Who would do such a thing?

Even at a time when natural disasters, terrorist atrocities and deaths in Afghanistan are almost regular occurrences, what happened on the beautiful island of Utoeya in the south of Norway shocked the entire world. The massacre of nearly seventy young people who were enjoying a summer camp seemed beyond belief and we all asked the question of who could have done such a terrible thing. Why did Anders Breivik kill so many of his own people who were enjoying such an educational and profitable time in an idyllic location?

What has emerged is that Breivik had conceived a deep hatred of Islam, secularism and, indeed, anything he believed was undermining his own twisted version of Christianity, including the ruling Labour party. The killing of the flower of the socialist younger generation was his diabolical attempt to cut off the tender shoots. The result will probably be the very opposite : for everyone who died, there will arise a hundred others to take their place; and the people of Norway will never abandon their democratic and laissez-faire lifestyle. The Norwegians, who did not bend to the Nazi occupation in the nineteen forties, will not change their ways because of the massacre perpetrated by a lone fanatic.

The Tragic Story of Religious intolerance

Once my sense of outrage at the massacre began to subside, I started to consider to look back on the whole of European history from the time of Constantine, in the fourth century, until modern times. I realised that whole period had been blemished with religious intolerance and butchery: in the mediaeval period the Church persecuted the Jews - this in the mistaken belief that they had killed Jesus – and in addition Muslims felt the ire of the knights and princes of Christendom when they had occupied the so-called Holy Land and its Holy Places. Furthermore, in the early thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III organised a Crusade against the Albigensians of southern France. In the wholesale slaughter at Béziers, the commanders were told to kill everyone indiscriminately, including Catholics, as it was said, “God will be able to sort out between the faithful and the heretics from among the dead”!

Modern history tells the very same story. In the years 1914-16 the Turks massacred a million Christian Armenians and Diarmaid MacCulloch adds: “One city, Van, largely Armenian in 1914, simply does not exist on the site that it once occupied.” Even that was, of course, eclipsed by Adolph Hitler’s Final Solution in which six million Jews were exterminated. Although there were political aspects to the genocide, it had a religious foundation and was much the same as the root of the Roman Catholic Church’s Anti-Semitism in the mediaeval period. Hitler was a nominal Catholic and the belts of the Wehrmacht bore the legend “God is with us”. The Ku Klux Klansmen were responsible for many horrendous acts of barbarity. In the South of the USA “strange fruit” (lynching) often hung from many a tree; and at times the KKK ranks were joined by church-going and “respectable” citizens who erroneously believed that the Bible taught that negroes were under the curse of Noah; and, indeed, that perverted doctrine undergirded the iniquitous system of Apartheid in South Africa and was based on the theology of the Dutch Reformed Church of the Afrikaners.

The underlying motive for all these horrendous massacres is simply that the perpetrators thought that they alone possessed the truth and believed that their “enemies” were thus seeking to destroy it and the kind of society they wished to set up or preserve. Sadly, far too often, the supposed truth is in fact a dangerous lie and often a lie which is a perverted or twisted caricature of biblical Christianity. And there is a mistaken idea that truth can prevail through force of arms or persecution. The Nazis believed they were thus saving Europe from Judaism and Marxism and even set up their own National Socialist German Church; Anders Breivik believed his one man crusade was going to save Europe from Islam and secularism. All such attempts are doomed to failure because the real truth, as a living flame, can never be snuffed out. In testimony to this, we need constantly assure ourselves that, throughout two thousand years, despite persecution, war and heresy, as Martin Luther sang, “The City of God Remaineth!” But strengthened by that truth we should always be mindful that any society or Christian group is not immune from sliding into paranoia and thus becoming intolerant. Popular American fundamentalism reveals that tendency at times: some have fallen into the trap of believing that all Muslims are terrorists.

A Personal and Painful Truth

Going back to the question we asked at the beginning, we need consider those memorable words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 5. What he said on that occasion we sometimes try to overlook as being altogether too personal and painful. His words, in paraphrase, mean “If you are angry, that is tantamount to murder; and if you are lustful, that is as culpable as the actual sexual sin itself.”

This is what has been called one of the “Hard Sayings” of Jesus; but it is certainly true to say that the thought is the seed and root of the action. Hatred has often provoked terrible acts of wholesale murder: anti-Semitism resulted in the holocaust; the Crusades caused the deaths of thousands of Muslims. To be frank, we are all of us capable both of hatred and cruelty, hence the truism that “there but for the Grace of God go I.”

Horrified though we are by what happened in Norway recently, we should not forget the words of the Apostle John: “If we claim that we have no sin we are fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he will forgive us and cleanse us of all wickedness.” Such horrors should make us look inwards and not congratulate ourselves for our own supposed righteousness or goodness.

Finally, and another important lesson, the truth does not prevail through force or theological sleight of hand but rather through biblical truth applied by the direction of the Holy Spirit in a spirit of agape love and not from supposed higher moral ground or lofty superiority. When the Crusaders of Christendom were trying to defeat the Saracens and pry them from the Holy Places, Francis of Assisi and his followers were seeking to persuade them with Christian love. Francis and The Master Jesus set the abiding pattern.