In the wake of mass murder in Norway by a young man who hearkened to the Christian crusades and calls himself a cultural Christian – many ordinary people of faith were horrified to find Anders Behring Breivik described as a “Christian terrorist.”
Whether that title applies to Mr. Breivik is a suddenly awkward issue – partly because it raises the question about a fast and loose use of “Muslim” or “Islamic” to name those who commit violence in the name of their faith.
While European media seem disinterested in Breivik’s Christian self-definition or the terminology used to describe him, in the US and Muslim media worlds it is a sprawling debate. It was hyped by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News who found it an “outrage” to call Breivik a Christian terrorist; Mr. O’Reilly responded to some reports that early on took Breivik’s statements about his Christianity at face value.
But the Fox talk show host and some others have denied that Muslims who commit violence should be treated by the same rules.
Breivik, who systematically shot more than 60 fellow Norwegians with “a smile on his face,” as survivors from Utoya island described, says he is “100 percent Christian.” His use of the term is not based on faith but out of collective identification with a notion of “Christian Europe.”
"Regarding my personal relationship with God, I guess I'm not an excessively religious man," he says in his 1,500-page manifesto. "I am first and foremost a man of logic. However, I am a supporter of a monocultural Christian Europe."
Breivik’s video, in which he blames “cultural Marxists” for supporting a multicultural Europe, is replete with imagery of various sword-wielding and carnage-provoking crusaders and defenders, many of whom sport crosses.
Ironically, anyone who has recently checked the state of deep and abiding faith, or “piety,” in Europe, will find the place is decidedly, and more than ever, secular. In this sense at least Breivik is honest about his brand of Christianity. God-talk hasn’t occupied much of northern Europe for years, and not because bearded jihadists have blocked the entrance to the church.
“It’s complicated … but the majority of people [in northern Europe including Great Britain] are not committed, practicing Christians,” says Elizabeth Hunter, director of the Theos think tank on religion and society in London. Ms. Hunter says Breivik should not be called a Christian terrorist since his actions were “in no way prompted by any commonly held understanding of the teachings of Jesus.”
To be sure, among those who identify Christianity with the teachings, behavior, codes, and life of the early church, sometimes called “primitive Christianity,” the acts of Breivik have less than nothing to do with the Acts of the Gospels. His logic is seen as a deep distortion, of, say, the spirit of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek … blessed are the peacemakers … blessed are the poor in spirit…”
A columnist in Turkey’s Hurriyet last Friday found that Breivik’s brand of Christianity is essentially anti-Islamic and says, “I agree with the Christian writers who object to the links made between their faith and the Norwegian monster…. But, alas, this is the same thing we Muslims have been saying about Al Qaeda and most of its terrorists: Theirs was not a genuine expression of the Muslim faith, but a highly politicized, paranoid and fanatical expression of Muslim identity.”
Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, points out that many of the writers and pundits who were first and loudest to decry Breivik’s self-definition as a Christian have often been the last to accord Muslims the same degree of sensitivity, and have even assumed “victim status” at the hands of a “liberal media.”
In a blog posted today on GetReligion.org and hosted by The Christian Century Website, the commenter Mollie Ziegler argues against the moral equivalency of Christian and Islamic terrorist terminology, citing studies showing that opposition to Breivik in the West is nearly uniform, while polls show that feelings about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda are more ambiguous in Green crescent states.
“Are we capable of seeing the distinction between a dude acting alone with, at this point, no following and a large global movement with many leaders and supporters?" Mollie asks finally. ”Supporters of Islamic extremism are a minority in most Muslim countries. But there’s a dramatic difference between the level of support a killer such as Osama bin Laden had and the level of support a killer such as Breivik has. Media coverage should not ignore that distinction when pushing the moral equivalency meme.”
Religious scholars argue that Christianity in its better moments has been a force for liberation, whether through radical Protestant abolitionists and civil rights leaders in the US, or among radical Catholics working in South America.
The inspiration found by practicing Christians is often bestowed or experienced as a sense of grace, a subject with which Breivik does not appear to identify. The apostle Paul notes that all persons were free and equal in the sight of God and the slavery of anyone is a sin in the divine order of things. Hence poets like John Greenleaf Whittier and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, could partake in Christianity’s promise of grace and also be extremely active in anti-slavery movements. “Breivik’s views run in the opposite direction,” says a religious scholar in Cambridge, Mass., “Though he might not see it that way.”
One other Breivik notion that runs in another direction is his views on women. The rise of females and feminism in the West has weakened Western society and its martial spirit, he writes. “The feminization of European culture, moving rapidly since the 1960s continues to intensify.”