“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Domestic Terrorism

“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Domestic Terrorism

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 7, 2021

3rd Sunday in Lent

Proverbs 6:16-19; Romans 12:19-21


A question that often comes up in seminary is, “How long does it take to write a sermon?” A common response is to expect to spend an hour preparing for every minute of a sermon. Generally, I have found this to be a good rule of thumb. But not this week. This week, while preparing to preach on domestic terrorism as part of the Lenten sermon series, “Isms That Threaten to Undo Us,” ten hours has hardly been adequate. Instead, the experience has felt more like drinking from a fire hose only to drown in data. So much so, I will begin with a disclaimer. My goal this morning is not to be thorough. My goal is to open avenues for you to explore, ponder, and pray about on your own. It is also my hope that you will join our Holy Conversation on Zoom tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the matter with other believers who are seeking the wisdom of the Spirit during these trying times.


January 6, 2021 is a day that will live in infamy, a day when we witnessed mob violence at the U.S. Capitol as insurrectionists attempted to disrupt our democratic process. No matter how you identify politically, violent acts against people is contrary to Christian faith. In the aftermath of the insurrection, I daresay most of us recognize the very real threat of domestic terrorism to our nation and to our way of life. Just this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed that domestic terrorism cases have doubled over the past year—like a metastatic cancer that shows no signs of stopping. As concerned citizens, and as believers in the Prince of Peace, we are filled with questions. What is domestic terrorism, exactly? How are domestic terrorists being radicalized? Is there anything the church can do to help?


Domestic Terrorism is defined as the committing of terrorist acts in the perpetrator’s own country against fellow citizens. For many of us, the term became real April 19, 1995 when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. In an article in Presbyterian Outlook, Chaplain Maggie Alsup, who grew up in Oklahoma, reflects on how both the Oklahoma bombing, and the January 6 insurrection, were fueled by fear and hate. In her words,


…as I watched the events of January 6 unfold, I felt a wave of emotions — the same wave I felt all those years ago on April 19. I watched as a place of hope, of democracy, of what represents sacred political ground was desecrated. I felt ill, I felt helpless, I felt a wave of sadness come over me. Then I felt a sense of rage and of anger, I felt like shouting, “We warned you this would happen!” And that was the statement that rang in my ears all day as I watched the chaos unfold. It hung in the air because I have seen firsthand the ways hate and rage play out in the violence of domestic terrorism… As a college chaplain, it has become a vital part of my ministry to speak up against such hate and violence, to share stories of lament and loss, to hold people accountable to their actions — not just because of my childhood encounter with domestic terrorism, but also because of the covenant I entered into at my baptism [to renounce evil and the powers which defy God’s righteousness and love and to renounce the sin that separates us from the love of God]. [i]


If we wonder how people are being radicalized, it is happening in lots of ways. A common method is demonstrated through a character in Jodi Picoult’s book, Small Great Things. In the novel, Turk was a recruiter for a radical white supremacy group. His modus operandi was to target kids who experienced bullying and to step in to protect them. He would invite them to hang out with him, and act like he cared about their plight in life. He reminded them how superior they were—for no other reason than the color of their skin. And for every complaint they had about life, he pointed them toward someone to blame. These steps toward radicalization are the same steps used by street gangs to garner members. Target the teen who has a broken home, a weak or absent support system, the one who feels lost and unloved and then, convince them that they can keep living as prey for their enemies or they can become the predator. While these types of encounters increase terrorist group membership, a more effective tool these days is the Internet. Using various social media platforms or dark websites, a curious person of any age can plummet into danger with just a click or two.


In the Washington Post article, “The Psychology of How Someone Becomes Radicalized,” a research psychologist at the University of Maryland has found that no matter the flavor of extremism—neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, or members of the Islamic State—the necessary ingredients for radicalization are the same. First, there is a universal need to feel significant, and while most people satisfy this need through working hard, having families, and other achievements, radicals tend to find their place based on gender, religion, or race. Second, there is the embrace of a narrative that gives someone permission for violence like an enemy is attacking their group, so the radical has no choice but to fight to maintain honor. The third necessary component is the community—the network that validates the narrative. Radicalization can change a person’s path forever. Yet, there are some who find a way out. Tony McAleer is one such person, a former skinhead and organizer for White Aryan Resistance. He says that the process of deradicalization starts with first disengaging from the toxic community. The person must be exposed “to a different, more pro-social narrative, and particularly [become] attracted to alternative networks that give them respect.”[ii]


The phrase “alternative networks that give them respect,” is worth considering for it brings us to our third question, “Is there anything the church can do to help?” Yearning to belong, to be a part of something larger than oneself—isn’t that something that our faith network, our faith community provides for us? If so, might the church possess an intentional, alternative narrative for those lost in a vortex of hatred and anger? No doubt, hatred can become a dangerous tool for survival. But Jesus points to another way—the way of love—because Jesus knows that hatred bears deadly fruit, ultimately, destroying even the hater.


Domestic terrorism is a real and present danger for us and our global neighbors. The problem is so big, it is hard to imagine how we can make a difference. But no matter how big the problem, our God is bigger. As people of faith, we are compelled to look beyond what our eyes can see to a vision of God’s wholeness and peace. Challenging the hatred and fear that are driving the increase of domestic violence in our nation will require the hard work of prayer, love, and forgiveness. If we ask for guidance every step of the way, if we work in community, if we bravely speak the truth in love—change is possible. New life is possible—for us and for the world Christ came to save. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


(Let us keep silence.)

[i] Maggie Alsup, “Domestic Terrorism and Baptismal Vow,” Presbyterian Outlook; January 18, 2021

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/11/01/psychology-how-someone-becomes-radicalized/