Christian Terrorism in Norway?

By Joseph Cumming
Director, Reconciliation Program, Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School  

I’m angry, and I’m grieving. I’m angry and grieving that a terrorist murdered 77 innocent people—mostly teenagers—in Norway last week. And I’m angry and grieving that the name “Christian”—and with it the name of Christ—is tied to this heinous crime. Now I know a little of what my Muslim friends felt after 9/11. Christians wonder: is this killer Anders Breivik a Christian? Is he “one of us”?

The meaning of the word “Christian” here exposes an unconscious tension in the heart of nearly every religious believer—whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or other. It is the tension of religion as tribal marker versus the content of faith in God. In the case of Western Christians, it is the tension of Christianity as family heritage or civilizational identity versus discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Breivik’s horrifying 1,500-page manifesto makes clear that Christian identity is central to his motivation. He calls for a new crusade against what he sees as Muslim invasion of the West. But the tension between these two senses of the word “Christian” is apparent throughout. One section is devoted to “Distinguishing between Cultural Christendom and Religious Christendom.” He explicitly rejects “religious Christianity” and embraces “cultural Christianity,” writing: “If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.”

So by his own self-description he is a Christian in one sense, and in another sense he is not.

I write here as a Christian to my fellow-Christians: we may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief that we ourselves are “religious Christians,” not “cultural Christians,” so this terrorist is not “one of us.” But if our faith is about following Jesus Christ, then Jesus’ call to remove logs from our own eyes will not allow us to dismiss this challenge quite so quickly. For if we are completely honest, we must acknowledge that most of us, when we use the word “Christian,” mean it in both senses. When we say, “My family and I are Christians,” most of us mean both that we seek to follow Jesus Christ in our daily lives and that the name of “Christian” is an important part of our personal, social and cultural identity or heritage.

In the past one might unconsciously hold to both senses of “Christian” simultaneously without self-examination or cognitive dissonance. But in the context of 21st-century Muslim-Christian relations this luxury is no longer possible, as these two senses lead to opposite conclusions. If the Christian faith is primarily a tribal identity, then in a world of limited resources it is all too easy to conclude: “We must fight to defend the survival of Christian civilization against all whom we perceive to threaten it, including Muslims. We must pray that our God gives us victory over their ‘Allah-god.’” But if Christian faith is primarily costly discipleship to Jesus Christ the Crucified, then we must follow Jesus in being ready to lay down our lives in love for others, including Muslims. We must resist the siren-song of henotheistic tribal gods, and we must seek the One God whose love embraces all humanity.

If we want to use the word “Christian” in both senses to some degree, then we must sort out which takes precedence when, and why. This is not a simple question. Augustine, in “City of God,” wrestled with this question, as did Luther in his doctrine of “two kingdoms” and Niebuhr in “Christ and Culture.” As the Norway massacre makes clear, it is critically important to answer this question wisely. Theology has consequences.

In some societies “Muslim” and “Christian” are used primarily as ethnic or national designations, often with little religious content. Bosnia and Melilla are two places where “Muslim” has been used as an ethnic label. In Mauritania the word “Nasrani” (Qur’anic Arabic for “Christian”) has come to mean “ethnic European,” so that Mauritanians describe white Westerners who convert to Islam as “Christian Muslims.” Many Americans refer to the U.S. as a “Christian nation.” What sense of “Christian” do they mean? Do they mean Christianity as “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God” or as “a cultural, social identity and moral platform”?

What implications does this have for the narrative that sees terrorism as a purely Islamic problem? After 9/11, Franklin Graham famously said: “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings; it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.”

But this killer was baptized and confirmed as a teenager into the Lutheran Church. And he expresses admiration for Catholicism, with its strong, unitary leadership; he hopes Protestantism will be reintegrated into the Catholic Church, though he criticizes Protestant leaders and Pope Benedict with equal venom.

Breivik’s teenage victims included Muslims alongside Christians and secular Norwegians, and the victims’ funerals have brought these communities together in their grief. The Muslim community in Norway is understandably frightened at this time, though they are grateful for the gracious outreach of the Norwegian church and state to them in this crisis.

What about the killer’s personal religious practice? Did he pray or attend worship? Two days before successfully testing his bomb in June he wrote: “I prayed for the first time in a very long time today.” His diary recounts the words of his prayer, in which he lectured God on how to run the world, and then gave God an ultimatum: God had better support the “warriors fighting for the preservation of European Christendom”…or else.

We recoil in horror at such a blasphemous “prayer.” We want to shout: “This man is not one of us!” But even as we use the phrase “not one of us,” we reveal the tribal thinking that unconsciously shapes our own identity. That tribal thinking is not necessarily always wrong, but it is certainly problematic and potentially dangerous.

Does this mass-murderer’s violent hate flow from discipleship to Jesus Christ? Of course not. But does it flow from loyalty to the Christian tribe? Yes.

Thus, Christians have a terrorism problem too. It flows from the kind of tribal thinking that is a catastrophic misinterpretation of the Christian faith, but it is a misinterpretation that this killer is not alone in believing. And if we search our consciences honestly, some of us may find just a little bit of that misinterpretation hidden in our own hearts.

At the Reconciliation Program of Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, our mission is “to promote reconciliation between Muslims and Christians, and between Muslim-majority nations and the West, drawing on the resources of the Abrahamic faiths and the teachings and person of Jesus.” Atrocities such as the Norway killings underscore the urgent need for that reconciliation.

Posted: 07/29/2011