The revelations in recent days about the so-called ‘Jihadi John’ have drawn our attention yet again to the process of the religious radicalisation of ordinary young people which turns them into murderous fanatics. Politicians, journalists, commentators and the general public try to understand why there are those ready to abandon their relative comforts in order to support an ideology which is repellent and sickening to most of us. Seemingly one common factor is a deep internal desire to live a life of spiritual purity, although this is offered on false pretences by extremist Islam. The main justification for any acts, even those most horrific and appalling, is given as the fulfilment of the will of their god.
The story of Abraham that we heard in today’s first reading, in which God demands that he should offer his only son as a bloody sacrifice, seems to be in line with a similarly murderous, barbaric and extreme interpretation of religious faith. Many parents I’ve spoken to over the years have been absolutely horrified at even a purely theoretical prospect of their children offering themselves to God by becoming priests or nuns. So the idea of killing one’s own child to please a god is rightly deemed insane and abhorrent. Yet, in the civilised country in which we consider ourselves to be, the sheer scale of abuse and cover-up over the last few decades – being exposed now before our very eyes – is truly astonishing. Exploitation of the weak, the helpless, and the silent is never far away; there’s no shortage of cunning and opportune abusers. Can anything be done about it?
Today’s gospel tells us the story of Jesus giving his small group of chosen disciples a glimpse of his glory. The final act in the revelation is the voice they hear: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ This is the link connecting this story to that of Abraham’s from today’s first reading. We can sum them up in one single word: obedience. On the face of it, we’re back to square one: it’s exactly how religious extremists justify their murderous attitude. But in fact it’s a bit more complex than that. The keyword here is ‘listen.’ This verb ‘to listen’ presumes the active involvement of the mental powers of the listener in reasoning and weighing up arguments and counter-arguments. It means the listener taking into consideration all possible aspects, factors and prospects. Obedience should never fall short of, or absolve itself completely from, critical thinking. In the Christian faith any alleged demand from God has to be based morally on the bedrock of the Ten Commandments, supported by the moral teachings of Jesus as presented in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Anything that goes against any of these fundamental moral rules has to be rejected out of hand as not divine, but evil.
For too long the common perception of ‘obedience to God’ has been twisted by a sort of militant approach by some religious people. Their zealous, strictly religious arguments have fallen on deaf ears and, in the process, unintentionally alienated many moderate fellow-believers. Something similar is happening now within the wider Muslim community whose religion has been hijacked by extremists, making many non-Muslims wary and suspicious of Islam. In our many lost public battles of the distant and the recent past, we have forgotten why Christians of the first few centuries managed to change their society. They accomplished that because they applied Christian moral values to their own lives, not by imposing them on others. That lesson has to be learnt again: making the world a better place begins in your own heart. When you yourself change for the better, people around you will change too.