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Despite the best efforts of ideologues on both sides, including some of my colleagues here at On Faith, it is entirely clear that the Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik is both a Christian and a terrorist, but not a Christian terrorist. Of course, those on the left and on the right are either unwilling or unable to make that nuanced distinction. Sadly, it leaves their reflections on this terrible tragedy too often sounding like nothing more than attempts to score theological and political points on the back of other peoples’ suffering.
Liberals are using Breivik as evidence of the deadly potential of right wing Christian extremism. In doing so, they miss the important difference – the difference between terrorists who identify as Christian but do not base their behavior on Christian text and tradition, and those who do so. Anders Breivik falls into the first category, not the second. As such, he is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian terrorist.
Christian terrorism exists, and those who warn against it should be taken seriously, especially their insistence that it is those who call themselves Christian who must lead the way in combating it. They know that the battle against such terror is not simply political or military, but spiritual and cultural as well. Anders Breivik was not part of the spiritual or cultural communities which spawn Christian terror, nor did he identify with them.
By confusing Breivik’s acts with Christian terrorism, those who do so actually weaken the effort against real Christian terrorists. They do so by over-generalizing the term to the point of meaninglessness, and open the door to those on the right who simply “explain” that Breivik is not a “real Christian” or that “real Christianity” could never spawn terror.
Christianity that is real in the minds of its followers is real, and some of that Christianity inspires and justifies real terrorists. Anders Breivik is a Christian because he says he is a Christian and because his self-definition is recognizable to a meaningful number of others. That kind of definition will always displease those who think that being Christian, or Jewish or Muslim or anything else for that matter is entirely up to some external authority. For better or worse, that is not how identity operates, and it’s especially ironic to watch Protestants do to other Christians precisely what was done to them as their own brand of Christianity was being born 500 years ago.
By distancing Breivik from Christianity, those who do so are simply looking for an easy way out – one which refuses to take responsibility for Christianity capacity to generate terror. In fact, every faith on the planet can, and has at some time, given rise to hate and/or terror. While it may be painful to admit, only when we do so, can we address the challenge of religion-inspired violence.
It is typically those who distance themselves most assertively from that propensity, who need to aggressively embrace that painful reality. They are generally closer on the ideological continuum to those who commit acts of religious violence and they are therefore best positioned to combat them.
Neither conservatives nor liberals can have what they seem to want out of the events in Norway. Conservatives cannot simply use this as an event to explain that “Real Christians” don’t commit acts of violence, and liberals cannot point to Anders Breivik as proof that they do. All of us however, can take the opportunity to see how hatred, however inspired, can all to easily lead to violence- a lesson we could all use at some time or another.