Continuing a theme introduced in Martin Marty's Sightings essay, which I shared on Tuesday, the Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, Margaret Mitchell, examines some of the ideological foundations for the horrendous attack in Norway that left 69 people dead, most of whom were youth at a camp. Mitchell points us to the writings of the editor of WorldNetDaily, Joseph Farah, whose essay is reprinted almost verbatim in Anders Breivik's "manifesto." Farah it appears has called for Christians to arm themselves and engage in battle to fight terrorism. Mitchell's article is instructive as we engage in a conversation about how religion engages with the political world, and the role of violence in that engagement. I invite you to read and respond.
Margaret M. Mitchell
These words were posted by Joseph Farah on WorldNetDaily.com at 1:00 a.m. on November 26, 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11. The full column, “The Bible and self-defense,” presented a battery of biblical evidence, from Old and New Testaments, for why Christians should “buy firearms as a first step to fighting terrorism.”
This article—by the evangelical Christian editor of WorldNetDaily.com, author of The Tea Party Manifesto: A Vision for an American Rebirth, and famous “Birther,” who has in print aggressively questioned both the American citizenship and the Christian identity of President Barack Obama—was quoted in full by Anders Behring Breivik in his compendium, “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” published online hours before the Oslo attacks on July 22. Copying over 85 percent of the column verbatim (which he credits on p. 1334, not by author but by URL), Breivik makes a few telling changes to this source, which he treats as authoritative guidance from the American evangelical on the correct Christian view of arms and self-defense.
While Breivik accepts Farah’s biblically-based arguments about God’s endorsement of armament (though deeming them in need of further amplification via “Battle Verses of the Bible,” from another American evangelical biblical interpreter, Michael Bradley of Bible-Knowledge.com, of St. Charles, MO), he corrects the antiquated English diction of the KJV on the one hand (in 1 Sam 25:13 and Neh 4:18, carefully replacing it with the NASB translation), and updates the context from 9/11 America to the war of “cultural conservative Europeans” against “the cultural Marxist/multiculturalist elites and the ongoing Islamic invasion through Islamic demographic warfare against Europe.”
In one addition near the end Breivik names briskly the conclusion he has drawn from Farah’s biblical justification for Christian violence: “every military action against our enemies is considered self defence.” Apparently that includes the shooting of the 69 unarmed youths on Utoya island, whom Breivik saw as representatives of those enemies, the “multiculturalist elites.” “The Bible couldn't be clearer on the right, even the duty, we have as believers to self-defense,” wrote Farah. His admiring student Breivik cites this line word for word, with one exception: he replaced “we … believers” with “we … Christians.”
In the days since the attack and arrest, the media has been abuzz with reflections on whether or not Breivik can or should be called a “Christian.” Each argument depends upon some stated or implied criterion for what constitutes Christian identity: a form of “belief,” of personal piety or religious experience, of ethical comportment, of ritual practice, of theological commitments, of cultural identity, of ecclesial participation, of relationship to political orders. These arguments tell us as much or more about the commitments of the authors as they do about Breivik. So, for instance, one paragraph from his manifesto has been cited by some commentators to deny Breivik’s Christian identity because he admits that he and those like him “do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God.” But in the same context Breivik says, “We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.” He goes on to name the basis for this: “I believe that self defence is a central part of Christianity as documented in another part of this book” (he is referring to the section taken from Farah et al.). Another quote from article 3.80 which questions sola scriptura has allowed some Protestant columnists (as on christianapologetics.org) to place him outside Christianity, despite his having been baptized in the State Church of Norway/Lutheran Church at age 15, and his “assimilation policy” in article 3.10, which allows for Muslims to join the cause through Christian baptism. Those seeking to repudiate his Protestant credentials have also referred eagerly to article 3.139, where Breivik seems to claim a preference for the Catholic Church, albeit one that has a more militaristic bent than Pope Benedict XVI, who comes in for critique in the manifesto for being unlikely to launch a new crusade (article 3.148). Presumably for those authors a Roman Catholic is not really a Christian, so the problem is thereby resolved.
Breivik’s critique of the current pope also allows Catholics a nervous sigh of relief after the murderer gestured their way (as at catholicnewsagency.com). Ross Douthat of the New York Times tries to take the Christianity out of the equation, reducing Breivik to a political conservative or “right-winger” who has merely “nominal Christianity,” because Breivik states at one point in the manifesto, “regarding my personal relationship with God, I guess I’m not an excessively religious man.” Apparently the statement on the previous page, “I consider myself to be 100% Christian,” doesn’t count, because, according to Douthat, Breivik lacks “genuine religious fervor” (one wonders what Douthat would consider proper evidence of that to be).
One CNN reporter, Eliott C. McLaughlin, finds it easy to deem Breivik’s relationship to Christianity “paradoxical,” given “his claim to be a Christian while confessing to have disregarded the Bible’s least debatable commandment” (presumably, and astoundingly, McLaughlin is referring to the supremely debatable and debated fifth or sixth Christian commandment, “thou shalt not kill”). Marcus Buck, a Norwegian political scientist quoted on CNN, cited Breivik’s lack of “any insight into Christian theology,” but he gives no reasons why theological acumen would serve as an appropriate or workable criterion of his (or anyone else’s) religious identification.
That same CNN article cites Breivik’s quotation from Farah (the title of this column) among other passages from the lengthy manifesto and concludes that, “Experts on religion in Europe said those faith-infused views are likely peculiar to the suspected gunman and do not appear [to] reflect wider religious movement.” They do not realize that these statements are in fact not Breivik’s own compositions. In a supreme irony, Joseph Farah—one of the first to repudiate the label Christian for Breivik in the aftermath of the massacre—finds evidence in, among other things, the allegation that he did not prepare for his mission by a routine of “religious worship and study.” Farah apparently does not consider Breivik’s close and careful consultation with his own on-line Bible instruction about the Christian call to arms to constitute such.
From an analytical point of view, all these arguments are straining against the evident fact that Breivik is deeply and significantly a Christian, one who is speaking on behalf of a plan to restore Christendom—a concept that inextricably fuses religion, politics and culture—which he regards as the true heritage of Europe. He does so by reference to a selective reading of the Christian scriptures as well as the history of Christianity, particularly the medieval crusades against Muslims, in an online manifesto that features a crimson crusader cross on the cover page and on the fabricated military medals that adorn his chest in one of its final, haunting photographic images (p. 1513).
Margaret M. Mitchell is Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School and Shailer Mathews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.