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.

A triumph of tradition over truth?

The front-bench MPs have been sworn into Parliament. Others will follow. All but one member of the Cabinet took the religious form of the oath:

I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true alliegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg (a professed atheist) took the secular oath:

I do solemnly, sincerely and most and affirm I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.

Many Labour front-benchers followed Mr Clegg’s example. David Miliband, Alistair Darling, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper, Bob Ainsworth and John Denham all affirmed their allegiance to the Queen.

So are we to conclude the Government is Godly and Her Majesty’s Opposition is mainly Godless? I would be surprised, in this secular age, if every Cabinet member swearing the relgious oath really believed in the God by whom they swore.

It is, perhaps, a triumph of tradition over truth.

But many cabinet ministers certainly do profess a believe in God. David Cameron is a regular church-goer. William Hague has called himself a “committed Christian”. Caroline Spelman is a trustee of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith are Catholics. Baroness Warsi is a Muslim. No doubt there are others.

But are they any more right to swear the oath than the others?

Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
(Matthew 5v34-37)

Surely a conundrum for some believing MPs. I found it interesting to observe that Simon Hughes, a professed Christian, chose to take the secular oath. There may have been others.

A crucial opportunity

We’ve a very important job to do on Thursday.

Vote.

Every Westminster constituency is up for grabs. 650 of them. For many of us it’s time to choose our local councillors too. Both elections are important, but the opinion poll story suggests our votes in the General Election are particularly crucial.

As I’ve argued, there are many parallels with the election of 1992.

But in some ways, the parallels with February 1974 are more important.

In that election, a surge in support for smaller parties produced a hung parliament (or ‘balanced’ as the Lib Dems like to call it) which left the Conservatives too weak to govern. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, leading a minority Labour government. In need of strength, he called a fresh election in October 1974, securing an overall majority of just three seats.

Apparently the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, believes whoever wins the election ahead “will be out of power for a whole generation.” Perhaps he was thinking of 1974. Our economy then was in deep trouble. The years ahead brought great strife and many strikes. It took Labour 18 years to return to government following its defeat in 1979.

We are immersed in a fiscal nightmare; last year the government spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. Dealing with the deficit will be very painful. We may be out of recession for now, but the years ahead will be harder, not easier. Pity the Prime Minister calling an election in 2015.

But it is not 2015. It is 2010 and we’ve a very important job to do. We must think of the five years ahead, not the years after that. We must put our country first as we cast our ballot.

In 2005, 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. In 1992, the last time we knew it would be close, the turnout was 77.7%. I suspect we’ll see a similarly high turnout this time.

I will be voting in Poplar & Limehouse. It’s a fascinating contest; a three-way marginal where Respect’s George Galloway has entered the fray to unsettle Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick. It presents the Conservatives’ Tim Archer with a golden opportunity to win a challenging seat; a diverse, deprived, inner-city constituency.

George Galloway

George Galloway campaigning for Respect outside my home.

The BBC’s take on my constituency is here. Few seats will be watched with such interest, but every seat is important. Even safe seats are decided by those who actually turn up. They are only ‘safe’ because the voters make them safe. In 1997, the ‘Portillo moment’ showed that no seat is truly safe.

Voting is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

As a Christian, it’s interesting to note how many of my brothers and sisters feel it’s not their place to vote. Some of them don’t want to compromise their beliefs, by voting for the lesser of two evils. Others note that voting is not sanctioned in the Bible and that Jesus did not engage in the government of his day.

However, God created us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to rule “over every living creature” (Genesis 1v28). Later St Paul writes that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13v1), “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v5) and “the authorities are God’s servants” (v6).

It reasonable inference that Christians might play a role in government or in electing it. It is even more important for us to pray. Each of us is but one man or woman and we have just one vote. But our prayers call upon a supreme authority for whom all things are possible.

While I have my doubts about the extent of the state, I do believe it has a role to play in regulating society and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is a good mission. But it can be undertaken well or badly and I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure our government acts well.

