David Sretenovic looks at how the media are using the terms “extreme” and “radical” in relation to religion. There’s more to these terms than meets the eye, he explains. The flipside is the need for journalists to have the courage to nurture goodness in our upcoming generations.
What we really need in society is a lot more mediocrity. Luke-warm efforts. Kids and seniors alike just really need to attack their goals half-heartedly. Just imagine the difference.
Okay, so I’m being facetious. But let’s consider religion as depicted in the media. You can hardly deny that the media are cautious of religion beyond that safe, moderate zone. Certainly “radical” and “extreme” religion is anathema. News outlets have kidnapped these terms and made them the posters for all that is contemptible and leprous. In reality though journalists haven’t been very precise with these terms, and have done us a disservice.
The media have turned “radical, extreme religion” into a pariah. I think journalists have thrown the baby out with the bath water in doing this, because there is a form of radicalism which inspires because of its extremely refreshing goodness – these radicals bless us in a uniquely wild way. As a Christian, it is natural for me to argue this line: if Christianity is indeed true, good and life-giving, then radical and extreme Christianity is the ultimate, optimal and perfect form of it. Now, if only there was a historical figure who modelled such radical, extreme Christianity… oh, just a second, there was this pretty extreme guy at the beginning of it all.
So, what am I saying? Well, let me break it down, using our most precious entity: our children. Do we wish for them to be doing extremely caring and loving acts? Of course. And do we wish for our children to have the mettle to be radical if necessary – to be a voice for the marginalised, to champion lost causes, and advocate for compassion in a dog-eat-dog world? I think we do. As parents, we understand the need to sometimes swim upstream – that is the essence of being radical. Rosa Parks; Mahatma Ghandi; Mother Teresa – extremists and radicals in terms of doing what’s right. So long as you find a good cause which you believe in, radical and extreme efforts are exactly what we need. Naturally, this goes hand-in-hand with being true to ourselves.
In one sense, it is those with the greatest integrity who live the most extreme versions of our religions: they actually live out what they believe. It is rare, but it is honest, genuine and uninhibited. Urban wisdom tells us to “be yourself” and “don’t hide your true colours”. Young people especially need to be encouraged to follow their hearts: if you believe something is good and right, have the courage to live it out! This moral truism is undermined if there is a fear of being labelled an extremist radical for doing so. But there is a further social dimension to living with integrity to your religious beliefs: you can be challenged by the manifested reality of your beliefs.
Instead of labelling adherents of religion as “extremists”, if journalists and thought-leaders increasingly nurtured the ability for citizens to have the courage of their convictions, what will follow is a generation of young people who walk the talk, as opposed to a closeted generation who fearfully hide what they believe and feel. For those outside a religion, as well as those being raised within it, this is the only way for the value and fruits of a religion to be objectively observed and challenged publically: when it is lived out in full-blown truth and integrity.
Let me give an example. There are two particular religious movements (which I won’t name) on the rise in Australia which share a common law, that of “disfellowshipping” on the basis of transgression. There are strict and draconian laws and punishments in place, and extend to forbidding even greeting a disfellowshipped individual in the street. Threats of additional punishment, including violence and death remain in place to deter the faithful. The media tend to label such actions as extremist, but if the religion teaches it then those who follow through are simply being true to their faith – having integrity. Moreover, those who do have integrity do society the favour of showing the religion for what it really is; would-be converts ought to have this reality on the table. Integrity to follow one’s religion should not be discouraged, but unfortunately the media is lumping such behaviour together with the term “extreme radical”, and it leaves no room for someone to be admired for being true to themselves. I must add here though, I don’t believe that encouraging extreme integrity equates to encouraging violence. No, it is the courage to have integrity that gives people the ability to say no to bad ideas. Again, integrity goes hand-in-hand with the freedom to assess the value of a religion for oneself; there are some religious laws – such as these draconian laws, for my part – which are simply destructive and should be discouraged for the benefit of society.
So I don’t think journalists have actually intended to label “extreme religion” as the enemy; there is too much goodness in extreme religion. What journalists have meant to target is “bad religion”: those elements within a religion which strike at the good foundations of society. But that takes courage, and candour in making judgements, so it’s no wonder that not many journalists take this line. But deep down inside, I think every journalist wants to promote radical and extreme goodness; it’s just not comfortable to nurture it in religion at the moment.