Within hours of the killings in Norway this weekend, headlines were proclaiming that alleged terrorist Anders Behring Breivik was a Christian.
The declaration seems to have come largely from his Facebook profile, where he assigned himself the labels “Christian” and “Conservative.” The Atlantic splashed this headline on their site: “The Christian Extremist Suspect in Norway’s Massacre.” Deputy police chief Roger Andresen was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, "What we know is that he is right wing and he is Christian fundamentalist."
Here are four things to consider as you hear these labels being thrown about.
1. Christian or not Muslim?
When I began hearing that this was the work of a Christian, my first impression was that Breivik 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 Washington Post article 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!”
2. There is no gatekeeper
There is no person or governing body who declares who can and who cannot call himself 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.
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.
3. 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, 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.
4. Painting with a broad brush
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.
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. Do not be offended when Christians are unfairly portrayed. Do not be surprised. 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.
(Facebook profile photo of Anders Behring Breivik courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)