Anders Behring Breivik – probably not a ‘fundamentalist Christian’

As news broke of the terrible tragedies in Oslo and Utøya, many of us will have suspected an Islamist link. In the UK, the Sun was the most prominent culprit, but there were others. Islamist terrorism has become all too familiar after 9/11, Madrid, London, Bali and countless others in the Islamic world.

But these dreadful attacks were caused not by an Islamist, but by a self-professed Christian named Anders Behring Breivik. He described them as “gruesome but necessary” and pledged to explain why. Norwegian police say that while he has admitted the killings, he has not accepted criminal responsibility for them.

Yesterday many churches around the world prayed for the survivors of the terrible tragedy in Norway. Congregations abhorred the actions of the perpetrator, who – to western eyes – looks stereotypically angelic compared with our prejudiced ideas of what a contemporary terrorist should look like.

Anders Behring Breivik
Stereotypically angelic?

In the not-too-distant past, such a person was white, a bit rough and sounded like me, but with a slightly more sinister Northern Irish lilt. He was ‘Republican’ or ‘Loyalist’, but never (except in ignorant circles) ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’. I grew up surrounded by tribal conflict, but it was not ‘Christian terrorism’.

Shortly after the attacks, the police suggested Brievik was a ‘Christian fundamentalist’. They also pointed out his far-right ideology and his freemasonry.

Whether or not Brievik is a freemason is simply a point of fact. So too would be his membership of a particular church. Both questions should deliver a straightforward answer.

But is he – as he claims – a Christian?

Christians, the world over, will hate the idea that the man who bombed Oslo, killing 8, and later shot dead 68 people on Utøya claims to be drawn from their community. I must disclose I am a Christian; it makes me feel deeply embarrassed, but not ashamed.

I am not ashamed, because it is not Christian behaviour. It runs counter to the teachings of Christ, and it is not typical of Christian people.

However, none of us can discern the salvation of another. We may judge the behaviour, but not the person. And since “all have sinned” [Romans 3v23], Brievik is, in a narrow sense, just like the rest of us. God will judge us all in good time.

Let Brievik describe himself as he chooses. But he is not a ‘fundamentalist Christian’. The characteristics of such a person are debatable (see the comments thread for more!), but surely include the following:

  • Respects and obeys the Ten Commandments, including “Thou shalt not kill [murder].”
  • Follows the teachings of Jesus Christ, who instructed us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… [and] love your neighbour as yourself” [Matthew 22v37&39]
  • Follows the example of Jesus, who, after His arrest, instructed Peter to put away his sword.
  • Exhibits the fruit of the Spirit, ie “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” [Galatians 5v22-23]

We all fall short from time to time, but in his behaviour on Friday, Anders Behring Breivik showed no evidence of fundamentalist Christianity.

But was his behaviour motivated by his warped understanding of Christianity? If so, then of course this should be reflected in the media. But it must be carefully expressed.

I used the term ‘Islamism’ to refer to the cause for some of the terrorist atrocities of recent years. These attacks were born of a very particular understanding of militant Islam. It is a critical part of the story. But to describe those attacks as Islamic would be both offensive and wrong. To describe the perpetrators as ‘fundamentalist Muslims’ would be equally offensive to many and probably wrong too.

We live in a fallen world where some people do evil things. They will blame others for their deeds, or point to a religious or political cause. Sometimes that cause has merit, sometimes not. Our efforts to understand such a cause should neither be advanced nor set back by the actions of one individual, especially one like Anders Behring Breivik. But we should seek separately to understand him and his story to prevent a repeat of the terrible events of last Friday.

UPDATE (26 July 2011): Essential to our understanding of Breivik is his own perspective on Christianity. I stumbled across this post by Timothy Dalrymple in which this is explored. It is worth a read. Indeed he quotes from Brievik’s own manifesto, in a section entitled “Distinguishing between cultural Christendom and religious Christendom”

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.

As Dalrymple asserts, “no, actually it doesn’t.” But Brievik’s comments help us better understand what kind of a war he sought to wage. A tribal war. A clash of civilisations, not a promulgation of any religious idea. Not fundamentally Christian at all.

