We played the pipes for you,
and you wouldn’t dance,
we sang dirges,
and you wouldn’t cry. (Luke 7:32)
This was, as Jesus observed, the perennial cry of the poor children in the marketplace, playing their instruments for the crowd, hoping for a handout. Every street performer could relate to this description of an unresponsive audience, but Jesus wasn’t using the image to address their plight. Instead, he was characterizing his critics as childish in their contradictory complaints about the prophets in their midst. They whined that John the Baptist was too austere and antisocial, but they didn’t like Jesus’ partying with sinners any better.
The failure of others to respond appropriately to the tunes we play for them could also describe the incredible discord among competing versions of reality in these days of terrorist violence. The actions of those living in alternative realities to our own seem inexplicable, and our often clueless responses to those actions fail to produce the intended results. We pipe, but they don’t dance. We bomb, but they don’t submit. We reason, but they won’t be persuaded.
In a long and unsettling article in The Atlantic last March, Graeme Wood diagnosed ISIS as a “dystopian alternate reality” grounded in an apocalyptic worldview. According to Wood, the western violent response to the Islamic State not only feeds their medieval narrative of Crusaders versus Muslims, it is the longed-for fulfillment of millenarian prophecy. In the Syrian farmland around the city of Dabiq, the armies of Islam will face down the armies of “Rome” (the West). This decisive battle will inaugurate the End of Days, resolving all the tribulations of history into a final triumph of God’s people.
In this narrative, the escalation of American military involvement would not be a deterrent, but an incentive. As Wood put it: “During fighting in Iraq in December , after mujahideen (perhaps inaccurately) reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts or hostesses upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.”[i]
If Wood is correct, then ISIS is operating from premises which we would dismiss as senseless and fantastic. But then what do we make of a recent poll on religion and politics, where1000 American adults were asked, “Do you think that the end of the world, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, will happen?”[ii] The results suggest that alternate realities are not exclusive to other cultures:
Yes, in my lifetime (13%)
Yes, but not in my lifetime (39%)
Not sure (22%)
I’m not sure what “not sure” means in this case, but I’m guessing some of those folks are at least conceding the possibility. In any case, more than half of those surveyed embraced the literal fulfillment of a highly metaphorical text with its problematic mixture of sacred violence and sublimely consoling imagery.
When they said “yes” to Revelation, did they mean verse 21:4? God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying will be no more. Or were they thinking of 11:18? The time has come to destroy those who are destroying the earth.
Who knows? Polls on religious belief are misleading because they cannot measure ambiguity and nuance, nor do they distinguish between proposition and practice. Religion is not just what people say; it is what they do. And the correlation between the two is not always clear. If 52% of Americans believe that Revelation is predictive of human history, does that make us more or less likely to choose war as the means to “erase ISIS from the face of the earth?”[iii]
There is no consensus about the human story. The world is full of alternate realities. Sometimes we choose which story we want to live inside of. Sometimes the story chooses us. ISIS is living a story which seems crazy and evil, easily rejected by the majority of humanity who live outside it. But a consensus on competing narratives is harder to achieve when we consider our own national life.
The argument about Syrian immigrants is a perfect example. More than half of the state governors in America want to shut the door on them, while the President, speaking for many others, says that is not who we are as a people. Who is right? It depends on which story you are living inside of. Just in time for our national celebration of the Pilgrim immigrants, we get to choose between xenophobia and the Statue of Liberty. Of course my own framing of this debate tells you which story I live in.
My alternate reality, the story which I have chosen and which has chosen me, begins at the eucharistic table, where everyone is welcome, forgiveness is shared, no one goes hungry, and love is the costly gift. I may falter in my daily embodiment of that story, but I have no desire to belong to any other.
After 9/11, Americans had to choose what kind of story we wanted to live in. Many of our choices proved disastrous and toxic, but there were some who chose a better story, a better way. One of the finest articulations of that better way was a manifesto written by the Catholic Worker of Los Angeles in September, 2011. In the wake of Paris and Beirut, its eloquent faith still resonates:
Even after all this…
Our grief will not be short-circuited with cries of vengeance nor with acts of retribution. We will not cooperate with incitements to become that which we most oppose, namely perpetrators of violence.
We will honor the deeper levels of grief, acknowledging the woundedness inflicted upon us, and the woundedness that our nation has inflicted upon others…
We invite you to participate with us in all our wildest dreams and visions for peace. For now we sadly know that our affluence, our power, our possessions cannot serve as protection from harm. We invite you to clamber off the wheel of violence. It is the only worthy legacy we can offer to those who have died…
We are Catholic Workers and we still believe… the only solution is love.
[i] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic (March 2015): http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/
[ii] YouGov/Huffington Post poll conducted Nov. 10-11, 2015. In the same poll, 42% said the earth was created in 6 days, but only 4% believed the pyramids were used for grain silos! https://today.yougov.com/news/2015/11/11/poll-results-bible-politics/
[iii] The quote is from a liberal politician I admire who is not an advocate for war. His use of the phrase suggests a rather apocalyptic consensus about the goal if not the means.