When I first heard the terms “radicalized” and “radicalization” used by media and political leaders in reference to Islamist terrorist activity, I was irritated. I had learned forty-five years ago about the “Radical Reformation.” Although this language isn’t the exclusive possession of my tradition, the term “Radical Reformation” certainly stands for something profoundly transforming, deeply spiritual and a move forward in terms of respecting human conscience and dignity. Before hearing about Immanuel Kant’s work on “radical evil,” and before really looking into Hannah Arendt’s reflections on “the banality of evil” and her statement that only that which is good is really radical, I felt strangely robbed by the fact that this precious terminology had been commandeered by national leaders who prefer to respond to violence with more violence and media that focuses on bloodshed. I had always thought of radicalism as being a worthy, albeit not popular aim: To be radical is to reach for the roots. Radical change is deeper and more complete than “reformation” because it seeks transformation from the roots up rather than being satisfied with fixing something that’s corrupted in of itself. Wasn’t that basically what Anabaptists stood for?

I began to look more closely into this. I looked into the meaning of the words, the images and the symbols. And the more closely I looked, the more deprived I felt. What if the term “radicalization,” as it is popularly used, is only a pretense for masking the shrinking space for individual and collective freedom and action? Who and what is under threat by whom and what exactly? Looking at the War on Terror, don’t things seem way out of proportion? Do we really believe that the world’s youth will go to join ISIS and we will all be overrun by djihadists shouting Allahu Akbar unless the the war effort of the West is dramatically intensified? Even if we don’t believe that, what’s the point of using the language of radicalism? Or is it maybe a strategy?

I was tremendously relieved when, while perusing recent titles on philosophy and politics in a bookstore in Nice, I stumbled upon a book addressing precisely these issues: Confiscation des mots, des images et du temps. Pour une autre radicalité. (Confiscation of Words, Images and Time: For Another Radicality.) The author, French Philosopher Marie-José Mondzain, specialized in how we relate to images, presents here a passionate and profound analysis.*

Mondzain not only objects to the confiscation of the term “radicalization,” but examines the meaning of the now common term “deradicalization.” She writes: “Radicality is now being reduced to designate doctrinal convictions and strategies of indoctrination, so as to suggest, in turn, that de-radicalization is all it takes to eradicate violence and bring about a kind of reconciliation that is suited to the world that has produced such violent tendencies.”

Hannah Arendt’s response to the critics who accused her of changing Kant’s “radical evil” into “banality of evil” is that evil is never radical, it is only extreme. It is neither profound nor does it have a demonic dimension. It can invade and ravage the entire world precisely because it spreads like fungus. It defies thought because thought seeks to be profound, to reach down to the roots. Only that which is good is profound and can be radical, says Arendt.

Radicality, says Mondzain, must no longer be a “disease of others,” but must become a positive suggestion for all of us. This requires imagination, as do peace and peacebuilding, as many of us are well aware. Yet imagination is rendered difficult when both language and images are commandeered by the dominant political, economic and religious discourses.

Early Anabaptists understood that something was fundamentally wrong with the way the society of their time was construed and controlled. It could not be fixed simply by abolishing Mass, indulgences and other means by which salvation was negotiated, nor by overturning doctrines and burning images. Nor was it enough to change the creed to say only faith, only grace, only scripture. Power needed to be mitigated, swords dropped, personal freedom and conscience acknowledged and valued. That was radical imagination and practice indeed, for it moved beyond religion and its symbols to transform social and economic structure and practice.

Instead of increasing repression and setting up sophisticated means to de-radicalize young people whose dreams have been perverted, society today must turn to the values that inspire humanity and build communities in diversity: respect, love, hospitality, truth, justice. The Reformation is proof that people find faith and healing beyond doctrine and institutions, so how is it that in today’s incredibly rapidly changing world the doctrines of nation, power and wealth appear to be untouchable and keep people from creatively dreaming of a better world? It may be true that most people don’t dream of socialism but rather seek their own well-being and that of their families. Yet it is also true that most of them also care about their communities and their country because they understand that “the well-being of their grandchildren is directly related to the well-being of the grandchildren of their enemies” (John Paul Lederach).

According to one expert cited by an NPR radio show,** one criterion of radicalization is the belief that utopia can be reached. By those standards, we should all be radicals. Actually, shouldn’t today’s Anabaptists (the left wing of Reformation!) declare themselves as radicals, so as to help overcome the paradigms that perpetuate the evils they pretend to eradicate? The journey to actual freedom has advanced a great deal since the Reformation and the early twentieth century. Radical love overcomes boundaries and labels, be they of national, ethnic, political or religious character. Think for example of how the presence and action of Mennonite Central Committee in post-World War 2 Europe have exemplified radical love that transcended supremacist and anti-Semitic sentiment, as well as hateful resistance against the Nazis. Countless similar examples, from Vietnam to Nicaragua to the DRC and the Middle East could be added. Christian and Anabaptist mission efforts must measured by such radical love, not by how successful they are in numeric or institutional terms. Obviously, such love at times meets violent response. Michael Sharp’s death in the DRC this year speaks to that.

The world’s—and the church’s—journey to a fuller humanity is far from being accomplished and those who claim today to rid us of elites who forgot the needs of the people are simply building new fences and walls that will make us better slaves. In that context radical love and hospitality, as well as resistance, are so much more needed. This call goes out to all those who are able to find courage and faith to live that out, as did the prophets who came before us.


* Marie-José Mondzain; Confiscation : Des mots, des images et du temps. Pour une autre Radicalité. Liens qui libèrent (Les) 2017.

**The Psychology of Radicalization: how Terrorist Groups Attract Young Followers. NPR: http://www.npr.org/2015/12/15/459697926/the-psychology-of-radicalization-how-terrorist-groups-attract-young-followers.

Hansuli Gerber is an independent consultant on peace and civil society issues, and former staff at the World Council of Churches, Mennonite World Conference, and the Mennonite Central Committee.

A version of this article was originally published in French and German on the Swiss “Anabaptist Forum for Peace and Justice” (Täuferisches Forum für Frieden und Gerechtigkeit/Forum anabaptiste pour la paix et la justice), and can be found here: http://friedenundgerechtigkeit.ch/?p=757.