The horrible, tragic events in Norway last week reminded us that extremism and violence can come from unexpected people. When news of the bombing in Oslo first broke, there was an immediate assumption across all the various media outlets that certainly this crime had been perpetrated by Islamic extremists. When news of the greater tragedy emerged – the terrible shooting-spree that killed dozens of young people on a nearby island – and it was reported that the shooter looked like a Norwegian police officer, people began to question whether it was indeed the act of Islamist terrorists.
Now we know that the Norwegian citizen who committed these crimes, devastating lives and disturbing the conscience of a nation, had no connection with Islam at all. He was acting on a much different set of beliefs, and he claimed the identity of “Christian.”
There were a number of Christian folks who responded by appropriately pointing out that this man’s actions were not Christian at all, that no follower of Christ could ever legitimately commit such actions in the name of the “Prince of Peace.” These are my thoughts exactly, of course. There is nothing Christian at all in this man’s behavior or thinking. And I realized, as I listened to one news report who was interviewing someone making this point, that this is exactly how members of the Muslim community must have felt in the aftermath of 9/11: the people who committed these actions do not represent our faith.
It would seem, then, that those of us in the Christian world find ourselves in the shoes that have long been occupied now by our Muslim brothers and sisters: of having to defend our faith by making it clear that the actions of a violent terrorist do not represent who we are or what we stand for. There is a huge discrepancy, however, that separates our need to do that from the effort of the vast majority of the Muslim community to do the same for their faith: most people believe us.
Christianity is far more known in the Western world than Islam, and so there are far more people willing to understand that this man’s actions represent an aberration rather than what the Christian faith is about. Yet Islam is far less known, and because it represents to us an “other” that Christianity does not, a great number of people are not willing to believe members of the Islamic community when they try to tell us what their faith is really about. And so while we Christians may have found ourselves stepping into the shoes of our Muslim neighbors, the path we walk in those shoes is very different.
People may object that “Muslim” terrorists are far more prevalent and have committed more violence than “Christian”ones, but we should not be mistaken: there are “Christian” terrorists in the world, but they largely operate outside our field of vision, in places like Africa, where a group called “The Lord’s Army” has been presiding over a reign of terror for years. In his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity published in 2002, Philip Jenkins argues in disturbing terms that in years to come, “Christian” terrorism may well become far more of a problem in the world than “Muslim” terrorism.
We need to learn the lesson well: none of the world’s religious traditions condone the kind of violence that shattered lives in Oklahoma City in the 1990s, took down the Twin Towers on 9/11 or destroyed peace and lives in Norway last week. Yet, there are always those whose own twisted minds and spirits would use the sacred to justify their profane acts of violence. All people of faith, regardless of the tradition from which we come, should stand together to celebrate the authentic heart of our sacred traditions and against those who would twist them into something ugly and heartless.