(first draft, published 1/13/15, edited 1/18/15)
What is “extremism”?
And, whence its children?
Society, it is said, is like a fabric. People weave themselves into place, grouping according to belief and cultural history. But, whether political or religious, once borders are defined and claimed, inevitable fringes form. Why? Is this simply evidence of a pattern that has not been cut on the bias?
I was raised in an exclusive, sectarian Christian fundamentalist fellowship, born in the mind of one John Nelson Darby, a defected Anglican priest. Known as the Plymouth Brethren, because Darby’s following was rooted in Plymouth, England, what was essentially a cult – reaching American shores in the mid-1800s – defined every breath I took from birth until graduation from college at age 25.
Humorist, author, and radio personality Garrison Keillor was also raised in this sect, although his references to it are veiled and fleeting. The total membership, loosely-so-called, of the Plymouth Brethren world wide probably never numbered more than a few thousand at its height.
In spite of this relatively miniscule societal representation, its governing few would rise in the ranks of the scholarly to publish a sizable collection of Scriptural commentaries so deeply doctrinaire that much of this library would lay the groundwork for the teachable tenets of the General Association of Regular Baptists’ ever-expanding seminaries.
Of course, the bliss of being part of a subculture in childhood is that trust is at the heart of everything. Dogma which labels all on the inside as “safe” (or, “saved”, per their qualifying as true believers) renders all on the outside in quite stark, clarified terms: the “lost”; the “world”; the “damned”; and, strongly suggests that, if one is saved, then one has been rescued from an environment which is hostile in every conceivable way.
Yet, when one comes of age, and takes that first, furtive step outside of the city walls, so to speak, should one discover anything sweet, warm, welcoming, or apparently “good”, one is quickly reminded that satan is the angel of light, the great deceiver, and that now would be the time to return “home” before it gets truly dark.
Thus, the cycle begins.
And, dramatic it is.
And, so, such a child learns that, above all else, life is about drama. Every choice is addressed earnestly, with a sober mind and obedient heart. Every experience is visceral. There is no grande ritual to keep reaction at arm’s length. There are no “small things”; at any point, one could be snatched by the most disarming subtlety and set adrift, anchorless, unmoored, completely carried away. Any and all notions of “freedom” in such a context strike nothing but acute fear into the heart.
Perhaps societies are simply the macrocosm of the human cell. Once completely mature, all its components in fully developed function, the cell becomes restless; a strong, mysterious pull, followed by movement toward the opposite edges of its inner membrane by those bits which drive the inevitable process, and the cell begins its fragmenting trek toward division. It behaves as if driven to make two of itself, which is exactly what it does.
In fact, the Plymouth Brethren, once defined by the Encyclopaedia Brittanica as a non-denominational religious group “characterized by schism “, became just such a living metaphor. Indeed, their essential “cell” was never stable for more than a decade or so and, if one were haplessly born in the middle of any such ten year period, one would live out at whatever distance one’s perspective afforded at least one, major division.
I was such a child. Born in 1957, I would grow to witness both a rare merger, a reconciliation and allegedly joyful reunion of two offshoots which had come to doctrinal resolution, and two more divisions yet again before reaching my critical point of exhaustion with the whole enterprise. But, what happened in the middle would come to describe my whole life experience, creating in me a world view which was as bewildering as it was destabilizing.
You see, I do not choose such dramatic language deliberately. Rather, everything which happened could only be characterized using the lexicon of the thespian. Every personality was subject to scrutiny; every word and deed a matter of ultimate discussion. Each countenance bespoke its inner life. Each costume was carefully prepared to reflect prescribed notions of what was considered becoming to a living saint. If there were any levity, each episode would be either comparatively brief or permitted only after arduous hours at the altar of worship, ministry, and self-sacrifice. And, lest this scenario seem other-worldly in its harsh depiction, keep in mind that this was how my inner life translated what was happening around me. Remember: things are rarely what they seem, and this was never more true than amongst the closed assemblies of the Plymouth Brethren.
So much detail. Such analysis. Layer upon layer of behavior, always subject to an unspoken, never formally acknowledged, austere leadership. If a heirarchy formed, the term was whispered about by its women, who were otherwise kept strictly silent. God would forbid such assumption of any power; yet, power there was, in abundance, and held as close to the vest as an armor plate by the one or two who managed to persuade the entire collective to take a single step in any direction.
Hence, my emotional and psychological growth, as imperceptible now to me in retrospect as it was then, was utterly subsumed by this system of spiritual governance. I had the “double whammy” of being born a girl, placed in a brother sandwich, and raised to become some version of a woman living in a body and mind that was not my own.
So, when I observe the behavior of those labeled “extremist” in present-day culture, I experience a form of recognition. I see the zealots; I hear the cries. I feel the passion, emboldening the anonymous with meaning. I know their drives, their panic, their crazed determinations. Theirs is a duality, of powerlessness and barbarism, embodying rage and delusion. Belief drives them, and reason cannot. They are the mobilized discarded. Their weapon is terror, the quickest way to be seen and heard, because they look inside themselves and find nothing. In living paradox, they annihilate their bodies in an attempt to claim an ultimate identity.
So, what is a lucid, responsible global citizenry to do?
As an American society, we must protect our vulnerable, those we call our “own”, from all monsters. We should know by now that changing the structure of a society will not change its mentality. But, mutations are occurring all over the sphere. Cells are both forming, and dividing, all around us with the rapid replication of a torrid malignancy. If we do not take the necessary steps to neutralize them, the tumors will overtake us. And, we need some preventive medicine, to save our children.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo 1/13/15 all rights reserved. Thanks.
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