If you pay attention to news reports, you could easily reach the conclusion that a spiritual plague of biblical proportions has descended on the world – youth being radicalized in ways that confound their parents, images of Christian beheadings, lone wolf American jihadists creating bombs from kitchen tools.
You might be wondering if what looks like a downward spiral in darkness can be stopped. I think the answer is yes.
They key antidote to radicalization is to help children like these trust the people around them, to know they have hope for a better tomorrow.
During my years on the board of directors with Food for the Hungry (FH) – and now the organization’s president – along with consulting activities with organizations and governments in Seattle, Rwanda, Indonesia and elsewhere, I’ve considered and researched the issue of radicalization for decades. I looked for patterns to determine what kinds of cultures radicalize children and youth, to find possible antidotes.
I came up with a concept I call the trust distance.
How Far From Home Do You Feel Safe
Walking or Doing Business?
In my neighborhood, I could walk for as long as an hour or two before I felt unsafe. The crime rate in my Phoenix suburb is relatively low.
But in violent communities around the world, including some areas of the United States, people haven’t fostered a trust distance outside of their immediate family, extended family and direct neighbors. I’ve consulted with communities where violence and corruption was so high that people’s trust distance was as low 27 seconds.
When I asked people why, they said things like: “I don’t know the people,” or “I don’t have a relationship with them,” or “they might take advantage of me.” These fears build suspicion and hostility.
I set about finding a way to expand a society’s trust distance so they could work together for a common good in trusting, loving ways. That’s how to de-radicalize the world, one neighborhood at a time. Following are the key concepts that feed into expanding a trust distance.
We must do what we can to raise up a generation of leaders committed to working together for the common good.
Whether it’s in an African village, a European city or the American government, the world needs leaders who foster positive relationships and demonstrate by their own behavior that we must work together toward the common good. We need leaders who promote and seek the well-being of ALL people. Leaders who foster an escalation in violence are those who polarize, who negatively label and speak ill of others, who only look out for their own family, tribe, economic group or constituency – usually at the expense of anyone outside of their group.
We saw the tragic result of that in Rwanda more than 20 years ago. During a period of 100 days, people from one people group (Hutu) murdered nearly a million people from a different people group (Tutsi). Another couple million people became displaced, often straining the economies of other countries. I worked with Rwanda’s leaders to develop brave and innovative programs for reconciliation between the opposing groups. Rwanda was recently named one of Africa’s most peaceful nations. Positive leadership has resulted in positive change, as declared in Psalm 133, which promises that living in unity results in blessings from God to come on the land.
It’s important to give both boys and girls access to a quality education where they learn to be the best that they can be for the benefit of society.
Where children and adults are educated, encouraged to become wise and learning critical thinking skills, they are less prone to being radicalized. Peoples of the world need to be exposed to a diversity of views, opinions and values. They need to be encouraged to be the best that they can be for the benefit of society. That’s why radicalized societies isolate their people and devalue education – to keep the youth committed to a single, hostile stream of thinking. I’m not saying all countries should be democracies. I’m saying that education and critical thinking skills can unify people toward a common good. Proverbs 10:14 says, “The wise store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin” (NIV).
Economic Opportunities Matter
Helping people learn to start and run businesses gives them dignity and hope for the future.
When people have meaningful work that provides fulfillment, comradery and the dignity of providing for themselves, they spend less time thinking about how to get in trouble or take advantage of someone else. Where youth believe they have no opportunity for that kind of dignity and fulfillment, they can become radicalized.
Back to the Rwanda example I mentioned above, the divide between Hutus and Tutsis started decades before the genocide of 1994. In the early 20th century, colonizers saw that the Tutsis had 10 or more cows and concluded that they were Rwanda’s wealthy class. Because Hutus didn’t have as many cows, they were treated as the lower class. Their economic opportunities dissolved. Hutu leaders convinced youth that they couldn’t be prosperous, be in positions of power or go to universities unless they eliminated Tutsis. Anger grew until a generation of young Hutus used machetes to slaughter nearly a million Tutsi (and a number of anti-slaughter Hutu) men, women and children.
Proverbs 13:4 points out the dignity of work: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.”
Character-building programs help encourage youth to work together toward the common good.
To turn back the tide of radicalization, we must root the world’s youth in ideas and values that encourage working toward the common good. In the character-based curriculum that I helped develop for Rwanda’s reconciliation process, we identified five character traits and principles that must be applied to the next generations of children to achieve de-radicalization:
Without Love, there is no life
Without Hope, there is no future
Without Thanksgiving, there is no joy
Without Respect, there is no peace
Without Honesty, there is no trust
Anti-government uprisings in the Middle East in 2010 and 2011, commonly called the Arab Spring, resulted from connectivity by social media. Youth, who had been isolated by leaders who lacked positive character traits, learned electronically about freedom and a different way of life. They revolted, demanding new freedom and opportunities.
Without leaders with the above positive character traits to lead into a better future, radical unleaders took over. The same social media that sparked the youth to demand freedom is now recruiting thousands to the jihadist mindset, even in the U.S.
Can we reverse this? Yes,
and I believe each of us must do all we can.
Food for the Hungry programs build sustainable systems and character-based leadership in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In a recent meeting with an Arizona congressional representative regarding America’s foreign assistance budget, I told him that the right kind of foreign assistance is vital for America’s and the world’s security. I’ll bring that same message to more leaders in Congress soon.
The right kind of foreign assistance doesn’t build dependency. Good development builds sustainable systems and character-based leadership in impoverished and broken communities, creating environments that ward off radicalization.
That’s the kind of development that Food for the Hungry does – ending poverty one vulnerable community at a time to help children thrive rather than ferment in the kind of hopelessness that boils radicalization.
What You Can Do
Pray for the world’s youth, that they will have access to adequate health, education, nurturing families and economic opportunities to feel the kind of satisfaction talked about in Proverbs 13:4.
Teach the children in your life to respect and celebrate rather than condemn the diversity around them, and not to buy into the current trend of polarizing rhetoric so prevalent on the news these days.
Get involved in your community – volunteer at school, church, food banks, etc. – to build relationships of trust and respect.
Give to organizations like Food for the Hungry that do sustainable development among the world’s most vulnerable people. Following are just a few ways you can help FH help children in the communities where we work to thrive:
Farm and garden tools: Valuable supplies for rural families to grow vegetables to both feed themselves and improve their economic well-being, for just $30;
Life-saving school fees: Help send a vulnerable child to school and learn critical thinking skills, for just $50;