Leaving the Shire

Justin Duckworth, Anglican bishop and a good friend of Praxis (who I work for), loves to speak to young adults of the adventure of following Jesus. The first requirement for the adventure, drawing on Lord of the Rings, is that ‘you have to leave the Shire’. The hobbits must encounter danger, risk and the unknown to have an adventure. I think this is true of all people, and is germane to young people who are attracted to groups like ISIS.

When young adults join ISIS or extreme nationalist groups like the United Patriots Front (UPF), political and security leaders call this ‘radicalisation’, pejoratively. But let’s reclaim this word. The tradition of Christianity that inspired me in young adulthood is ‘radical discipleship’. In other words, the following of Jesus (discipleship) which draws on the etymology of ‘radical’ (Latin radix); the ‘roots’, the ‘heart’, what lies beneath all the dross of the constant diet of job, house and material security that is served up to young people.

In my last blog, I suggested that two drivers for Western-raised Muslims who join groups like ISIS are ‘poverty as exclusion’ and ‘ennui’. This pushes them to search for belonging and adventure in extreme places.

I think these twin factors (adventure and belonging) are necessary for all young people’s development, whether they are Muslim, Christian or whatever. How do young people find belonging and adventure?

Hardship and Encounter

Young people whose horizons have been short-circuited by the anxieties and desires of their schools, families or society have been ripped off. However, there are young people whose horizons get big and broad. To lift their eyes above the valuable but socially prescribed goals of work, study and family, young people need one or more of the following hardships:

  • an experience of injustice, either against themselves or someone they love;
  • an experience of personal stress, like financial poverty, sickness, moving school, or family breakdown;
  • an experience of being a minority, for example, belonging to a religious community in a secularist nation, having a different ethnicity to the majority, having a disability…you get the picture;
  • a temporary experience of dislocation, like a school trip to a different place, moving state etc, where their eyes see things anew.

So, first, some experience of hardship is necessary. Then, an encounter. At this opportune time, they encounter a political, social or religious movement, in the form of a respected peer or mentor, and the spark is lit: we join up, we take the risk, we leave the Shire. Through this process of hardship and encounter we find a group that shares our passions (belonging), and find a path to do something about our passions (adventure).

To say this is not to strap the explosive belt to our waist. It is to recognise what psychologist Erik Erikson named over 60 years ago; that adolescents yearn for fidelity – to be utterly loyal to a cause, a group, an ideal. I must say here that I am not trying to de-politicise the issues. I am not saying that if we just give Muslim young people a nonviolent adventure that the injustices they observe in the Middle East will disappear, or that the exclusion they experience in Australia is imaginary. And I am not saying that this is only applicable to Muslim young people – far from it. Simply that belonging and adventure are necessary parts of growing up for most, if not all, young people. For some it is dramatic, for some it is gradual and subterranean. For some it never happens, and they struggle to grow up.

The spark of encounter could be lit by a violent movement as much as nonviolent one. So, how can youth workers work to support this process of hardship and encounter, and guide young people towards nonviolent adventure? Next blog when it’s written…