I understand the Muslim terrorist.
In a distorted and cruel way, he believes that the people he is about to murder are nothing but sinful and wretched infidels. On the other side of death, he awaits a reward, if he expands the kingdom of Allah.
Nobody can say that we have not been warned. Time and again ISIS warns about attacks. Time and again attacks happen, one jihadi after another fulfilling the threats they made. I find myself unshocked. Anyone who is shocked by these attacks is either in denial or willfully ignorant.
But when a random guy decides to open fire on a church full of people—not so much.
After reading the horrific account of what happened, I stared at the picture of the gunman and tried to get inside his head. What led him to turn his weapon to unarmed churchgoers, to young girls, to children?
Then I remembered the time when my attachment to the religion of my parents shattered. As broken and misguided as Islam is, it was the only thing that kept me tied to the people around me. That God-written desire in our hearts to yearn after him pushes us toward directing our worship to someone higher. In some cases, as in Islam, that worship is not properly guided, but still given a direction. That is why so many Muslim youth find the cohesion in their societies attractive. A person has a place to belong. The secular world, on the other hand, does not believe in anchors.
Recently, an interviewer asked how losing my religion affected my young mind. Looking back, it was the moment when I started to lose my humanity along with my beliefs, because that was the first time I felt detached and rootless. Even though I had a physical home, mentally and spiritually, no longer was there a place in this world for me. In a vivid memory that still haunts me on my melancholic days, a crushed and empty water bottle drifts along the small muddy creek near my childhood home. I remember identifying with that piece of litter more than anyone else I knew. In my depressed and lonely head, the plastic bottle and I were both unwanted, unloved and untethered.
The longer I stared at the now-dead face of the gunman, the more that useless bottle came to mind. We now live in a world where the person who gives us a purpose and a purposeful life is nothing but nuisance. Slowly but surely, the spirit of Christ that binds us together is getting pushed aside.
The Catholic life used to be all-encompassing. We needed the Holy Eucharist so we came together for Mass. We needed to see a priest because our guilt nudged us to go to confession. There was an occasional rosary or crucifix to be blessed. There were prayers and novenas to saints for all sorts of intentions. We knew we needed the Mother Church with Her priests, sacraments, sacramentals and candles to make our sinful and unholy lives come together in a community to become sanctified. As the individual gravitated toward the visible and invisible tools of the Holy Spirit, we built a supportive community of Christians. Unlike the misleading cohesion of Muslim societies, in its height Christendom offered the best that could be achieved in a world riddled with sin.
This house of believers, founded by Christ and vivified by the Holy Spirit, was shaken to its core 500 years ago with divisions, wars and discords. As much as I am eternally grateful to Protestant missionaries for bringing the Gospel to my atheist ears, it is impossible not to track the first seeds of a secular life to the time the unity of Christ’s Church was so fundamentally broken. The notion of Sola Scriptura erased the need for the support of the visible Church. As long as a man had a Bible in his hands, he could go wherever he wanted without having any consideration for the sacraments.
The Protestant Reformation was only the beginning, however. The Renaissance ignited today’s secularist world as it chased Christ away from our lives, one small step at a time. God, they said, caused so much trouble that it would be better for everyone if we kept him in churches, preferably only on Sundays. This meddlesome God must not have a place in public affairs. So, the years passed as everyone interpreted his own Bible, everyone founded his own church, and no one needed anyone else. When the New World was discovered, the ever-widening division found a brand-new outlet.
The frontier man was rugged and needed no one. His world was more similar to Deadwood than Walnut Grove. Out of the hardships of a hostile land and a demanding monarch, Americans forged a country that was prosperous and strong. But the seeds of secularism that were sown centuries ago found fertile ground to grow in a land where freedom and liberty were valued above all—not the freedom to do the right thing, but the freedom to do anything.
Without the constant nudging of the Holy Spirit and the uniting presence of the Holy Catholic Church, we feel alone and unhinged. Like the empty plastic bottle, we have lost the water within—the water that gave us purpose, the water that fulfilled the longings and the desires of our hearts.
Most of all we lost the connection to our fellow men, for how could we love our neighbors like ourselves without the grace of God? Why would we love anyone else?
When I was an atheist, nobody had any value to me, including myself. I was not suicidal in the way truly depressed people were; I simply did not see any value in my own life, or for that matter in anybody else’s life. Looking into the face of that killer, I saw inklings of my former self, well before Christ’s grace changed my heart and my mind, and well before I realized that the value of human person comes from the Creator of the Universe.
In the end, whether with the jihadi murderer or with the atheist gunman, Christ is the only answer. There is a reason the Man who knows us more than we know ourselves founded a Church. He knows we need each other. He knows we need shepherds. And most of all, he knows we desperately need him in the Holy Eucharist. As Chesterton said, “Christianity is not a religion; it is a Church.”
It may be comforting to point fingers at gun laws or mental illness, but this homicidal world we live in is nothing but a hollowed-out bottle. The only solution is to fill it back with Christ and rebuild His Church.
Derya Little has a Ph.D. in politics from Durham University in England. Her articles on foreign affairs have appeared in academic journals and Catholic World Report. Little is the author of the new book, From Islam to Christ.