I thought that I would only have to write one post on the exploitation of the tragedy in Norway for ideological purposes. Silly me.
Th execrable Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has been a frequent target of mine, but she hits a new low in the Washington Post this morning. Seems the mass murder in Norway was all about “right-wing” Christianity:
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.
Let’s clear the field right away: Breivik is not, and does not claim to be, a Christian in anything but a cultural sense. He writes in his incoherent “manifesto” (3.139):
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.
Even someone as far removed from orthodox Christianity as Thistlethwaite would reject the claim of someone who wrote something like this to be a Christian. This, in fact, is much more akin to what the so-called “German Christians” of the Nazi era claimed, that they were Christians by virtue of blood and soil, of ethnic heritage, of cultural patrimony. To the extent that they understood what Christianity is about, they rejected it, as does Breivik, for all his pseudo-Christian ramblings.
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.
In fact, trying to discern a coherent political ideology in Breivik’s rant is next to impossible. He certainly doesn’t fit into anything like the convenient category that Thistlethwaite wants to put him. Oh, and I’ve got to say that for someone as thoroughly down-the-line left-wing in both her politics and her theology as Thistlethwaite to talk about how “the religious and political views in right-wing ideologies are mutually reinforcing” is the height of pot-kettle irony.
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.”
Ah, moral equivalence. Hey, it worked with the Soviets, right? Rather than drawing facile comparisons between apples and oranges, Thistlethwaite ought to learn something about the subjects she writes about. The connection between political and religious realms was built into Islam from the beginning. The early centuries of Islam are all about military conquest and the establishment of empire. Recognized, popular schools of Islamic thought, such as that of Ayatollah Khomeini, advocate a tight bond between state and mosque, and not only acquiesce to violence against non-believers, but positively encourage it. Followers of those schools applaud when they see infidels struck down (think of the reaction in parts of the Muslim world to 9/11, 7/11, 3/11 the Bali bombings, and others). When stuff like Norway happens, the reaction in even the most conservative Christian circles is universal condemnation.
Yeah, I know–details, details.
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.”
I’m not sure why their response is “terrifying,” though it may be wrong. These students evidently understood something that Prothero and Thistlethwaite don’t: that no authentically Christian theology or worldview could possibly countenance actions like the Nazi campaign against the Jews. The only way to get from Christianity to Nazism’s racial beliefs is to so distort the faith that it was no longer Christianity. The German Christians were, among other heresies, Marcionites (they rejected the Old Testament in whole or in part) and Pelagians (they reject the inherited sinfulness of humanity), and rejected most if not all of Paul’s theology regarding the breaking down of walls between Jews and Gentiles. Many of them essentially rejected the historicity of the Gospels by declaring that Jesus was an Aryan. Is it any wonder that people like this would approve of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism? Is it really any wonder that Prothero’s students had a hard time identifying this as “Christianity”? The truth is that the only way that the ideology of the German Christians could be supposed to be Christian is if the words “Christianity” and “Christian” have no intellectual content, so that they may be twisted and shaped into whatever form one wishes. The fact that the German “Christians” wanted to hold on to that word is no more morally significant than Theodore Kaczynski identifying himself as an “environmentalist.”
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;
So holding to biblical faith, as well as the orthodox faith of the church through the centuries, “tempts some Christians” to hate and murder others. You might as well say that believing in the crucified Christ encourages violence. Oh, wait–some “theologians” on the loony left do say that. (I should mention that she seems to be doing a weasel by using the expression “only truth.” What she means is the view that Christ is the only way of salvation.) In any case, Thistlethwaite has obviously not bothered to look at Breivik’s rant, which makes clear that his beef is with Islam–he says nothing negative about any other religion, and supports Christianity because of its place in European culture, not because it is the “only” truth. She simply assumes that Breivik must believe this, because a police official (!) called him a “Christian fundamentalist.”
2) holding the related view that other religions are not merely wrong, but “evil” and “of the devil”;
This view of other religions may or may not be true, but the fact is that there are countless people who believe this, including an awful lot of atheists who believe that all religions are evil, but who don’t go around indiscriminately killing people. In any case, Breivik never says this.
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;
Not surprisingly, selectivity in the use of “biblical literalism” is universal, which makes sense given that there is a variety of types of literature in Scripture, some of which is meant to be taken literally, some of which isn’t. Even Thistlethwaite takes some of it literally. Generally, those who use it to justify violence are those who would be violent anyway, but grab hold of some text or another justify what they want to do, rather than discovering a call to do what they wouldn’t otherwise.
