Norway has experienced a nightmare—3 hours of abject terror. On Friday afternoon, right around 3:30, thirty-two year-old Anders Behring Breivik ignited a bomb outside government offices in Oslo, killing at least 7. As the bomb exploded, he was on his way to Utoya Island, about 20 miles from Oslo, the location of a youth camp run by a political party. Dressed in a police uniform, he asked to address the group (there were some 700 people at the camp) before opening fire on them. He killed at least 86, gunning them down in cold blood. By 6:30 PM Breivik was in police custody, having taken almost 100 lives in 3 short hours. In the meantime, the eyes of the whole world had shifted to Norway and millions were wondering just who would do something like this, and why.
Within hours of the event, news headlines were proclaiming that this was the work of a Christian fundamentalist or extremist. The Atlantic splashed this headline on their site: “The Christian Extremist Suspect in Norway’s Massacre.” The Washington Post said, “‘What we know is that he is right wing and he is Christian fundamentalist,’ deputy police chief Roger Andresen said Saturday morning at a televised news conference. ‘We have not been able to link him up to an anti-Islamic group.’ He said that the suspect had not been arrested before, and that police were unsure if he had acted alone.”
Was this the work of a Christian? Was this terror consistent with a man who claims to be a follower of Christ? Many believe that it is.
The declaration that Breivik is a Christian seems to have come largely from his Facebook profile where he assigned himself the labels “Christian” and “Conservative.” That was enough for many people, and especially for those with an anti-Christian agenda. Frank Schaeffer immediately jumped online and said, “I told you so!”, writing on his blog, “In my new book ‘Sex, Mom and God’ I predicted just such an action. I predicted that right wing Christians will unleash terror here in America too. I predict that they will copy Islamic extremists, and may eventually even make common cause with them.” Carl Trueman gets it right when he says:
If a man doesn’t hesitate to use his parents’ sex lives to get a cheap laugh and sell a few books, one should not be surprised if he sees yesterday’s events in Norway as a great opportunity for puffing his own prophetic insights, trying to flog a few more copies of his own recent book and demonstrating that the Left too can have as tenuous a grip on logic, evidence and argument as Glenn Beck (who would ever have thought there was link between Tim Keller, Bill Edgar and religious terrorism?). Yes, you guessed it, Frank Schaeffer has done it again. Just goes to show that every cloud has a silver lining — if you are sufficiently self-absorbed, that is.
How are we, as Christians, to understand this event? How are we to think about the media declaring that this is the work of a Christian?
Before we do anything, we ought to be in prayer for those who have been so deeply affected by Breivik’s acts of terror. A whole nation has been left reeling; tens of thousands are in mourning, having had a friend or family member gunned down. As Christians we know where hope lies and we know that only the Lord can bring true, lasting hope and healing. And so we weep with those who weep, praying for the people of Norway, asking that the Lord would bring comfort.
In what remains of this article I simply want to trace my own thinking on this man and on these events. Here is how I have thought it through.
When I began hearing news reports and began hearing that this was the work of a Christian, my first impression is that Breivik was proclaimed to be a Christian not so much because he is a man who indicates that he is a Bible-believing, evangelical Christian or anything of the sort. My first impression is that he was proclaimed to be a Christian so that the world would not immediately jump to the conclusion that he was Muslim. I am sure that the majority of people, when they heard of the explosion, found themselves thinking, “Here we go again.” And, in fact, an early article at the Washington Post proclaimed this very thing.
For many people, whether in secular Europe or in the Bible belt of America, Christian refers more to birth, family or nationality than it does to any inward, spiritual reality. What I mean, is that I don’t think people were necessarily proclaiming, “This is a man who loves Jesus and who seeks to live in a way that honors God” as much as they were proclaiming, “This was not Islamic terror.” On some level the positive declaration “He is a Christian” was actually a negative declaration–“It wasn’t Muslims!”
There Is No Gatekeeper
The Christian faith has no gatekeeper. There is no person or governing body who declares who can and who cannot call himself a Christian. Anyone can claim to be a Christian. It has always been this way and it will always be this way. This means that anything can be done in the name of Christ–even those things that are so obviously directly opposed to all that Christ taught. We have to accept this reality and not be ashamed of it.
Maybe this should lead us to ask how we represent Christ and his cause. Do our deeds leave a distinctly Christian legacy behind? Do we live in the way Christ taught us to live? Though we may never commit such an act of terror, we, too, can declare an allegiance with Christ and then act in ways that pour contempt on his name. Taking Christ’s name upon yourself by calling yourself a Christian is a great privilege but also a great responsibility.
Beware of Easy Labels
This shrinking, digital world offers us the ability to quickly and easily label ourselves and one another. Though these labels may mean very little, we tend to act as if those labels are genuine and heartfelt and meaningful. All the news outlets found Breivik’s Facebook profile where he labeled himself as “Christian.” Once they found that, they looked little further. That was what they were after. They proclaimed him a Christian but put little effort into understanding what that really meant or how he really lived. As Ed Stetzer points out, had they looked a little bit further, they would have seen that he hates Protestantism (so he is a Christian fundamentalist who hates Protestantism) and believes that the Protestant church needs to return to Catholicism. They also would have seen that he loves the television show True Blood, (a difficult thing to reconcile with religious conservatism) and that he has connections to Freemasonry. Though he has taken the label “Christian,” he does not appear to live like any conservative Christian I know.
It is worth noting that there are many, many other ways the press could have described him. “Organic Fruit Farmer Suspect;” “Political Activist;” “Freemason.” Just ponder this for a short time. Why are his religious views immediately assumed to be the motivator?
The World Hates Us
There is a movement afoot to paint Christians as an imminent, violent threat. One of the great successes of the New Atheism has been in convincing people that the Bible has within it the roots of this kind of violent extremism. It seeks to convince people that religion itself is violent and that no one should react with surprise when anyone who believes in God turns violent.
Those whose hearts have been transformed by the Lord know that this is simply not true. While we know that sin runs deep within us, we also know that the Lord calls us to live peacefully with all and to grow in our desire to show Christ-like character. Our testimony to the world is to be one of love. Jesus told his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus told us offer the world around us a testimony of love. But he also knew that this would not convince everyone. Far from it. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” The logic goes like this: People hate Christ; therefore people hate those who love Christ and who seek to be like him. People will express this hatred by unfairly grouping true Christians with those who look nothing like Christians. On some level, then, people are eager to see Christ in Anders Behring Breivik because it gives them an opportunity to further their rebellion against the God they fear and the Saviour they hate.
Do not be offended when Christians are unfairly portrayed. Do not be surprised. The world hated Christ and the world will hate those who follow Christ, who act like Christ. The world falsely portrayed Christ and the world will falsely portray those who follow him. Our task is to live in the ways Christ told us to live; the results we leave to his good and sovereign will. Do not be surprised when you are lumped into the same camp as Anders Behring Breivik or Timothy McVeigh. But do expect that in time this kind of event will be used against us and will be used to curtail our freedom to worship.