I’ve grieved and prayed along with many responding to the tragedy in Norway last week. The psychology of the perpetrator is much less worth our hearts’ attention than our response and sympathy towards his victims. But, as I wrestle with the language emerging about Breivik as a Christian, with anything from fundamentalist to terrorist attached as a modifier, it adds to an ongoing question of my own: am I a Christian?
Par for the course, many American media outlets latched onto Breivik’s language about Christianity with as much discernment as a McNugget, exploring the spectrum of relevant conclusions from “Christianity causes terrorism” to “Western Europe will outlaw Christianity within days.” And plenty of writers and bloggers came to Christianity’s defense very quickly, pointing out that not only do Breivik’s actions create an insurmountable incongruity between his actions and Jesus’ teaching, but his manifesto indicates that he himself views “Christian” as a way to describe himself, whether or not as a theist, as a Western European social conservative of a (dangerous and minority) type.
Cultural-but-not-religious use of the term is not unusual in European contexts, where the Christian Democrats, for example, control the German parliament under Chancellor Angela Merkel, without any qualification by religious adherence/adherents. Maybe it’s a little like Kleenex or Jello, which used to be a brand name but now is how you refer to just about anything in the facial tissue or gelatin dessert range, respectively. “Christian” was used to designate what wasn’t barbarian, what wasn’t unfamiliar, what belonged to the formal order of society according to agreed moral barriers. Stalin’s “Christian name” was Joseph.
Americans are used to “Christian” meaning church folk, but the last century has seen it come to mean a side in a “culture war,” as well. Christian as opposed to non-Christian music, political rally, or education; commodity rather than cruciform way of life.
The earliest Christians were given the name because they behaved in a way that challenged the formal order of society. The word labeled them according to their odd behavior patterned after a failed world leader, whose path led to a public execution rather than a position with a ruling party. It was a shorthand for one of those kinds of losers. They’re nice people, but they’re weird.
So I find myself wondering, when asked to identify with a religious faith, whether Christian is the answer. I know a lot of folks, for these very reasons, prefer “Christ-follower;” a previous generation’s “Jesus People,” perhaps.
If we are measuring by the teachings of Jesus, say, the Sermon on the Mount, am I one of those people? Jesus closes with this parable of builders, offering a paradox (as he so sagely and gently does in other passages) between two courses of action. Beyond language, which can be so easy to manipulate, undermine, or redefine, Jesus says it is the one who builds the house on his teaching that belongs to this way. It is the outsider who aids the foreigner. It is the lay-failure who prays humbly. It is the son or daughter whose word says “no” but whose action says “yes.”
People will call me what they want, and will call the institution I serve what they want. For them, “Christian” might mean disciple of Christ, but it might easily mean conservative, hypocrite, homophobe. . . the list goes on.
I hope the only reason anyone might call Breivik “Christian” is that he himself uses the term – or misuses? – in his own writing. But, more and more, the term is used broadly enough to include Breivik’s definition, as well.
What would you like to be called? What will draw out those words from those around you? How can our personal and institutional practices lead people to identify us with God’s ideas for the people and places around us?