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9 thoughts on “Anders Behring Breivik – probably not a ‘fundamentalist Christian’

  1. Pingback: Was Anders Breivik a Christian? « Teh's Tales, Ian's Yarns

  2. Pingback: Christian fundamentalism as dangerous as Muslim fundamentalism | Marcus' Space

  3. Hello David! As promised/suggested, I’ve come over here to continue our excellent Twitter conversation. I hope you are not ultimately sorry about that because I have been known to use 50 words when 5 would do, and the 140 character limit is rather character-building. See? I’m doing it already.

    The discussion so far, for folks who are reading along:

    I submit that you have come to the correct conclusion (Breivik is many things, but “fundamentalist Christian” is probably not one of them), but for the wrong reason. I think the evidence is pretty clear that to the extent that Breivik identified with Christianity it was for historical (and nationalistic) reasons. He is, at best, a “culturally Christian” atheist (or perhaps “agnostic” in the colloquial “I don’t really think about the God question much but I’m leaning toward ‘no'”).

    Importantly, it was his (lack of) beliefs that disqualifies him, not his horrific behavior. To claim that “no true Christian would behave in that way” is to commit the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. There is a decent description of the fallacy on Wikipedia (interestingly updated since we first started this discussion to include the Breivik example): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_scotsman

    We’ve had some back and forth on Twitter on the subject, and we have largely agreed to disagree on the question of whether behavior is an appropriate part of the definition of a fundamentalist Christian.

    I remain curious on the following points:

    * You seem to make a distinction between the definition of “Christian” and “fundamentalist Christian.” Can you expound on this?

    * I submit that your four bullets above do not represent a widespread definition of a fundamentalist Christian; see for example the definition given at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Fundamentalism_%28religious_movement%29 . Could this be a US/UK contrast, or would you concede that you are giving a personal definition here?

    * Is it not the point of defining a specific religion one of understanding the *beliefs* of the individual?

    * Based on the above and our Twitter conversation, you seem to be arguing that the sincerity of the believer is part of the defining factor. You seem reluctant to address the question of Andrea Yates (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Yates). She was a deeply devout Christian (part of the Quiverfull movement) who became so concerned for the eternal souls of her five children that she decided to murder all of them. She committed this horrific act from a place of devotion and love.

    * How many transgressions against the ten commandments before one can no longer be called a fundamentalist Christian?

    Thanks, David. Looking forward to your response.

    • Hi Cranky Humanist, and thank for you comment/questions.

      I will respond to your questions, but for reasons that will hopefully become clear I won’t attempt to fully answer all of them. In any case, our perspectives are so different that I don’t expect to persuade you fully!

      Firstly, we are agreed that Brievik sees himself simply as a ‘cultural Christian’ and not a Christian by faith. In that sense he cannot be described as a fundamentalist Christian. On this point I was ignorant until after I wrote my original post. I updated it on Tuesday, and I’ve just restored this update because – frustratingly – it had disappeared.
      My original post would certainly have been different if I had known Brievik’s own take on the issue.

      As you see it I came to the conclusion Brievik was probably not a ‘fundamentalist Christian’, for the wrong reason. I feel my reason wasn’t wrong, but largely superceded by Brievik’s own admissions.

      However, the purpose of my blog was to respond to an assumption about Brievik, and perhaps a common assumption, which I feel is based on a widespread misapprehension. It was the assumption – made by police shortly after Brievik’s arrest – that he was a fundamentalist Christian. It was never claimed by Brievik, and my contention is that the use of the word ‘fundamentalist’ was premature and unsupported by evidence. Indeed, if evidence was at all to be considered, it suggested a very different story.

      Now to your questions:

      I would define a Christian as someone who accepts the sovereignty of God (as Father, Son and Holy Spirit), who believes in both the full humanity and divinity of the Son (ie Jesus), has repented of his sins and trusts in Jesus for salvation through His death on the cross and subsequent resurrection.

      I will not attempt to say who is or isn’t a Christian, except to reiterate that while only God knows the heart, the definition above represents my understanding of the biblical criteria.

      Suffice to say that fundamentalist Christianity is a subsection of Christianity. Beyond that it is a hotly debated subject. At the top of your Wikipedia item it is noted that “the neutrality of this article is disputed” and “the article’s factual accuracy is disputed.” I think it is a term which is generally best avoided.

      I do not accept that a popular understanding of fundamentalist Christianity is sufficient for a definition. Many people believe Sydney is the capital of Australia. It is ‘widely accepted’. But it is not true.
      You may be right that the understanding of fundamentalist Christianity is different in the US and the UK. But, by their nature, Christian fundamentals cannot in reality be true just some of the time or in certain locations.

