Code is more than words.

written by Chris Hartenstein
We are continuing to explore CODE this week.  Recently, I have been reading a book on the Church written by Mark Sayers, and it has been very challenging. I agree with some of it; some I am not sure about, but my evaluation of a good book is based on how it pushes me, bends my thinking, and challenges my belief system. This one is doing just that.

Sayers has given me some good clarity around CODE.  Walking away from a particular section in the book, I felt a challenge that CODE is more than words. It’s a way of life, it is discipline and submission to a higher authority or causes greater than oneself even at the expense of self.

This section from Sayers’s book really challenges my way of thinking. It causes me to wonder, am I actually living by a code? I know it’s long but stay with it, it’s worth the read.  


In his last days, Osama bin Laden had a lot to be worried about. Drones constantly buzzed above the heads of his men, unleashing their fury out of the sky. Electronic surveillance by their enemies ensured that all communication now had to be laboriously passed on across the world by hand-delivered, written letters. Bin Laden worried about being poisoned, about climate change, and about the low morale of his organization. In the wake of the attacks of 9/ 11, Al-Qaeda was riding a high. Not only was it the premier terrorist organization in the world for jihadists, Western organizational experts hailed its fluid, swarm-like structure as the kind of networked future for organizations across the world. Yet a few years later, everything had changed. One of the significant problems facing Al-Qaeda was the lack of discipline and commitment being shown by new recruits from wealthier, more developed countries. The ascendancy of the self, driven by the West, was having an effect upon the terrorist organization. The battle-hardened leadership of Al-Qaeda was tearing out their hair, trying to manage recruits who would turn up to training one day and not the next. Instead of planning attacks upon the West, Al-Qaeda members were having to waste time dragging recruits back from their shopping sprees at local markets, repeatedly telling them to stay off their phones. Recruits exhaustively trained and groomed for missions but would simply one day disappear like ghosts, having lost interest. Al-Qaeda’s much-lauded, networked, decentralized organizational structure was useless in dealing with this ghostlike commitment. “We have some other problems … like dissent and lack of discipline,” wrote one of bin Laden’s deputies in exasperation to his commander, complaining that these new recruits “do as they wish and roam in the markets. They are not associated with any group and they have no obedience. Sometimes, some of them participate in jihad, while others make no contribution to jihad. A solution to the problem they represent has escaped us, but we are still trying.” 1 It’s no wonder that in the last video of bin Laden released, we see him silently watching television in a dark room, draped in a blanket, a fragile, tired man leading a fragile, tired movement. Al-Qaeda’s leadership had coalesced in the tough battlefields of Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Bin Laden and his compatriots had sacrificed comfortable, wealthy lives to fight for a cause. This process instilled in them a military discipline and fortitude. It was this dedication that allowed its members to go undercover for years in Western cities, before unleashing martyr missions. Al-Qaeda’s appeal was rooted in what journalist Moise’s Naim labels Code; that is, an appeal to a higher, religious, or communal motivation, which would ensure commitment to the cause and leadership of the movement. Code, according to Naim, “does not employ coercion; instead it activates our sense of moral duty.” 2 This activation of duty originates as “a higher and unquestioned power unequivocally tells us how to behave.” Code had worked for Al-Qaeda, just as it had worked throughout human history for movements, be they noble, evil, or benign.


Al-Qaeda, like so many other organizations that rely on a moral code, faced the challenge of recruiting in an age where the individual increasingly finds a moral, binding call incomprehensible. Philip Rieff, in exploring the dynamics of the third culture of the West, observed a revolution against code and all commitments. 3 In contrast to the dominant Western view of secularism, which sees a gradual evolution toward a progressive, enlightened culture, Rieff saw culture lurching between revolutions of release and revolutions of restraint. Any culture consists of a set of moral commands. These commands tell us what to do and what not to do. In any culture, these commands are under constant pressure from those within the society, so key figures within the culture act as moral authorities, communicating the rationale of the moral commands and exemplifying them with their personal lives. This is the influential power of code. When the moral commands come under too much pressure, eventually they are rejected and a revolution of release begins, led by those whose authority consists of undermining the moral commands and breaking them personally. The cultural mood shifts from obeying the moral commands to breaking them. Release replaces restraint as the dominant social mode. Code loses power to influence. Duty is rejected. The individual must discover the ways in which they had internalized the old moral commands and then break them. Any forms of external authority, self-denial, and morality must be expelled, for they have replaced sin as the new sin. Those who once guarded the moral commands are the new enemy to be demonized and defined against; in their place the maverick, the rebel, and the releaser are the new elite. Rieff noted that groups who continue to operate from a moral code during a revolution of release are tarred with the brush of being controllers. In these eras, including our contemporary revolution of release, anyone who holds to external religious truths, who submits to moral commands and traditions, will be automatically tarred as controllers, repressive and oppressive.

