Michael Den Tandt has written, in response to the trial of the Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, a call for Western societies to adopt a strong public secularism to avoid instances of fanatical murder. What I find particular interesting about the piece is its insistence that Christianity is responsible for Breivik’s atrocity in the same way that Islam is responsible for the terrorism of Osama bin Laden. Den Tandt writes that:
Breivik is a mass murderer with explicitly political ends — a Christian-European mirror image, by his own deliberate design, of al-Qaida’s Islamist murderers.
His explanation of this charge, however, demonstrates a very particular understanding how how exactly Christianity was responsible for Breivik’s rampage:
Breivik’s ideology draws on a medievalist, arch-conservative and romanticized view of Christian and Norse mythologies. The iconography and imagery in his turgid, 1,500-word manifesto are explicitly Christian. He uses the term “cultural Christian,” to connote a white citizen of Western Europe, who may or may not practise Christianity.
In other words, Breivik’s Christian inspiration is not lodged in Christian theology or in Christian scripture. Rather, his inspiration is drawn from Christian historiography. It is a relatively common presentation of Christian history that inspires this sort of killing. Specifically, it seems reasonable to think that it is a story that depicts Christianity as the guardian of Western civilization and a bulwark against would-be Muslim invaders of Europe that is appealing to Breivik.
This view of history is, rather plainly, disputable. (For example, consider this piece by Abdal Hakim Murad arguing that the Islamic world as as much or more an inheritor of the Hellenistic legacy as is Europe.) And it is in the disputable nature of this militarized, culturally specific way of telling the history of Christianity that there exists the possibility of making it harder for people like Breivik to draw support from Christianity. For example, an alternative historiography to Breivik’s posits that a series of events in the fourth century, commonly called the Constantinian Shift, allowed a transnational, transcultural church to become captive to the interests of the Roman Empire, and that this shift distorted the church’s original and more authentic beliefs and practices so that it could serve as an official religion for states and societies. As a Mennonite, this sort of historiography is very familiar to me, but it has great potential resonance for the broader world of Protestantism, which is not institutionally bound to defend the actions of the church in the Middle Ages.
In fact, this sort of Christian historiography, or something like it, may may serve as an important bulwark against advocates of the kind of secularity advocated by Den Tandt, which to me appears to be essentially the same as the strict and religiously stifling contemporary French concept of laïcité. In the words of Den Tandt:
The other remedy, the only rational and desirable one in my view, is to aggressively enforce a secular state, in every sphere — on municipal councils, in provincial legislatures and in the education system — so that religious faith is located impartially in the church, mosque or synagogue, and in the home, and never in forums funded in any way by taxpayers.
If Christians are going to anathematize thinking like that of Breivik, as secular Western society rightly demands that we do if we are to be allowed to continue to practice our faith in public, it cannot be feeble or duplicitous. Strong measures that go straight to the heart of what allows people like Breivik to claim inspiration from Christianity are needed.