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The Ideological Roots of Christian Terrorism

07/28/2011 10:03 am ET | Updated Sep 27, 2011

Anders Behring Breivik borrowed Timothy McVeigh's strategy to blow up a public building, but he outdid McVeigh by gunning down dozens of young people at a camp after the explosion. Both were young white Christian men who wanted to provoke a cosmic war to save Christendom and rescue society from multicultural religious pluralism. Both were Christian terrorists, or "crusaders" in ancient terms.

Journalist Roger Cohen noted that Breivik actually attended a 2002 meeting to reconstitute the 12th century Knights Templar, a crusading military order. In his manifesto, Breivik believed that the "Marxist-Islamic alliance ... [would] annihilate European Christendom," unless God, he prayed, would assure his success.

How is it that a religion that claims that followers should turn the other cheek and love their enemies can breed such hate and violence? The answer is not to blame all Christians for the acts of these two men, but to understand how some ideological strands of Christianity in the West lend themselves to justifying such behavior.

Western Christianity was infected with imperial ideas, inflicted by the point of a sword, beginning in the ninth to 11th centuries. These ideas sanctified violence and valorized killing for Christ as a means to hasten a new world order, and they endure in forms of contemporary Christianity, especially in white supremacist and Neo-Nazi movements.

In launching the crusades as Christian holy war in 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed, "God wills it!" He promised all who died that their sins would be totally forgiven and they would go straight to paradise, effectively making killing penance, while most Christians of the time regarded killing as a mortal sin requiring penance.

Christian groups who objected to the crusades were subjected to the same violence meted out to "infidels." The focus on genocide against all infidels was supported by a new idea claiming that Jesus' crucifixion saved sinful humanity from the penalty of sin and that dying for Christ in holy war was the best, most effective form of escape from hell, which is what awaited all the unsaved.

In 1098 Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury summarized the theological propaganda of the crusades. Anselm claimed the crucifixion of Jesus was willed by God to save the world. He claimed that the only purpose of Jesus being born was to die. Humanity's sinfulness had dishonored God and carried a magnitude of debt from sin that was impossible to pay. God sent Jesus to be tortured and murdered as the only way to atone for sin and deliver salvation. Anselm also taught a piety of stark terror of hell to drill the point home. He said that Jesus died so true believers might live and that the torture and murder of crucifixion was pleasing to God.

This ideological use of crucifixion asserts that God requires violence to save the world. If people believe that God uses torture and murder, what is to stop them from doing the same or believing that experiencing the same sanctifies them? If the state terrorism tactic of crucifixion has to be the gateway to salvation, it keeps Christians obsessed with keeping people divided into the saved and the damned and the righteous and the sinful, which in the mind of Christian terrorists, translates into white Christians vs. dark-skinned infidels.

This proscribing and prescribing life from a model of trauma after violence is a dreary way to live. It tends to squeeze all the beauty, joy and inebriating juice out of life for the sake of a perpetually unrequited promise of post-mortem salvation.

Christianity that is true to the LIFE of Jesus Christ tells his death as the story of resistance to the Roman Empire, not as the story of how the empire enacted God's will. More like lynching (a historic practice of white supremacist Christians) than a formal execution, crucifixion began with horrible forms of torture designed to create a long, agonizing death over days. It was so horrible a death that ancient writers, except for Seneca, were silent about it, and families of victims never spoke the names of the murdered again.

Crucifixion was designed to save the empire. The bottom line on Christian ideologies that support terrorism: If God acts like the empire, needs torture to save the world, and will use violence or war to destroy evil, why should believers also not support the same strategies to protect a country or save lives?

If the Western imperial church hadn't burned heretics and crusaded against Christians who objected to the Crusades, we'd have a lot more who aren't obsessed with the crucifixion. Christians who reject the idea that crucifixion saves the world have persisted, and, for a couple of centuries, we have been increasing. The popular Christian Universalist movement in the 19th century didn't believe in hell, didn't think God willed crucifixion and its members were social reformers. They were followed in the early 20th century by the U.S. Social Gospel Movement, which deeply influenced mainline Protestant activism for the New Deal, and inspired the founding of the National Council of Churches.

The Christianity we belong to is interested in saving this life, which requires wisdom about evil, resistance to imperial powers, sorrow for all that violence destroys, and profound, deep love for this world and this life.

Material for this post is taken from my book 'Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire,' co-authored with Rebecca Parker (Beacon, 2008).