With a post entitled "When Christianity becomes lethal," liberal theologian and Center for American Progress senior fellow Susan Brooks Thislethwaite took to the Washington Post's "On Faith" blog yesterday to indict conservative Christian theology as a catalyst for the terror espoused by Norwegian bomber/shooter Anders Behring Breivik:
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.
What exactly are the religious views that reinforce Breivik's radical theology? Thislethwaite laid out a list of views that she believes lead to violence, some of which are orthodox Christian belief or informed by orthodox Christian teaching:
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.
Jesus himself held that his was the only way to be made right with God and preached that no one knows the day or the hour when he would return to judge the living and the dead. But he and his apostles eschewed violence. Thislethwaite, a United Church of Christ minister, certainly knows this: historic, orthodox Christianity is peaceful and nonviolent, leaving wrath and judgment to a holy God who is also merciful.
But more importantly, a review of Behring Breivik's manifesto reveals he's not exactly the devout fundamentalist Christian the media are making him out to be or whom Brooks Thislethwaite seems to believe him to be.
Evangelical blogger Denny Burk today highlighted the relevant portion of the Oslo bomber's manifesto in which Behring Breivik made abundantly clear that he sees himself as a "cultural Christian" not a religious one (emphasis mine):
Contrary to early reports, Anders Behring Breivik is not a Christian. In fact in his 1,518 page manifesto, the perpetrator of the atrocities in Norway has specifically disavowed any real commitment to Christ. In his own words:
A majority of so called agnostics and atheists in Europe are cultural conservative Christians without even knowing it. So what is the difference between cultural Christians and religious Christians?
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 (p. 1307).
Behring Breivik himself went to the pains to insist he's not a religious Christian. He's not engaged in a theologically or eschatalogically-inspired view of spiritual warfare that involves the use of physical violence to attain religious ends.
The Oslo bomber's manifesto undermines Brooks Thislethwaite's argument. Hopefully the Chicago Theological Seminary professor will issue a mea culpa, although if she doesn't, it's probably because it was too tempting to attack American evangelicals as potential terrorists:
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?
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