Breivik a Christian, terrorist but not ‘Christian terrorist’

Despite the best efforts of ideologues on both sides, including some of my colleagues here at On Faith, it is … Continued

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.


Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • dasm1



    Christians, Muslims, Terrorists, Pacifists, Liberals, Conservatives … the list of all inclusive and blind titles goes on.

    We use one label to support or demean another. We take the best of one label as an example to support it while use the worst of another to demean it. It woirks where there is ignorance and there is plenty of it around !

    Hindus and Buddhists do not commit acts of violence either. Or do they? It all depends on now an individual is swayed by his or her personal beliefs, burdens and such. My suspicion is that certain religious philosophies allow room for certain people to see “others” as out of Grace. That is one thing. Next is when they act upon it. Various religious wars, new ethnic cleanings and old ones that wiped out civilizations come to mind.

    In my openion, all are living in glas houses

  • Paconieto

    I’m sorry, but What is the difference if he were a muslim? There would be no doubt that he was a muslim terrorist. The man wrote a manifesto calling for holy war! he is the epitome of christian terrorism, and, contrary to what this author professes, he absolutely based his actions on past Christian traditions, likening his deeds to other “heroic” christians of years past who weren’t afraid to spill some blood for the Lord. He is a Christian Terrorist through and through, and there has hardly ever been a more obvious example.

  • dannon2010

    This article is such a load of crap…the more I think about it, the more I realize this fact. This guy is as Christian as a “Christian terrorist” can get..”not basing his actions in the Christian text or traditions”?! Basically what you’re saying is the same thing FOX is saying, he can’t be a Christian terrorists because Christians can’t be terrorists… because there are no examples of this throughout the Christian texts or Christian history…THAT IS A JOKE. See, it’s different with Muslims, THEY have PLENTY of examples. Your premise is fundamentally bigoted.

  • Jihadist

    It is always easy labels and labellings. Why not “political Christianity” or “politicised Christian” or “political, politicised Judeo-Christian-Western civilisation” too while we are at it, taking into consideration he quoted extensively, from American and European like-minded sources?

    Or, how about “Crusadists”? They so have similarities with “Jihadists” in “reasonings” fear and loathing of the “other” in their cause. Or “Ultra-Nationalists” ?

    I emphatise with the shocked and numbed Norwegians who a self-image of peace-loving and peaceful living, treating and tolerating certain types and points of views, and then be the recipients, the victims of the terrorising, terroristic acts.

    No one is immune from those living in their midst who live in, longed for the perceived glories and ideals of the past and seek to reaffirm, reinstate, restore them by legal means (acts, laws, legislations) and by violence.

    We have yet to see an unhinged, alienated atheist cutting and pasting the writings of New Atheists in his manifesto to rationalise his murderous rampage against “deluded” and “irrational” believers who “poisons” everything with their beliefs. I don’t have the certainty of some believers and non-believers that it can or can’t happen. If it does, how atheists “distanced” themselves from that will be interesting reading.

  • stonewall18

    Yet he says he disclaims having anything like a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or attending church regularly. He says science trumps religion, and is a pure pragmatist merely esteeming crusader knights.

    No newspaper headline ever reads “Freemason and terrorist.” I wonder why?

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