The feast of St Monica, the mother of another saint, and early church father Augustine on the 27th of August got me thinking.
Being a perpetual International Relations student, I have been following the unfolding events in Syria and Iraq with horror, and dismay. A special heartbreak was reserved for the flow of British, European, Australian and American men (and as it turns out women) to join ISIS and participate in the atrocities. What could drive such men to go and join an ‘army’ and fight an ‘enemy’ that was not directly threatening them physically or spiritually and commit crimes against humanity and genocidal activity? (How inadequate and sanitised those words seem!)
You might ask what does this have to do with St Monica? The connection will soon become apparent, I assure you. An excellent piece from the Huffington Post highlighted the fact that religion is not even a primary motivating factor for the young men heading off to fight with IS. Two of Britain’s sons fighting in Syria, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed purchased Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies of Amazon before leaving Birmingham.
The article also begins to articulate a profile of a ‘typical British IS foreign fighter’. What struck me about this emerging picture was not how important Islam is to them, but just how much it isn’t. They are buying Islam for Dummies for heavens sake! If it is not Islam, what is it?
The Huffington Post highlights they are second generation migrants and they grew up in ghettoised ethnic communities. Sure, but plenty of other people in the same situation do not go and become terrorists. There is another that gets an honourable mention by HuffPo: Broken families. These boys grow up fatherless and with semi-practicing single mothers. They rebel against all authority, including their local imams who will tell them ‘don’t go’. They sit on their computers watching radical Saudi imams and follow IS’s slick social media machine that puts Barak Obama’s election campaign to shame.
These young men (and women too) are profoundly unsettled. They struggle to marry their ethnic heritage and traditions with an increasing uninspiring and inarticulate ‘Western Culture’ (sorry but ‘Tolerance’ does not put fire in one’s belly). They are have limited economic opportunity and did not last at school very long. As far as they see, their future is dark, and grey. Then along comes this dude in a video that talks about purpose, power, glory, adventure and kinship.
Why wouldn’t they go? What alternatives are we offering that speak to their very ordinary and human desires to have a purpose, to be a part of a bigger vision, to live a life of meaning and passion? This is an enormous problem and one that no individual or institution can solve. So what do we do? Follow the news, stay frustrated and pray for the victims.
St Monica knows a thing or two about wayward children. She had one very famous one. She also knows a little something about what to do with them. Pray like crazy, pray incessantly for them without ceasing. These people are our sons too. Islamic State is not a throwback to the 8th Century, it is an entirely modern phenomena and a product of secular totalitarianism much more so than it is Islamic. Even though they have committed heinous crimes and are part of a vicious ideology that slaughters Christians, Shias, Yazidi and anyone else who gets in their way, deserve our prayers as much as their victims do. They have declared themselves our enemies and well, I’m pretty sure that we Christians are commanded to love our enemies.
If we really want to see peace, we need not just to pray for the innocents and the victims. We need to storm heaven with prayers for the perpetrators and for them to experience a real encounter with a loving and merciful God. We need help to not slip into the cycle of violence and that starts with thinking that your enemies are vicious animals that the world would be better off without.
We can be better than that, but we need help. Who will join me in asking for St Monica’s intercession for our wayward sons and daughters? Let us pray that they are blown away with the love and mercy of God, that his light penetrates the darkness around them and that they have the strength to say ‘yes’, to seek forgiveness and to make amends.