Factionalism, Fanaticism, and Mysticism —by Jinny Batterson
A number of years ago, I spent part of a weekend peace workshop in a session led by an older Sufi originally from Syria. Sufism is a mystical strain of Islam that sidesteps the often fractious distinctions between Sunni and Shia Moslems, instead emphasizing spiritual practices to get closer to the divine. This mystic, somewhat akin to a member of a Christian contemplative order, but also active in wider society, had been raised in the city of Aleppo. He’d received some of his early religious training there before emigrating to the U.S. He seemed to me calm, temperate, and wise in the ways of the world without being worldly.
He laid out for us a continuum of various kinds of peace work each of us could engage in, and warned us of the dangers of lapsing into either factionalism or fanaticism as we worked together. By his account, factionalism was most likely to arise among a group of people who agreed on the ends they sought, but disagreed about the means for achieving them. So, for example, a large group could favor creating living wages for low-wage workers. Within that overall group, one faction might propose engaging in civil disobedience, while another might prefer a social media campaign, still a third might opt to support political candidates who promised to raise the legal minimum wage, and a fourth might propose corporate tax abatement as a way to produce more higher-wage jobs. The extent to which the various factions could stay focussed on their common goal despite their widely differing approaches would impact their overall effectiveness.
In contrast, fanaticism, he taught us, was likely to blossom when there was agreement about means, but disagreement or lack of clarity about the ends to be achieved. Dictionary definitions of fanaticism mention uncritical enthusiasm, zeal, ardor, and a mindless adherence to a ruler or set of rules. Politics and religion are the realms most prone to fanaticism. Nearly all of us are susceptible, though few of us develop full-blown cases. Unfortunately, it takes only a few to do substantial damage—witness the recent example of Dylann Roof, who shot nine people dead at a Bible study session in Charleston, SC, or the earlier instance of Timothy McVeigh, who rammed an explosive-filled truck into a federal building in Oklahoma City, OK, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more. When fanatics join together in groups, their capacity for damage can multiply, as they reinforce each other. Fanatics may yearn for a vague, undifferentiated rosy future (or return to a rosier past) reachable if only “they” were not present—be they immigrants, blacks, Indians, Jews, gays and lesbians, or an unpopular president and his entourage. Fanatics accept promises of security and status in return for toeing a line laid out by some sect or governing authority. Strains of fanaticism are likely to resurface when people feel that their livelihoods or social standing are threatened.
At this point in U.S. and global politics, it can seem that we have incorporated some of the worst aspects of both factionalism and fanaticism into our civic processes and discourse. We seesaw between partisan gridlock and partisan whiplash, with different political factions often more interested in damaging their opponents or proving them wrong than in advancing the common good. Meanwhile, both traditional and social media have become inundated with inflamed and inflaming fanatical rhetoric, most based only loosely on fact, if at all.
In my mostly secular life, mysticism has rarely surfaced, but the few incidents I remember have left a strong impression: an extended group yoga meditation session in which our breaths briefly became one breath; a knowledge, without physical communication, that a childhood friend was dying in a distant city, prompting me to pray for his safe transition from this life to whatever comes next; a sense, when I was later hospitalized overnight with a potentially life-threatening condition, that the prayers and good wishes of friends and acquaintances were pulsing through me, providing needed healing and strength. These brief encounters with whatever we choose to label the transcendent have gifted me with the understanding that we are all somehow related, inextricably connected. Imperfect creatures that we are, we can overcome both factionalism and fanaticism. Ends and means are inevitably linked. Twentieth century activist and theologian Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed the challenge this way, in a sermon broadcast at Christmas 1967, a year just as fraught as the times we are living through now: “…in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and, ultimately, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”