Anders Behring Breivik has now “acknowledged” that he carried out the horrific series of attacks in Norway that have left at least 76 dead. He has been described by police there as a “Christian fundamentalist.” His rambling “manifesto” calls for a “Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination.” Christians should not turn away from this information, but try to come to terms with the temptations to violence in the theologies of right-wing Christianity.
Breivik’s chosen targets were political in nature, emblematic of his hatred of “multiculturalism” and “left-wing political ideology.” This does not mean that the Christian element in his ultra-nationalist views is irrelevant. The religious and political views in right-wing ideologies are mutually reinforcing, and ignoring or dismissing the role played by certain kinds of Christian theology in such extremism is distorting.
Christians are often reluctant to see these connections between their religion and extreme violence. They will dismiss it as “madness” rather than confront the Christian element directly. As a woman interviewed in Oslo observed, “If Islamic people do something bad, you think, ‘Oh, it’s Muslims,’ ” she said. “But if a white Protestant does something bad, you just think he’s mad. That’s something we need to think about.”
Exactly right. Christians do need to think about that, both in Europe and in the United States. Examining your own religion in its historic as well as contemporary connection to lethal violence is something Christians tend to shun. Stephen Prothero describes this dynamic in his students: “When I was a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I required my students to read Nazi theology. I wanted them to understand how some Christian bent the words of the Bible into weapons aimed at Jews and how these weapons found their mark at Auschwitz and Dachau. My Christian students responded to these disturbing readings with one disturbing voice: the Nazis were not real Christians, they informed me, since real Christians would never kill Jews in crematories.” Prothero confesses he found their response “terrifying.”
To get past this Christian tendency to excuse Christianity from complicity in mass violence, I think it is important to understand this is a theological issue, not an indictment of the whole Christian faith, and at bottom a form of temptation. I believe that certain theological constructions of Christianity “tempt” individuals and groups to violence; combined with right-wing political ideologies, these views can give a divine justification to the use of lethal force. As with Islam, or Judaism, or Hinduism or any other religion, this does not make the religion itself inherently violent, but neither does it make the religious interpretations beside the point. They are very much to the point.
When I consider the theological perspectives that “tempt” some Christians to justify hatred and even violence against others, such as, in this case in Norway, the following perspectives seem especially prevalent: 1) making supremacist claims that Christianity is the “only” truth; 2) holding the related view that other religions are not merely wrong, but “evil” and “of the devil”; 3) being highly selective in the use of biblical literalism, for example ignoring the justice claims of the prophets and using biblical texts that seem to justify violence; 4) identifying Christianity with a dominant race and/or nation; 5) believing that violence is divinely justified to “cleanse” or “purify” as in a “holy war”; and 6) believing the end of the world is at hand.
Such theological views, I have found, are more accurate predictors of where political extremism and certain interpretations of Christian theology will mutually contribute to justifying lethal violence. This kind of specificity is more helpful, in my view, than the term “Christian fundamentalism.” Fundamentalism is a more historical term, dating from the “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy in the early part of the 20th century in the United States, and I find it is less helpful today in understanding right-wing Christianity.
A more comprehensive view of the mutually-reinforcing role of extremist Christianity and extremist political views is essential, given the spread of right-wing extremism and its lethal capacity “not just in Norway but across Europe, where opposition to Muslim immigrants, globalization, the power of the European Union and the drive toward multiculturalism has proven a potent political force and, in a few cases, a spur to violence.”
The rise of this type of right-wing extremism is not confined to Europe but is also a growing threat in the U.S. It is therefore even more alarming that the Southern Poverty Law Center is calling attention to the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has apparently scaled back its department “responsible for analyzing security threats from non-Islamic domestic extremists.” According to Daryl Johnson, the principal author of the April 7, 2009, report “Right-wing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” the focus on domestic, non-Islamic terror threats, was cut back after his report was leaked. The leaked report precipitated a “firestorm” of protest from conservatives who “wrongly claimed it equated conservatives with terrorists.”
Especially in light of events in Norway, it is clear Mr. Johnson was just doing what Homeland Security is supposed to do, namely track dangerous domestic extremism, regardless of the source, in order to prevent violent extremism.
The religious element in terrorist extremism cannot either be ignored or overblown. It is an important part of the whole equation. In this Norwegian case, conservative Christianity and right-wing, nationalist political ideologies mutually reinforced and tempted each other, and the acts of a person like Anders Behring Breivik were apparently the result. Looking closely at theological interpretations can illuminate how the mass killing of people to accomplish a political end can be justified as right and even a moral imperative in the eyes of individuals and groups wanting to impose their political views through violence.
It is absolutely critical that Christians not turn away from the Christian theological elements in such religiously inspired terrorism. We must acknowledge these elements in Christianity and forthrightly reject these extremist interpretations of our religion. How can we ask Muslims to do the same with Islam, if we won’t confront extremists distorting Christianity?
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite | Jul 25, 2011 3:18 PM