Does Christian thinking “tempt” some to violence? by Pastor Gary

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite’s recent article “When Christianity Becomes Lethal” (Washington Post Online, On Faith section, July 25, 2011) is a classic example of why Christians become exasperated reading articles dealing with matters of faith. Ms. Thistlethwaite is an impressive personality: she is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and is a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary (an institution of the United Church of Christ). She is also an ordained minister with the UCC.

Her article was prompted by the horrific attack by Anders Breivik on a camp of Norwegian youths that left scores of young people dead.

I agree that Christianity should step up and confess any inherent tendency to “tempt” people to violence or extreme behavior and become “lethal.” And history can certainly show individuals and movements who, in the name of Christianity, chose to do things that are entirely inconsistent with Christianity. I don’t know of any Christian thinkers or historians who deny this.

Of course it can also be said that some pretty monstrous things have been done in the name of secularist agendas as well: some estimate Soviet communism is responsible for as many as 60 million deaths, and Mao Zedong’s communism for 20 to 75 million. Should we also not conclude that these secularist movements “tempt” violent action of their followers since they acted in the name of their respective ideologies? Put another way, is someone’s mere claim to act on behalf of a movement enough to suggest that the movement tempts them to act a certain way?

Ms. Thistlethwaite makes an attempt to clarify the broad claim by identifying a few specific theological ideas that seem to be the source of the temptation to violent behavior. She is specifically writing about a “role played” by Christian theology and a “connection” she rebukes Christians for ignoring. Her short list is of “theological constructions that ‘tempt’ individuals and groups to violence.” Her list is short, and the items do not seem stated carefully, but I want to note just a couple of items on her list:

  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

Since I feel like I either took a hit with this list, or that I was aimed at, I wish to respond briefly.

1. Making supremacist claims that Christianity is the “only” truth. I will just move past the use of loaded language like “supremacist.” Really professional. At least we didn’t get “nah nah nah nah nah.” But moving on…

The more important response is to note that there really is no one who claims that Christianity is the “only” truth. Maybe this explains the use of quote marks, I don’t know. Christianity does NOT claim to be the only source of truth, but it does claim to propose truth. It is not the claim of Christianity that Buddhists, for example, have no truth. It hardly follows from this that Christians believe that Buddhists have all truth!

It hardly follows that because Christianity claims to propose truth it believes that no one else holds truth, and it is unclear why the author thinks this is the case. It is true that Christians hold to certain truths, but I am only supposing that the author does this as well, or she would not have written such an impassioned article about her ideas, complete with words like “supremacist” to describe those who disagree with her.

It seems the author should adhere to the same standard to which she is holding the objects of her analysis. If believing that I am right about a thing makes me supremacist, she should not write her article in such a way that suggests she is right and others are wrong.

2. Holding the related view that other religions are not merely wrong, but “evil” and “of the devil.” I am guessing that the author is not so much bothered by belief in a devil or in evil, but in ascribing it to another view. I am also assuming that if a religion held views like those of Anders Breivik, Ms. Thistlethwaite would in fact hold those views to be evil, since his acts are the very ones she started out to explain and abhor in the first place.

The point is, it does not follow that because one believes a worldview or belief is “evil,” it must then be shot with a gun. The violent idea is the problem, not what one believes about the point of view.

I am guessing that there are some ideas and actions that Ms. Thistlethwaite genuinely believes to be evil. It might be torturing gay people, mutilating children for pleasure, destroying the environment, or oppressing women. And that is a good list of things that are certainly evil. But the point is—she doubtlessly thinks them to be evil. Just the same, I would never suggest that she is a risk of killing someone just because she holds the view that their actions are evil. This is a dangerous non-sequitur.

3. Being highly selective in the use of biblical literalism. This is perhaps the most frustrating in the list, and yet the most expected.

First, there is no evidence I am aware of as of this writing that Anders Breivik took any of his marching orders, literally or figuratively, from the Bible. He is quoted as writing in his manifesto that he is not really a religious person. He seems to use his “Christian” designation to differentiate himself from the Muslim world he sees as overtaking what has been historically a “Christian” Europe. So this discussion as it relates to the item that provoked the article is really irrelevant.

Ms. Thistlethwaite is not just wrong about her idea, but she seems to promote the very idea that will create hundreds more Anders Breiviks!

But, since we’re in the neighborhood, let me say something about the “literalism” matter. In the case of Anders Breivik, the best we could hope for would be that he would have held to a literalist interpretation of Scripture! Literalism would not afford a person like Breivik the opportunity to justify his actions by using the Bible, because the Bible does not literally tell anyone to do such a thing. The worst case would be a person who does not hold to literalism, because that person has the opportunity to “bend” the meaning of the text to apply to himself in a way that literalism would not afford. Ms. Thistlethwaite is not just wrong about her idea, but she seems to promote the very idea that will create hundreds more Anders Breiviks!

Think about it. Literalism includes the idea (among others) that the Biblical text had a particular meaning at a particular time in history for a particular audience. It includes the idea (a standard maxim among Evangelicals who have promoted such ideas for generations) that “the Bible was all written for me, but not all of it was written to me.”  Ideas competing with literalism may be open to any number of interpretations that put me center-stage. Isn’t this the very idea of reader-response theories…that the current context is the most important and perhaps only significant context?

I suggest that if Ms. Thistlethwaite had her way in demoting the use of biblical literalism, she would conceptually fuel an frightening supply of “temptations” limited only by the creativity of readers to see their name the text of their choice. Biblical literalism is the very project that stops this kind of thing.

I could continue to quibble with the way Ms. Thistlethwaite worded the final three items on her list, though I have to admit agreeing with her to a degree on those items. In my estimation, her first three items demonstrate a confusion about Christianity, and her last three are not items that describe Christianity in the first place and are irrelevant to the discussion.

All in all I find hers a confused list, and she does not sell me on the idea that Christian theology “tempted” Anders Breivik to do anything.

Especially since he seems to say the same thing.