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Jonty Langley Headshot

Was Norway's Killer a Christian?

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Christian terrorism: it was bound to happen, eventually. And if the newspapers are to be believed, it happened over the weekend in Norway. Anders Behring Breivik, the man detained over the bombing and horrific shootings in Norway last week, described himself as a Christian and if Christians in Britain and North America are not taking a long, hard look at ourselves this week, perhaps we should be.

Let's be clear: I cannot imagine any Christian belief or impulse I would recognise motivating someone to kill 92 terrified young people in cold blood. But recent years have shown us that it is fairly easy for an entire faith to be tainted by association with a minority within it. Will that happen to Christianity now, as it has to an extent with Islam? I doubt it. Islam has been the victim primarily of bigotry, racism and not a little misguided nationalist jingoism, even when those impulses hide behind the 'new atheism' that seeks to be egalitarian in its antipathy towards religion. But Christians, in the West anyway, don't stand out particularly, don't commit the sin of being too different. We don't dress differently (though those experienced in Church life can usually spot Christians by the righteousness of their cardigans), we don't eat anything too exclusive and we don't really act very differently from our non-Christian neighbours. It's rather a shame, when you think about it.

We are not, I suspect, about to spend a lot more time in security queues in airports for wearing crosses or see our pastors deported for things they say in the pulpit, despite all the hysterical screams we regularly hear from certain Christian quarters about how 'persecuted' we are (and, really, those people should spend some time in Orissa before they use that word). But the very fact of our still relatively safe position and the reasons for it should give us pause.

After all, aren't we called to be distinctive, peculiar, not-of-this-world? Isn't it a bit of a shame that, for the most part we are just as materialist, selfish and obsessed with the trivial as the rest of our society? Shouldn't we be aiming a little higher? Alienating people a little more? I don't mean by ranting at them in the streets, trying to ban magazines with breasts in them (seriously, what is the obsession with breasts in the Church?), blocking planning permission for mosques or demanding our own version of science. I mean making people properly uncomfortable by wearing old clothes, never buying new cars and living in modest dwellings because we give so damn much to the poor. I mean weirding people out because we don't give a crap about celebrities because we're too focussed on ending world hunger. Bugging our families because we're too busy loving our neighbours into the Kingdom to get involved in discussions about how you can't trust gypsies/Poles/Muslims.

But our lack of distinctiveness (beyond what we do on Sundays and say we believe) is troubling in the light of the killings in Norway because, regardless of the killer's actual faith, our Church has, in some quarters, been conformed to the thinking of this world in the worst possible way. Where has the Church in the West been on subjects like gun control (a chillingly relevant subject)? Where have we stood on immigration, really? What have we said about right-wing politics such as those held by Breivik? What have our leaders written and preached on these subjects? With some noble exceptions, not nearly enough.

Even in countries and denominations where followers of the Prince of Peace do not see ownership of guns (machines whose sole purpose is the destruction of life) as a God-given right, we have been too conformed, too willing to go with the zeitgeist, even when the zeitgeist is wrong. A great example of this zeitgeist came from the Sunday Times editorial following the shootings. It talked about the rise of extreme right-wing parties in Norway and then, in a staggering bit of blame shifting, said: 'The common factor is immigration,'and then: 'Immigration creates tensions everywhere, but particularly in small, insular countries.' And while it was careful not to say immigration justifies violence, it did kinda blame extremism on immigration. Which is kind of like blaming lynchings in America's Deep South on certain communities persistently and willfully insisting on being black. How much has our love, as a Church, of making no waves and fitting in with whatever passes for 'moderate' in countries so influenced by a right-wing media conformed us to that kind of un-Christ-like thinking?

The 'Christian terrorist' should give us pause to consider how far to the right we've inadvertently slid, even if it isn't as far as he did, even if our neighbours and newspapers endorse it, and we should repent. More than that, we should consider standing up more for our Muslim brothers and sisters (who face the kind of pressure and prejudice we could only imagine in this country) not because we particularly believe in their faith, but because we take ours seriously.

No, Breivik was probably not a real Christian. But how many of us were willing to listen when Muslims told us similar things about Osama Bin Laden?

A shorter version of this piece appeared in The Baptist Times.