Tom Gilson

“When Christianity becomes lethal”

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.

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18 thoughts on ““When Christianity becomes lethal”

  1. “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.”

    I’m fine with this, as long as you play fair and give the same benefit of the doubt and flexibility of interpretation of problematic passages in important texts to other major religions and thought traditions as well.

    My 2 cents:
    http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2011/07/the-norway-murd.html

  2. I agree with Susan Brooks Thislethwaite, it is evident that this has occurred and I would dare to say that it still occurs to this day. Her arguments make sense and a lot of what she said about what Christians believe is true. I feel that the main point is not to completely do away with Christianity, but merely to point out the characteristics of the ‘Christians’ who committed such atrocities. Also, I agree that we can’t say what a ‘true’ Christian will or will not do, in the case of our history because we can’t judge them because we do not know their hearts. We can look at their actions and compare them to the Bible and determine whether or not their actions are correct or not.

    I think that this article that you’ve written is more emotion based rather than facts based (which is what Susan’s article appeared to be). Although there was nothing that I particularly disagreed with in your article, I felt that it addressed a point that was never made in Susan’s post. Just a thought.

    -In Christ,
    Roger

  3. I suppose we should give benefit of the doubt to those who affirm nihilism, hedonism, eugenics, euthenasia, abortion and moral relativism as well.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Roger. I’m not quite sure how to respond, because it’s vague with respect to any particular point. You’re welcome to come back and be more specific.

    Tom

  5. Bryan, I’m not afraid to give those groups the benefit of the doubt, because even after having been allowed all the benefit one could possibly offer them, their belief systems are still grossly wrong.

    If this is to become a point of discussion, though, let’s be careful to distinguish giving that benefit to persons on the one hand, and belief systems on the other. Christianity, as a belief system about God and his work in the world, rightly understood, believed, practiced, is perfect; but no Christian is a perfect Christian. What is perfect stands in need of any benefit of the doubt. We Christians need grace, though.

    There is only one perfect religion. When talking about others, though, we still need to distinguish the benefit of the doubt being given to the system versus being given to the followers.

  6. Tom,

    I thought your article was well put (despite disagreeing with a point here and there). I choose to refer to myself only as an “aspiring Christian.” I hope to constantly improve, but I don’t ever want to assume I’m done, or “safe” at home plate such that my understanding of the Bible or life according to it is beyond question. (not that you were suggesting this).

    The value that I see coming out of a criticism like this (and that of Harris and Hitchens) is that it demands a response. Either would-be Christians freeze up with fear and clench more tightly onto our current understanding of the Bible or we are helped in the humility of realizing that we are always misunderstanding the bible to some extent and must always be re-evaluating whether we have taken an extremely literalistic approach to certain passages (without context).

    So here’s to the Christian humility and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ that will allow us to listen to these aspersions on Christianity with understanding, sympathy and calm.

    Brian

  7. @Tom
    Good post, as well as the link in #8.
    Still, it will not satisfy the skeptics who have their own axes to grind against religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

    We’ve had this type of discussion on other threads here, have we not?

  8. unfortunately this was all too expected and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some major propaganda use of it still to come by the new atheists and the handful of transparent comics that have a clear anti christian bent.

    Breivik will probably be brought up for the next 50 muslim radical attacks that will come. Its an impossible situation to completely deflect. For a great portion of the world their definition of Christianity has nothing to do with Christ at all. the name has been taken over by cultural understanding rather than spiritual definitions.

    We CAN be very clear an definitive in Biblical Christianity. Christians DO NOT plot , plan and follow through with mass murder. This may be an overly US (and perhaps political) based analogy but no one claims that an alleged liberal who is Anti abortion, against same sex marriage, for small government, doesn’t believe in entitlement programs etc etc is is really a liberal. No one would buy it because liberal MEANS a certain set of beliefs that defy those positons across the board. Christianity is no different – it embodies a set of beliefs that violate those actions and motivations.

  9. “Also, I agree that we can’t say what a ‘true’ Christian will or will not do, in the case of our history because we can’t judge them because we do not know their hearts”

    Roger in biblical Christianity (and there really isn’t any other kind that truly qualifies for the name) we are not limited to look at hearts we are told we can know them by their fruits. Tom’s last line in the post is the key.

  10. Mike:

    This may be an overly US (and perhaps political) based analogy but no one claims that an alleged liberal who is Anti abortion, against same sex marriage, for small government, doesn’t believe in entitlement programs etc etc is is really a liberal. No one would buy it because liberal MEANS a certain set of beliefs that defy those positons across the board. Christianity is no different – it embodies a set of beliefs that violate those [previously stated] actions and motivations.

    Bravo! Well stated.

  11. Victoria,

    Still, it will not satisfy the skeptics who have their own axes to grind against religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

    Indeed.

  12. Victoria,

    I simply agree wholeheartedly. 🙂 We can both cite examples ad nauseum, I’m sure.

    I often wonder to what degree each who “grind axes” do so out of purposeful malevolence or acculturated blindness.

  13. Susan Brooks Thislethwaite humiliated herself on Michael Medved’s show. He asked if she could name one, just one, Christian leader who is calling for violence. Her stunned, crippled silence in response was so long, it almost ate into the commercial break. She never did answer. “Those ideas are out there,” she insisted, “and people draw upon those ideas.” In follow up I read Thislethwaite’s essay, and am horrified to find this gal is a Professor in Chicago. It is obvious this woman wrote an inflammatory piece, without checking her facts. The Norway terrorist did not attend church, and could not by any stretch be called a “fundamentalist,” a term through which Thislethwaite’s ugly prejudices become plainly evident. I wonder if she will ever withdraw her now-discredited claims.

  14. For me, I think it’s really quite simple to tell who’s ideology someone adheres to. Let’s see:

    Jesus: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

    Darwin: You are an accident. There is no ultimate purpose to the universe and no transcendent moral law. No judgement or reward awaits you after death. Have at it.

  15. Isn’t the bottom line this: Where are the acts of political/religious violence perpetrated by Christians. Breivik isn’t a Christian, nor McVeigh, nor Loughner. Where are they? What Christian faith-based group is calling for violence as a response to world issues. None are. What group can even be identified by terms like “Christian fundementalist extremeists”. The Amish?

    The idea that the problem isn’t the faith but extremism within faiths is a lie. The facts just do not back that up in any way.

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