In an interview with Britain’s Guardian newspaper, 4 two senior leaders of Al-Qaeda complained that the emergence of the Islamic State had ripped their movement apart, and that it was no longer functional. The Islamic State was both a reaction against the third culture and also a mutant, anarchic child of it. Alongside local disaffected Sunni tribes, it recruited and inspired from the West young people who were both reacting against, and defined by, the third culture. Al-Qaeda prohibited its members from using electronic communications and from using their phones. In contrast, the soldiers of the Islamic State took battlefield selfies and live-tweeted while in the midst of combat. They hashtagged Instagram photos with tags such as #Jihadlyfe, while flirting online with female Islamic State groupies, some of whom made their way from their homes in the West, without their parents’ consent, to snag a hot, rebel jihadist. Al-Qaeda promotional videos usually consisted of the talking head of bin Laden or his associate and successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, lecturing and reading out statements. Videos produced by the Islamic State were lushly shot, promising alienated and directionless potential recruits a kind of real-life Game of Thrones or Call of Duty existence, in which they would find personal meaning and glory. Videos and photos showed Islamic State fighters from the West, riding around captured towns in BMWs, extorting plunder from captured minorities. Whereas Al-Qaeda are always imagined hiding away in caves, the Islamic State’s promotions promised the kind of infrastructure that would ensure the jihadist comfort and security. One promotional video featured a young, blue-eyed pediatrician with Australian-accented English showing the kind of postnatal care offered in the Islamic State. If you muted the sound, you could mistake the video for a health fund commercial. Other videos featured English-language schools for the children of foreign fighters. The message of the Islamic State essentially said that you can partake in armed jihad while having your personal dreams come true alongside Western levels of healthcare. Why wait for virgins and glory in the afterlife when you can have them now? In a revolution of release, in which individual autonomy reigns supreme, “pitch” becomes one of the only modes of communication and coercion. If one wants to recruit others to a cause or movement, in the revolution of release you must promise benefits to the individual. This is where the Islamic State outmaneuvered Al-Qaeda in the competitive game of jihadist recruitment. Whereas Al-Qaeda demanded discipline and obedience, and recruited through code, the Islamic State in Naim’s language used pitch—that is, the promise of tangible, attractive benefits—in order to cut through the messaging of the various jihadist groups. The religious, apocalyptic language of the Islamic State’s recruiting at times sounds like code but underneath it clearly is pitch—the lure of personal benefit—promising potential recruits a life of glory and personal meaning within the caliphate.


Pitches that promise tangible benefits have overtaken codes and commands that appeal to discipline and commitment. As the cultural landscape becomes more crowded with competing agendas and claims for commitment, greater promises need to be made to cut through the buzz. In this new environment, one can gather a group or movement; you have tools available to you such as the Internet. The tricky bit is maintaining the commitment in the face of constant temptation. The average citizen lives in a world of continual promise and allurement. Both large organizations and the most fluid, decentralized networks find themselves weakened, as the basic ingredients of commitment, presence, attention, and sacrifice are corroded by the constant lure of something better. It is worth noting that it is not just consumerism that pitches to us, but today the mode of pitch is used by governments, the military, NGOs, and, as Naim observes, religion: Consider, for instance the power of religion, which operates through multiple channels. Dogma or moral code, whether enshrined in age-old scripture or propounded by a latter-day preacher or guru, is a big part of what earns an organized faith its adherents—along with their commitment of time and belief, their presence at services, their tithes, and their labor. But when churches, temples, and mosques compete for members, they often do so on the basis of a pitch, as in advertising. Indeed, many institutions of faith stage elaborate campaigns managed by highly specialized advertising firms. And they offer rewards as well—not just immaterial reward of promised salvation but here-and-now benefits. 5 The great problem is that to compete with all the other pitches you have to improve your own, either implicitly or explicitly amplifying the tangible benefits on offer. While pitch can deliver you recruits or keep existing members within your organization, eventually a gap will appear between what you can pitch and what you can deliver. Part of the Islamic State’s devilish genius is that it understands this. A movement based just on pitch and individual glory could not have produced the military commitment and discipline needed to capture the huge swaths of territory that it has won while under sustained attack on multiple fronts. ISIS’s “pitch” disappears once a recruit hits the ground in Syria and Iraq. Whereas Al-Qaeda has drafted climate change initiatives and pondered introducing their more wealthy members to poorer African jihadists to increase their commitment levels, ISIS will kill you if you decide to return home to Mom because life on the ground isn’t like the videos. The Islamic State recruits with pitch and keeps you there with the threat of violence.”

 Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience by Mark Sayers


To close this out: If your code isn’t about your Heavenly Dad’s Kingdom (self-denial for His good, higher purposes), it’s about self-preservation. We accept the pitch that promises us what we feel we need to satisfy the imposter within. The moment we realize the prize falls short of the promise, we reject one pitch for another. This leads to despair, discouragement. Ultimately, we reject any code at all as well as our true self. Think about it...

Calibration Questions:
- Do you live by a code? What drives it?
- Is your code about you or others? Do you get anything from it?
- Are you living by a “pitch” or a true code? Explain your answer.  
- If from a pitch: Where has this “pitch” come from?  How is that working for you?
- What is one action you can take to move from pitch to code this week?






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