This Washington Post piece by Susan Brooks Thislethwaite has created quite stir. Take a look, and you’ll see why. For starters, she follows the NY Times and others in referring to the Norway mass assassin, Anders Behring Breivik, as a Christian. Then she goes on to challenge readers to consider how Christianity may inspire violence. Interestingly, in her article she vacillates between asserting that the supposed violence-inspiring elements in Christianity are mere theological “interpretations” of our religion, on the one hand, and actual “elements of Christianity” on the other. If she intends to claim the latter, she gives us no evidence whatsoever to support her claim. If she intends only to suggest the former, then her remarks are horribly misleading. In any case, Thislethwaite’s article is inflammatory and only manages to create confusion.
Thislethwaite apparently rejects the distinction between genuine Christians and those who merely claim to be Christians. We recognize this distinction in every other context, so why not here? Being a Christian is not simply a matter of affirming certain propositions, as is clear from many biblical passages (e.g., Mt. 25:31-46; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; and Gal. 5:19-21). Even if Anders Breivik did affirm the deity and resurrection of Jesus (which, by the way, he denies), this does not by itself make him any more Christian than the devil himself (who presumably would affirm these truths).
It is telling that Thislethwaite doesn’t bother to identify any biblical passages that might reasonably be construed to inspire violence, much less mass murder. Perhaps she has in mind certain Old Testament passages where God commanded the killing of the Canaanites. But these are not uniquely Christian texts. Jews and Muslims also regard these as scripture. It is the New Testament that is uniquely Christian, so it is here that we must look for “Christian elements” that might inspire violence. And what do we find in the New Testament? A consistent ethic of non-violence. The ethic of “turn the other cheek” non-resistance. The ethic of submitting to political authorities. And, when one must disobey the governing authorities, an ethic of peaceful disobedience. In short, we find an ethic of non-violence that has inspired numerous pacifist theological traditions. Yet Thislethwaite insinuates that there is something about Christianity that could justify violence? Breathtaking.
Okay, so perhaps what Thislethwaite really wants to suggest is that some madmen, most recently Anders Breivik, have warped or twisted Christian ideas to their own use in attempting to justify their violence. Well, of course this is true—and it is so obvious it is hardly worth stating. But if this is all she wants to say, then why does she say that it is Christianity that becomes lethal, that Christianity may be complicit in mass violence? Perhaps Thislethwaite just wants to have it both ways—to implicate Christian theology itself in violence without having to do the biblical or theological analysis necessary to demonstrate this (which, of course, is an impossible task, as I just noted—the New Testament nowhere endorses violence but only peaceful responses, whether in resistance or non-resistance).
Or, more cynically, perhaps Thislethwaite’s only real aim in this piece is political. Maybe she just wants to create a negative association with conservative Christianity by suggesting that Breivik is a “right wing” Christian extremist. This would certainly help to demonize the political views of conservative Christians—views that, as a “left wing” political thinker, Thislethwaite personally despises.
In the end, I’m not sure what Thislethwaite’s aims or real claims are in this piece. What I am sure of is that her article is confused, inflammatory, and irresponsible.