The debate about Christian engagement will go on. There is a similar argument in Islam, where some believe voting is “Shirk” (forbidden and unforgivable). But Muslim political engagement here in the UK is very strong, probably stronger than amongst Christians.

It is probably explained partly by a feeling of oppression as a minority in a secular christian country (small ‘c’ deliberate) and partly by an optimism that change is possible. Whereas the rest of us, Christian and secular alike, have come to feel that our votes count for very little.

Perhaps that’s true, but they still count for something. If they didn’t politicians wouldn’t be fighting so hard for them.

Christians may find it useful to check out the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement or the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Together they established Christians in Politics, a broader resource.

Vote for Policies is an independent website which merits 10 minutes’ investment. With so much focus on the personalities and the impression given by the parties, which party might we choose if it were entirely down to the policies? Vote for Policies might help.

If you want to examine the policy issues from first principles, check out the party manifestos (listed alphabetically, not by preference!)

Alliance Party (NI)

British National Party

Christian Peoples Alliance

Conservatives

Conservatives & Unionists

Democratic Unionist Party

English Democrats

Green Party

Jury Team

Labour

Liberal Democrats

Official Monster Raving Loony Party

Plaid Cymru

Respect

Scottish National Party

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sinn Fein

UK Independence Party

Bible Top Ten

Let’s start with the bottom ten.

The Ship of Fools recently published “Chapter & Worse“, the ten worst verses of the Bible. Check it out for bemusement or to confirm any prejudices you already have about what a nasty piece of work the Bible is. For me it’s difficult to reconcile the enormous influence the Christian movement had on the abolition of slavery with St Peter’s exhortation to slaves to submit to their masters! See 1 Peter 2v18, the last of the listed ten worst verses.

The Bible is a library, of course; it contains a varied selection of books. Some books are more challenging than others, particularly in the consideration of some individual verses as outlined by the Ship of Fools.

All Scripture is God-breathed
(2 Timothy 3v16)

So what does that mean for us? There’s an interesting feature here about that particular verse. It explores a number of other sources that are drawn upon within the Biblical canon. It is a difficult area, but it is without doubt that there is a wealth of wisdom and knowledge contained within it. Even if you question some of it, it remains a remarkable historical document and much of the writing is legendary.

 

"God-breathed"

"God-breathed"

I wonder what books I would include if I needed to draw up a shorter canon? I can’t imagine how that need would arise, but it would be an interesting exercise to envisage what a top ten of the Bible might look like. I’m not talking here about a pure top ten; not ten standalone works of inspired God-breathed literary genius. I’m thinking ideally of a top ten that might best encapsulate what the Bible stands for and what it means. It’s not easy, but here’s my attempt:

Genesis – The story of creation and the beginning of all things. It’s difficult to justify the entirety of Genesis as literary truth, but theologically it’s crucial.

Exodus – The beginning of Judaism and the Law. Much of it boring and repetitive, but surely a necessary part of the wider story.

Samuel (both parts) – Another important part of the Jewish story, the lives of Saul, David and Solomon in particular. Early ideas of the authority of God invested in the state.

Isaiah – A prophecy which brings meaning to the Gospel truth.

Daniel – A wonderful story of trust and faith. More prophecy, much of it still to come.

Luke – The most comprehensive single work on the life of Jesus.

John – A different perspective of Jesus, concentrating more on who He was than what He did.

Acts – the birth of the church. Miracles abound. The Big Bang of Christianity.

Romans – Much to my frustration, the only part of St Paul’s work I have space to include, but surely his best(?) A great exposition of what it means to be Christian and what that walk is all about.

James – Very practical advice written by the brother of Jesus Himself. How to manage temptation and live out our faith in a way that truly helps others. The manual on Jesus’ call to love others as ourselves.

Well, these are my thoughts. Controversial, no doubt. They’re not the ten foremost Christian texts, but perhaps together they provide context for each other. They’re the ones I’d recommend to someone who’d read none of it or who knew none of it.

I stand ready to be corrected!