      In my blog post, I accept the characteristics of a Christian fundamentalist are debatable. For that reason, I won’t define it beyond offering a few criteria widely accepted in the Christian world. You can debate those too, of course, but it seems to me they are core manifestations of Christianity. While I cannot define exactly what a fundamentalist Christian is, I would suggest that a person who fails to meet all four of the criteria in my blog post is unlikely to be a Christian, never mind a fundamentalist Christian.

      To make this claim is quite different from the ‘no true Scotsman’ claim. Or as I might have said, ‘probably not a true Scotsman’. A Scotsman is defined by his birth. No other criteria can be considered. Rape may be unbecoming of a Scotsman, but pre-meditated mass-murder is incompatible with Christianity.

      It is true that behaviour alone own cannot address the question of whether someone is a Christian. But it does provide evidence for what lies beneath. I stand by my earlier definition of a Christian. As I see it, if a person fits the definition he is a Christian. The definition is only a few lines long, but its consequences are far-reaching. Accepting the sovereignty of God must, by extension, have an impact on one’s behaviour. Repentance means turning away from sin, not just saying sorry.

      God is very forgiving, but every time we turn back to sin, we must – genuinely – turn away again.

      I am indeed reluctant to address the question of Andrea Yates. Sincere or not, it sounds like she has a spurious understanding of Christianity based on teachings drawn from (let’s be generous) the fringes of Christianity. However, once again I stand by my definition of a Christian. If she fits the definition she is a Christian. God knows where her heart is.

      I’m sure you will appreciate that in the context of my argument, any attempt to answer your final question would be absurd… But a word like ‘fundamentalist’ is vague yet laden with pejorative meaning. It should not be used casually, and in my view, it should not be used at all for someone whose Christian credentials are somewhat tenuous.

      For further reading, you may wish to check out Cranmer on the same subject here: http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.com/2011/07/on-christian-fundamentalism.html

      I am imperfect, Cranmer is hard to fault. Only Jesus is truly perfect.

      • Thanks for this, David! I at least understand you a lot better.

        As you say, popular belief does not equate to fact (as a secular humanist I know this all too well!), and language is malleable. However, understanding how language is used is important for people to communicate clearly.

        From a practical standpoint, I think the inclusion of behavior in a definition of belief is problematic. I think we might be better off with a modifier. Ted Haggard is a well-known fundamentalist Christian who got himself in trouble with homosexuality and drugs. I don’t think that makes him not a fundamentalist Christian, but rather a “bad fundamentalist Christian” (or a “misguided” one, “fallen,” “wayward,” what have you).

        If behavior folds into the definition, then we have difficulty talking about one another. A congregation would then be filled with a handful of Christians and a whole bunch of folks whom we can’t label. Is that useful? I don’t think so.

        Were the Crusaders Christian? How can we say they were not? Were they good Christians? I would say not.

        I am very curious about this potential distinction between what Americans mean when they claim to be fundamentalist Christians and what Britons or other European fundamentalist Christians mean. Is there a difference? It seems like there might be but I don’t know how to go about really comparing.

        Lastly, there is also an interesting potential shift that Breivik seems to have embraced but I’m not sure the larger society is ready for. We’ve seen a long tradition of secular Judaism, such that it’s not surprising to hear folks claim to be an “atheist Jew.” As far as I can tell, this doesn’t even ruffle the feathers of the believing Jews (except perhaps on the fringes). Part of the reason for this is the historical overlap between an ethnic heritage and a religious one.

        I think we are only just starting to see this in the Christian world. There are many in Europe (and to a MUCH lesser extent in the US) who claim a Christian heritage, but aren’t actually believers. I will be very curious to see how your census turns out in this regard.

  4. Yes I’m sure you’re right about the differences of perception in the UK and the US. There is certainly an overlap, but there is a certain type of Christian in the US, who is rarer here in the UK.

    A qualification… I don’t consider behaviour to form part of the definition of belief. But it does provide evidence for belief.

  5. (Following your lead not nesting.)

    So we ultimately land in a place of agreement! That’s most excellent.

    I like your “evidence for belief” nuance. I think many folks might argue over just what that means, but I think I know where you are coming from.

  6. Pingback: Anders, Conservative Christian Murderer?? | Wading Across

  7. Pingback: White Christian Terrorism | The Social Spectator

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