4) identifying Christianity with a dominant race and/or nation;
See “German Christians” above.
5) believing that violence is divinely justified to “cleanse” or “purify” as in a “holy war”;
This idea used to be common within Christendom (as it has been and still is common in certain segments of Islam). But the only people who hold to this now are either the “German Christian” types or people who are so unhinged that they hear voices or see divine messages in the butter patterns on their English muffins.
and 6) believing the end of the world is at hand.
That must refer to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his threats to wipe Israel off the map to facilitate the coming of the 12th Mahdi, because it has nothing to do with Breivik at all.
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.
This kind of specificity would be more helpful if it had any kind of link with actual examples, since Breivik doesn’t fit this mold. He doesn’t claim to be Christian in any sense other than the cultural; he has no interest in whether the theological claims of Christianity are true, much less exclusively so; he has no apparent problem with any religion other than Islam; his apocalypticism is cultural rather than theological; etc. But other than that he’s a textbook case of what Thistlethwaite is talking about.
I also think it’s funny that she gets all scholarly on the use of the word “fundamentalist,” considering she uses it all the time as a synonym for “right-wing Christianity,” but hey, maybe she was looking at her doctoral sheepskin when she wrote this.
The real point is this: she doesn’t show that there is any connection between violence and “right-wing Christianity” because there isn’t one. A handful of deranged people, many of whom don’t even fit the stereotype, do not make a “connection”–they make an excuse for religious leftists to throw slime at Christians with whom they disagree.
UPDATE: Here’s the aforementioned Stephen Prothero at CNN’s “Belief Blog” today:
He affirms Christianity. He describes himself as “100% Christian” in his apparent manifesto….
If he did what he has alleged to have done, Anders Breivik is a Christian terrorist.
Yes, he twisted the Christian tradition in directions most Christians would not countenance. But he rooted his hate and his terrorism in Christian thought and Christian history, particularly the history of the medieval Crusades against Muslims, and current efforts to renew that clash.
Here’s Breivik in his manifesto:
At the age of 15 I chose to be baptised and confirmed in the Norwegian State Church. I consider myself to be 100% Christian. However, I strongly object to the current suicidal path of the Catholic Church but especially the Protestant Church….
As for the Church and science, it is essential that science takes an undisputed precedence over biblical teachings. Europe has always been the cradle of science and it must always continue to be that way.
Regarding my personal relationship with God, I guess I’m not an excessively religious man. I am first and foremost a man of logic. However, I am a supporter of a monocultural Christian Europe.
Yeah, that sounds like a Christian to me. In some ways, he’d fit right into Thistlethwaite’s United Church of Christ.
UPDATE: Yet another academic, Marc Jeurgensmeyer of Southern Cal, weighs in at Religion Dispatches:
The similarities between suspected mass killer Anders Behring Breivik and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh are striking.
Both were good-looking young Caucasians, self-enlisted soldiers in an imagined cosmic war to save Christendom. Both thought their acts of mass destruction would trigger a great battle to rescue society from the liberal forces of multiculturalism that allowed non-Christians and non-whites positions of acceptability. Both regretted the loss of life but thought their actions were “necessary.” For that they were staunchly unapologetic. And both were Christian terrorists.
Thereby demonstrating (as if further evidence were necessary) that some academics would rather be politically correct than factually accurate. McVeigh explicitly said he was an agnostic. I know–details, details.
Jeurgensmeyer’s point seems to be that if you are going to call Osama bin Laden a Muslim, then you have to call Breivik a Christian:
Is this a religious vision, and am I right in calling Breivik a Christian terrorist? It is true that Breivik—and McVeigh, for that matter—were much more concerned about politics, race, and history than about scripture and religious belief; with Breivik even going so far as to write that “It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian atheist (an atheist who wants to preserve at least the basics of the European Christian cultural legacy (Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter)).”
But much the same can be said about Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and many other Islamist activists. Bin Laden was a businessman and engineer, and Zawahiri was a medical doctor; neither were theologians or clergy. Their writings show that they were much more interested in Islamic history than theology or scripture, and imagined themselves as re-creating glorious moments in Islamic history in their own imagined wars. Tellingly, Breivik writes of al Qaeda with admiration, as if he would love to create a Christian version of their religious cadre.
If bin Laden is a Muslim terrorist, Breivik and McVeigh are surely Christian ones.
So here’s what religion is in the hands of one sociologist:
In case you can’t make out that warning in the corner, it says: “May be dangerous when used for political purposes.”