And I wasn’t alone in my suspicions. “In all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra," Thomas Joscelyn of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said within hours.
Then the media, which almost never say when a terrorist is a Muslim—at least not prominently—quickly reported that the attacker, Anders Breivik, is actually a “blond” Christian with a grudge against Muslims and the liberal politicians who have made it easy for them to come to Norway. Breivik opposes the ongoing Islamization of Europe and was seeking to ignite a social uprising.
Then, sure enough, came assertions that Breivik is a “Christian terrorist,” which reinforces the mainstream storyline that religion, of whatever variety, almost inevitably leads to violence, and that Christianity is no better than Islam in this regard.
There are several issues to untangle here.
First is the unavoidable question, “Is Anders Breivik a Christian terrorist?” Well, it is apparent that Breivik identifies himself as a Christian and describes returning Norway to its Christian past as one motive among many in his exhausting 1,500-page anti-Muslim manifesto. Those of us who have pointed out that Muslim terrorists are obviously Muslim (those who claim to follow Allah and to act on Islamic goals) can only admit that, on these criteria alone, Breivik is indeed a Christian terrorist.
However, Breivik also has said, “America as a polity is scr*wed, and thank the gods for that.” It is hard to square his nod to polytheism with orthodox Christianity. And I make no claims about whether Breivik really believes in Jesus or is truly born again. I’ll leave that area of inquiry in the far more capable hands of God.
Then what of the liberal storyline, which might be summed up by the famous assertion by the atheist pundit Christopher Hitchens that “religion poisons everything”? Well, it is true that no religious tradition is free from ugliness. We Christians, of course, must contend with our Crusades, our anti-Semitism, and our Salem witch trials. Hindus and Buddhists, adherents of religions not generally associated with violence, must explain the recent carnage in Sri Lanka. Jews have extremists who kill for Judaism.
But atheists shouldn’t rub their hands in glee at all this religious violence. They have some explaining of their own to do. For example, the atheistic communists did their part to make the 20th century history’s bloodiest with their genocidal acts in China, the Soviet bloc, and Cambodia.
The question is not whether religious people—or irreligious people, for that matter—are capable of killing for their faith. The answer, as both history and current events attest, clearly is yes. We are all sinners, as Christian theology asserts, with a terminal propensity to follow the way of Cain. With apologies to Hitchens, we are already poisoned.
According to one count, an estimated 25,000 terrorist attacks have been committed worldwide in the name of Islam since 1994. Compare that with the wicked, murderous rampage of Anders Breivik and any other “Christian terrorist” you can scrape up. You will quickly grasp the simple fact that Islam is much more closely associated with terrorism than Christianity or any other faith system.
We must ask, however, not only whether adherents of particular religions commit terrorist acts, but whether those acts follow the spirit of the faith in question or are aberrations best explained by other factors. This answer will help us respond to the charge that all religions are equally to blame for the mayhem we see in New York, Madrid, London, and Oslo.
We can understand a religion’s spirit by observing the lives of its founders, studying its teachings in context, and by examining how that faith is lived in the real world.
On each of these scores, Christianity shines. Its founder, a Jew named Jesus of Nazareth—who led the roughest of men in the way of peace; lifted up women, the poor, the despised, and the forgotten; and willingly went to the cross for us—has been described thus: “I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires, and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist. There is between Christianity and whatever other religion the distance of infinity.”
Concerning the teachings of the Christian faith, solid majorities of Americans believe the Bible to be the Word of God. It’s no wonder, as the Golden Rule and sayings such as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” have become deeply embedded in the culture. And these teachings have been lived out remarkably throughout the last 2,000 years.
Surveying Christianity’s contributions to philanthropy, philosophy, medicine, education, and many other avenues of human existence, Dinesh D’Souza states without apology, “It is the very core and center of Western civilization. Many of the best things about our world are the result of Christianity, and some of the worst things are a result of its absence, or of moving away from it.”
Islam, despite its austere (and, to many people, compelling) moral vision, has nothing like this track record. Its founder, Muhammad, was a great leader—a great military leader, who spread the religion via intimidation and the sword. The teachings of Islam, found in the Qur’an and in various written traditions, command that adherents variously spread their faith through gentle persuasion, deception, and conquest.
For example, Sura 9:5 states, “When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent and take to prayer and render the alms levy, allow them to go their way. God is forgiving and merciful.”
Lest you protest that this verse is taken out of context, history is replete with examples of what happens when Muslims take over a government. Subject peoples receive an opportunity to become Muslims. Those who don’t convert face the prospect of execution or (more likely) permanent second-class status. Those who convert from Islam to another faith face the very real possibility of death or social isolation. The most frequent and severe restrictions of religious liberty today, in fact, come not from predominantly Christian nations but from predominantly Muslim ones.
Yes, Anders Breivik is a Christian terrorist—fortunately for the rest of us, an extremely rare one, who is more concerned with a so-called “Christian Europe” than with Christian ethics. Unfortunately, the far greater challenge of Muslim terrorism cannot be explained so easily.
Stan Guthrie is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us and coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. He blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.