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Faith and Reason in San Bernadino

By December 11, 2015 4 Comments


The woman in the story was a practiced marksmen, or so authorities have concluded. When she and her husband got stopped in the black SUV they were driving, she tried to kill cops with the AK-47 she leveled. She filled the air with bullets. She knew what she was doing, this new mom.

The FBI now has concluded that the two of them had both converted to militancy before they found each other on line and eventually married. Still, it’s fair to say they became full-blown cultists together. Together, they gave their six-month old baby to Grandma, dressed in martyr’s gear, and, armed themselves to the teeth, lugged their weapons into the place where he worked, and shot 30+ people at a Christmas party for social workers, killing 14.

Neither of them listened to whatever warnings their own still small voices of reason maintained. They lost their ability to doubt, gave it up for the purity of a faith that promised a new heavens and a new earth, not to mention a beatific after-life. They believed the screed that said everyone who isn’t of us must be slain. They knew that faith by heart. Nothing in either of them said, “wait a minute.” If there was a voice of doubt, they squelched it, choked it, left it behind in a blaze of what had too be for both of them heavenly glory. They were true believers, so faithful to the cause that they turned her back on family–essentially killed each other, abandoned their baby.

“We are all suckers for belief,” says Maria Konnakova in last Sunday’s New York Times, in an article that couldn’t be better timed. We’re all “born to be conned.” The best con artists–and what is jihad but an elaborate, evil con?–do not work by force or coercion or intimidation; they simply determine to play music for us, music we’ll love. They tell us we’re worth something, that the world should be the kind of better place they claim it will be someday. They beg us to work for the kingdom. They ask to be our savior.

Great stories, writers know, are greatly effective–and affective–because they successfully maneuver us to suspend our disbelief. They have no typos, no spelling mistakes or grammar miscues; the stories they tell are such seamless wholes that we put our red pens back in our pockets. Those stories leave no room for questions and simply offer reverie. Only the best stories can lift you sweetly from the here and now. Jihadists obviously tell beautiful stories men and women like the San Bernadino murderers give themselves faithfully, even prayerfully, to listen.

There’s more. “Even as the evidence against them piles up,” Konnikova says, “we hold on to our cherished beliefs.” We will not be moved. “Faith,” says the letter to the Hebrews,” is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”–and it is, sadly, in this and every day and age. It is and was and has been.

People say Donald Trump’s latest platform plank is a boon to jihadists, because by maintaining, as he did this week, that we should allow no more Muslim people into this country for any reason, we are positioning ourselves to fight the ideological and religious way the terrorists want us to–Christians vs. Muslims. Nothing that occurred yesterday in Syria or Iraq or anywhere else in the world gave over as much new territory to ISIS as Donald Trump’s latest obscenity.

But try tell that story to the thousands who applauded him in South Carolina. They believe in him. They have no doubt he’s right. Their faith too is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

During World War II, FDR shipped hundreds of thousands of Japanese-American off to camps throughout the rural west. Americans–75 percent of them–believed in what he was doing.
Trump’s disciples, I’m sure, would too. Some of them even say so.

What Christianity has to fear from all of this isn’t martyrdom–we’ve co-existed with martyrdom for centuries, even grown because of it–as ISIS is right now. What Christianity has to fear from terrorism is the wholesale abandonment of faith itself, the almost inevitable conclusion many will reach that belief itself is evil, that faith is not a joy but a deadly, mindless cancer.

When Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik left their six-month old baby with her grandmother and sped off to murder and certain death, they weren’t unbelievers. They counted themselves most definitely among the faithful, among the saints. They believed.

Help thou our unbelief.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


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