In a Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “When Christianity Becomes Lethal,” Thistlethwaite lectures readers about the perils of “extreme Christianity” and the failure of believers to see the connections between their beliefs and associated violence.
Before continuing, it would probably be worth noting that Thistlethwaite is the former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) and a preacher ordained through the United Church of Christ (UCC). The infamous Rev. Jeremiah Wright has also taught at CTS and is, of course, ordained by UCC as well. You can read a piece in which Thistlethwaite defends Rev. Wright’s preaching style here, but providing even more of a backdrop to frame her views beyond this probably isn’t needed. Let’s get back to her controversial take on Christianity‘s involvement in the world’s latest terroristic tragedy.
In her lede, Thistlethwaite plays up the notion that the Norwegian terorist Anders Behring Breivik is a Christian. In fact, her entire piece hinges on this notion. She writes, “He has been described by police there as a ‘Christian fundamentalist.’” After attempting to firmly convince readers that Breivik was, indeed, a follow of Jesus, she explains:
Christians should not turn away from this information, but try to come to terms with the temptations to violence in the theologies of right-wing Christianity.
Breivik’s chosen targets were political in nature, emblematic of his hatred of “multiculturalism” and “left-wing political ideology.” This does not mean that the Christian element in his ultra-nationalist views is irrelevant. The religious and political views in right-wing ideologies are mutually reinforcing, and ignoring or dismissing the role played by certain kinds of Christian theology in such extremism is distorting.
She goes on to explain that Christians are all-too-reluctant to see the connections between their faith and extreme violence. Rather than delving into these issues, Thistlethwaite says that Christians often dismiss horrific violence that is perpetuated by other believers as “madness.” Christians should be more willing, in her opinion, to accept the inherent violence and then deal with its impact and roots.
It doesn‘t take long for Thistlethwaite’s true intentions to emerge. She isn’t simply saying that Christianity is to blame. She is taking the opportunity to attach conservative values to this particular maniac’s actions, blaming both his faith and political affiliation for his violent behavior:
…I believe that certain theological constructions of Christianity “tempt” individuals and groups to violence; combined with right-wing political ideologies, these views can give a divine justification to the use of lethal force…
When I consider the theological perspectives that “tempt” some Christians to justify hatred and even violence against others, such as, in this case in Norway, the following perspectives seem especially prevalent: 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…
Thistlethwaite goes on even further to list her reasoning. Yet, if these elements are universal, one wonders why it is virtually impossible for individuals to list a multitude of radical Christian murderers who have acted similarly? If these values are so widespread in Christianity, where are all of the other Breiviks? This is not to say that people who call themselves Christian are blameless and have never committed violence. Rather, it is intended to disprove the author‘s use of an anecdotal example to apply universalities that simply don’t exist.
The way in which this article is written appears to indicate that this is a widespread problem — and that those who embrace conservative values, while espousing Christianity, are at a high risk of either exploding or imploding. This, based on both anecdotal and concrete evidence simply doesn’t stand as meritorious. Thistlethwaite choses to conclude her piece with the following:
It is absolutely critical that Christians not turn away from the Christian theological elements in such religiously inspired terrorism. We must acknowledge these elements in Christianity and forthrightly reject these extremist interpretations of our religion. How can we ask Muslims to do the same with Islam, if we won’t confront extremists distorting Christianity?
Denny Burk, a Bible professor at Boyce College and a blogger, differentiates between “cultural” and “religious” Christianity, debunking the notion that Breivik is the latter (Thistlethwaite’s theories are built on the premise that he is, indeed, a religious Christian):
Contrary to early reports, Anders Behring Breivik is not a Christian. In fact in his 1,518 page manifesto, the perpetrator of the atrocities in Norway has specifically disavowed any real commitment to Christ. In his own words:
A majority of so called agnostics and atheists in Europe are cultural conservative Christians without even knowing it. So what is the difference between cultural Christians and religious Christians?
If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian (p. 1307).
Fox News‘ Bill O’Reilly also took issue with the Christian label that has been applied to the mass murder. Below, watch him discuss the controversy on his show on Monday night:
It’s surprising that Thistlethwaite, a professor who is purportedly an expert in religious matters, would distort information so freely. Perhaps she failed to read Breivik’s own words, which seem to disprove her perplex theories on Christianity’s ability, when applied through political lenses she dislikes, to incite violence.