser -- a way of denying the humanity of those it allegedly describes -- that word is no longer useful to the Christian. I choose "useful" in the context of love, love first and foremost.

But what about a person or persons who teaches what is unchristian or does evil?

Why not, then, describe what they teach or what they do? For instance, the individuals who rammed two airplanes into the twin towers, another into the Pentagon, and another into a Pennsylvania field, could we not by simply describing what they did prove they did evil? Why must we shorten it into a cartoonish, non-descriptive word such as "terrorist"?

Psychologically, such illicit linguistic shortcuts offer us a way to explain evil. But such an explanation is in itself intrinsically evil, because it allows us to externalize evil onto the "other guy."

These ideas applied to the word "cult" are not new, and sociologists such as David Bromley, Anson Shupe, Dick Richardson and others have dealt with their religious / social ramifications. But as we watch and listen to the west's very dubious use of words such as "freedom" to describe the rationale for bombing Lebanon and invading Iraq, the term "terrorist" takes on an almost doubly sinister meaning. Namely, there are others standing in the rubble of what used to be "the Paris of the Middle East" and they have quite a different set of villians to call terrorists. The ruins of Beirut are, like the twin towers, evidence that seems to an unbiased observer the incontrovertible sign of evil.

I still remember the horror I felt when I first heard (then saw) the fall of the twin towers. It was indeed a successful blow against my, and our, self-identity as Americans. I was angry, I wept, I prayed agonizing imprecatory prayers!

In the end, we will have done to us what we do unto others. We, to them, are the terrorists. We, to them, are the cultists. Why? Because we threaten the very basis for their civilization, the basis of their own understanding. Is that the feeling we want to leave throughout entire regions of the world? (And I'm thinking of the Middle East in particular.) If we make no attempt to understand, to actually see through their eyes the world they (and we!) inhabit, how can we expect any more than vitriolic verbal attack or even violent assaults?

Will all human beings, no matter how bent on violence or at least willful deception for gain, respond to gentle and respectful attempts at dialogue? Absurd. They certainly will not. Yet this does not let us off the hook. We are Christians, after all. We are called to forgive "seventy times seven" and go the second mile and to love our enemies. How does that unpack in real life? Perhaps it ends with us imitating Christ in his sufferings past any point we ever thought we would or could. Perhaps not. But it certianly confronts us with our own lack of belief in what and who Jesus actually was.

The time has come to describe people as human, even when they do terrible things. That, too, is a definition of humanity we would rather wasn't universally true. Why? Because, despite our having a hard time grasping the fact, there's enough evil to go round.

The universal nature of human evil, after all, led to a certain incident near the city dump outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago. From a Christian perspective, one can really only use the term "terrorist" when applying it first and foremost to one's own self.


ian said...

I appreciate what you say here. These are things that I really struggle with. Often it is too easy to place a label on someone, and thus relegate them to the extremes; places beyond reach.

I find that we do this too often in our use of language, and not just in terms of "terrorist" etc. Take, for instance, those who we, with a roll of the eyes, might castigate for taking the "patriarchal" and "historical" interpretation of I Timothy 2:9-15, over our more enlightened egalitarian understanding. The use of heightened language has definitely broadened the divide between the camps. When we crusade for anything more than the spreading of Jesus love, joy and peace, demonizing the opposition in the process, we prove ourselves to being no better than the rest of the Republicans, Democrats, bigots, etc. . . .

I personally am all to familiar with my own propensity for getting into trouble with my mouth (pen, keyboard) -- and probably ignorant of many other times in which I have likewise offended / hurt others. Thankfully, the same grace that God has continued to grant me, is equally available to those who I often-times vehemently oppose. May God grant all of us forgiveness!

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a "high demand" group that "twisted Scripture" for the purposes of complete control, suborning ones own relationship with God for the "higher" purpose of "Christian" community. Both my parents passed and I was refused attendance at their funerals (because I had been outspoken regarding my criticism of their practices). Where is Jesus is that? BY what other useful "label" can I call this group that can start to explain their behavior in a succint way?

At the end of the day I need to "let go and let God". The soul rape I experienced needs to be healed by the Almighty...so while I appeciate reticence to use the cult label, I would ask those that would resist walk a mile in my shoes.

I lay my past at His feet in the full knowledge He is the uathor and finisher of my faith, and He is faithful to finish the work He has begun in me...

A cult graduate

Jon Trott said...


My point is not that a group calling itself "Christian" (or Muslim, or Jewish, or Scientologist for that matter) should be excused from wrongdoing. Rather, my point is that using a one-word label on people is usually done by those who most dislike those people--and it is neither ethical nor Christian.

If a group does wrong, call them wrong-doers, then explain why. But avoid words that -- once spoken -- serve only to create walls and distance rather than doorways and neighborliness. "Cult" is a sure way to make oneself completely unheard by the group you want to cause to rethink things.

If you want a sort of "eye for eye" payback for what the group did to you, depersonalizing them with language will work. After a fashion, anyway. But it won't heal you, and it won't cause them to repent.

Does that ramble help?