In the wake of the recent killings in Oslo, Norway, there has been a flurry of debate over whether the accused mass-murderer, Anders Breivik, is in fact a Christian. The New York Times described Breivik as a “Christian extremist,” William Saletan at Slate has used the phrase “Christian terrorism,” and numerous other journalists and bloggers continue to use similar terms (despite the fact that the media have typically repudiated the use of such terminology regarding Islam).
Two of the strongest assertions have come from Chicago Theological Seminary professor Susan Brooks Thislethwaite in the Washington Post and University of Chicago Divinity School professor Margaret Mitchell in Sightings, the latter of which declares that “Breivik is deeply and significantly a Christian.” This is especially disappointing, since as scholars in theology and New Testament studies, respectively, Thislethwaite and Mitchell should know better. In no reasonable sense of the term can Breivik be called a Christian. As Jordan Sekulow said in a rejoinder to Thislethwaite in another Washington Post piece, “To label Breivik a ‘Christian’ requires a depraved understand[ing] of what it means to be a Christian.”
Those sympathetic with these accusations apparently reject the distinction between genuine Christians and those who merely claim to be Christians. We recognize this distinction in every other context, and so should we here. Being a Christian is not simply a matter of affirming certain propositions, as is clear from many biblical passages (e.g., Mt. 25:31-46; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; and Gal. 5:19-21). Even if Anders Breivik did affirm the deity and resurrection of Jesus (which, in fact, he denies), this would not by itself make him any more Christian than the devil himself (who presumably would affirm these truths).
Even more disturbing is the contention by Thislethwaite that there are “elements of Christianity” that actually inspire violence. Thislethwaite neglects to specify what those elements are, beyond pointing to certain problematic “interpretations” of Scripture.
Some might be tempted to justify this view by pointing to certain Old Testament passages where God commanded the killing of the Canaanites. But these are not uniquely Christian texts. Jews and Muslims also regard the Old Testament books as scripture. To properly assess a true Christian ethic of violence we must focus on Christianity’s distinguishing person, Jesus Christ, and Christianity’s distinguishing text, the New Testament. And when we do so, what do we find? A consistent ethic of non-violence. Consider the following:
The influence of these teachings in the history of the church is well-known, including:1) significant pacifist theological traditions (e.g., the Quakers and Mennonites), 2) Christian non-violent social movements (e.g. anti-war organizations, anti-death penalty groups, and Martin Luther King’s work in the civil rights movement), and 3) Christian martyrdom, as thousands of believers have been, and continue to be, tortured and killed rather than to violently defend themselves against oppressors.
These are the facts that have been overlooked or ignored by those such as Thislethwaite who suggest Christianity inspires violence. Perhaps what Thislethwaite really wants to highlight is the fact that some madmen, most recently Anders Breivik, have warped or twisted Christian ideas to their own use in attempting to justify their violence. Well, of course this is true—and it is so obvious it is hardly worth stating. But this is a far cry from the notion that Christianity itself, as defined above inspires violence or that there could be such a thing as a “Christian terrorist.” We are deeply saddened by such a gross distortion of the moral essence of our faith—a misrepresentation so severe that it amounts to theological slander.
Rather than cast blame where it does not belong, let us instead pray for the survivors and families of the victims of the Oslo shootings and even for Anders Breivik. Let us renew our efforts to sow harmony and reconciliation instead of violence and discord in all contexts, public and private. And let us promote the New Testament ethic of peaceful living and self-giving love. In short, let us follow the example and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, as we work for redemption in all things.
President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society
Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics
Palm Beach Atlantic University
Professor of Philosophy and religion
Taylor University (Indiana)
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
Talbot School of Theology
Professor of Comparative Religion
Research Professor in Philosophy
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Professor of Philosophy
Concordia University (Wisconsin)
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology
Director of the L. Russ Bush Center For Faith and Culture
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy
Bethel College, Indiana
Associated Professor of Philosophy and Theology
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
Professor and Chair
Department of Philosophy
University of New Brunswick
President, Confident Christianity
President, Come Reason Ministries