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.
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.