When I opened up Susan Brooks Thislethwaite’s Washington Post opinion piece, “When Christianity Becomes Lethal,” I was skeptical, to say the least. There is a disturbing tendency among some observers—Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are great examples—to treat so-called “fundamentalist” religions indiscriminately, as if all are equally prone to violence. That’s nothing but absurd, as a quick survey of the news will tell you almost any day of the week.
The article met my expectations through several paragraphs, disappointingly so. For example,
Stephen Prothero describes this dynamic in his students: “When I was a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta, I required my students to read Nazi theology. I wanted them to understand how some Christian bent the words of the Bible into weapons aimed at Jews and how these weapons found their mark at Auschwitz and Dachau. My Christian students responded to these disturbing readings with one disturbing voice: the Nazis were not real Christians, they informed me, since real Christians would never kill Jews in crematories.” Prothero confesses he found their response “terrifying.”
Actually, Mr. Prothero, your students were right. Real Christianity does not kill Jews in crematories. Real Christians do not always practice real Christianity, I will grant; but when they fail, it is not their Christianity that is to blame. More accurately I should say that when we fail, it is not our Christianity that is to blame. It is our incomplete and flawed practice of the faith.
Much of Thislethwaite’s complaint is over Christians’ unwillingness to face the facts of their religion. We are blind, she says, to the violence it can lead to. Actually, when she got specific about it, there was a lot I could agree with:
When I consider the theological perspectives that “tempt” some Christians to justify hatred and even violence against others, such as, in this case in Norway, the following perspectives seem especially prevalent: 1) making supremacist claims that Christianity is the “only” truth; 2) holding the related view that other religions are not merely wrong, but “evil” and “of the devil”; 3) being highly selective in the use of biblical literalism, for example ignoring the justice claims of the prophets and using biblical texts that seem to justify violence; 4) identifying Christianity with a dominant race and/or nation; 5) believing that violence is divinely justified to “cleanse” or “purify” as in a “holy war”; and 6) believing the end of the world is at hand.
Now she did fall into the all-too-obvious trap of concluding Breivik is a Christian because “He has been described by police there as a ‘Christian fundamentalist.’ His rambling ‘manifesto’ calls for a ‘Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination.'” A Huffington Post piece on the subject makes it quite plain (in case anyone doubted it) that Breivik’s Christianity, such as it was, was cultural rather than biblical or spiritual. It was never really Christianity for Breivik. It has only been Europe-ianity under a different name.
Her point 1 is interesting: I can half agree with it while violently disagreeing with it. I am convinced that Christianity is the only truth, but I agree with her that anyone who makes that claim in a “supremacist” manner is unnerving if not downright dangerous. I wrote about that in the title chapter of my ebook, The Truth Holds Us.
Her second point is equally intriguing. She seems to be okay with Christians considering other religions wrong, but she gets nervous when Christians say they’re “evil” or “of the devil.” If these religions are wrong, though, and if people are truly dissuaded from life-giving truth by them, then they’re evil. Is the devil involved? That’s loaded. I believe that there exists a personal devil who is the author of much evil and is likely behind the world’s false religions. That’s a minority view in the Western world today, so I suppose that makes me a nut-case in the eyes of many. I assure you, however, that regardless of that I have no violent tendencies.
And then Thislethwaite comes to some material I can solidly agree with. Christians (genuine or merely cultural, it applies to both) ought not to read and apply the Bible selectively, it can get us into all kinds of trouble. To say that Christianity is aligned with some dominant race or nation is as unbiblical as it could possibly be. Violence is not Christ’s method for cleansing, for his Kingdom is not of this world; he specifically rejected the way of the sword. (Concerning war in the Old Testament, please see here.)
To believe that the end of the world is at hand is a mixed bag. It ought to lead us to purify ourselves (live more obedient and faithful lives in Christ) as Christ is pure (1 John 3:1-3). Some people twist it, though. If I met someone who had a supremacist attitude, who was highly selective in the use of biblical literalism, who identified Christianity with a dominant race or nation, and believed violence was divinely justified, I’d be surprised if they didn’t also believe the end of the world was at hand, and that it was their duty to bring it along by whatever means might be at their disposal. That would be a truly scary person. Thankfully none of the many Christians I know and spend time with are like that. Very few “Christians” are.
None of this insight into religiously motivated violence is terribly surprising; in fact it’s quite old news. It was selective, dominant-thinking, violence-prone religious leaders who had Jesus killed. He stood against them with words of truth and grace, and they put him on a cross for it.
There is such a thing as real Christianity. It is pure, holy, loving, truthful, gracious, life-giving, evil-opposing, God-honoring. It has nothing to do with Breivik, and Breivik has nothing to do with it. Thislethwaite’s headline reads, “When Christianity becomes lethal.” Christianity only becomes lethal that way when it becomes something other than Christianity.