The Terrorist Within (TDTCTW 7)

All that week in Holland I spent every available moment watching the updates on CNN. The next afternoon I went for a long walk to clear my head. I crossed a bridge over a set of locks on the nearby canal, watching as a houseboat was lowered to the next level. I then set off through fields of grazing cattle, dodging speedy Dutch bikers on a lovely asphalt path about four feet wide. The landscape was perfectly flat, broken only by occasional trees, the canal and a couple of ponds. It was hard to reconcile that prosperous and peaceful atmosphere with the turmoil still churning inside me. I found I had trouble meeting the eyes of those walking or biking the other way. I really didn’t want to meet anyone, or talk to anyone.

After a couple of miles I entered a small, peaceful town. I walked along the main street with cars and an occasional truck moving by. There was the typical Dutch country church, a small grassy square with tall trees, and neat, well-kept houses with little gardens along the sidewalk. Everything looked so tranquil and serene, it was a strong contrast to the news of a wider world. But it seemed like a great place to find some peace on a shattered day.

At the other end of town I walked past a small school with a grassy playground along the sidewalk. In the playground were about 60 small, blond schoolchildren, aged perhaps 5-9, with three or four adult chaperons. There was a chain-link fence about three feet high and a short hedge between me and the children. Once again a peaceful scene, this time of happy child’s play.

A horrible thought suddenly struck me. What if I were a terrorist? What if I had brought a gun with me, hidden in my clothing? There was no security station on the way into town. Who could have stopped me? I shuddered that such thoughts would even enter my mind. It also dawned on me that no matter how many police, well-trained security teams, checkpoints or hardened defenses you put together you can’t prevent all acts of evil from occurring. What protected these children from me was not local security but my own inner conviction to do the right thing.

I began to ponder, was there a potential terrorist inside of me? Was there some sort of straight-line continuum between good citizens and mass murderers? Or are the kind of people who fly planes into buildings totally warped and different from me? Are the seeds of terrorism and evil inside all of us? I thought back to my own beginnings

Growing up in New York, I certainly did get into a bit of mischief from time to time. But there was one constant in my growing up experience. I was taught a faith in God that was clear, that spelled out the rules, and that provided guidance for my life. I guess most people would say I grew up in a “fundamentalist” home. I always knew when it was time to be home, for example. And I made every effort to be on time. If I was even slightly late my Mom gave me a long song and dance about almost calling the police and being sooooo worried. I learned that my life would be a lot easier if I followed the rules.

I came to think of God in similar terms. If you take your bath when you=re supposed to, if you go to church at the right time, if you are reasonably nice to your parents, God will be pleased with you. Stay away from alcohol, drugs and tobacco and God will approve. The rules were comforting and they were clear. Don’t run in church, you’ll scuff the floor. Don’t make too much noise. The problem was, there were so many rules that I had trouble remembering them all at the same time, so I was constantly messing up in one area or another. Although I tried real hard, I became increasingly sure that God was not pleased with me because I messed up so often.

One good thing about growing up with religious certainty was that you always knew who the bad guys were. They were easy to spot. They were the people who didn’t go to church. They smoked and drank and swore. They believed weird stuff about God (at least different from what I believed). They went to night clubs and shows and places like Las Vegas. The bad people didn’t live on my street, but I knew they were out there. I didn’t run into them every day, but when I did, I could feel good that I wasn’t like them.

I guess in some ways I wasn’t all that different from the kind of people that get recruited by al Qaeda. I certainly wasn’t the type to blow myself up or hurt anyone else, but I did have this really strong sense that my view of God was right and that a whole lot of people out there had it all wrong. And we=re finding out today that the kind of rigid, rule-based religion I experienced can be steered in some very ugly directions. I=m thankful that I never went there, but I realize now that I could have. Terrorism is born in the heart.

Related to this was the fact that I felt extremely out of place in the big picture of New York City. The world, as I saw it, was so different from the way most people looked at it I couldn’t really talk about my beliefs with most people. They just wouldn’t have had a clue what I was talking about. Here I was, interacting on a day-to-day basis with the most cutting-edge place on earth, and yet I would not allow myself to really participate in the life of the city. Although I had lived my whole life in the city, I still felt like a stranger in a strange land.

When I was in college, a speaker came for a week and emphasized one thing only. He suggested God was more interested in making friends than in condemning people. He encouraged me to put my effort into knowing God rather than doing stuff to avoid His disapproval. I was intrigued by the message. It was very different from the way I was raised, yet it was compelling. I decided to check what the Bible really had to say about the subject.

Here is where I made the first major change in my spiritual life. When I was a kid I had a tendency to ignore Bible texts that didn’t seem to support what I was thinking. I was operating from a selective approach. I decided to try three new strategies in my study of the Bible. 1) I would take a “big picture” approach to the text. I would be open to the whole Bible, as it reads, rather than picking and choosing whatever fit with beliefs I already held. 2) I would ground my understanding on what is clear in the text, rather than trying to make the less clear things say what I wanted them to say. 3) I would pay special attention to the ideas of people who disagreed with me. Maybe some of the “bad guys” knew something I didn’t.

The last point reminded me of what I call the “Saddam Hussein Syndrome.” Saddam Hussein’s advisors tended not to disagree with him, since most of the ones who did were soon dead! As a result, he didn’t get a lot of good advice! People told him what they thought he wanted to hear. So when I listen to what Muslims, Jews, atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, evolutionists, Baptists, or anybody else have to say about the Bible, there’s a chance I might learn something!

In practice I learned to test my ideas about God by the plain teachings of the Bible in its widest context. When I began to do this, I became amazed at what I had missed. My narrow perspective about God began to change, because the God of the Bible didn’t fit with the God I had been told about.

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