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Todd Green, Ph.D.

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The Face of Christian Terrorism?

Posted: 07/25/11 10:52 AM ET

What exactly does a Christian terrorist look like? I know, the question doesn't sound quite right. After all, there's no such thing as a Christian terrorist. The two words don't go together, unlike "Islamic" and "terrorist." This is certainly true in much of the public and political discourse in Europe and North America when it comes to terrorism. The overriding assumption is that Islam has cornered that market.

The revelation over the weekend that Friday's perpetrator of close to one hundred murders in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik, identifies as a conservative Christian sent shockwaves throughout many Christian communities. It's not hard to find blog posts, articles in Christian publications and on Christian websites, and Facebook postings, all deploring Breivik's actions and insisting that whatever he thinks he is, in no way can he be considered a true Christian.

This, of course, is a theological point, and one with which I fully sympathize. I don't blame any Christian for wanting to obliterate all ties, in this case religious ones, with a person as full of hatred and bloodthirstiness as Breivik. The man from Nazareth who preached and lived a message of nonviolence could not be further removed from Breivik. What's more, given that Muslims are among the poorest and most marginalized people in Europe, it seems to me that Breivik's attack was motivated by animosity toward some of the very types of people that Jesus identified with the most.

But for all of the Christians who have expressed outrage in recent days over Breivik's identification with the Christian faith, you need not worry. You're safe. You will not be implicated in Breivik's crimes. You will be acquitted in the eyes of the media and the broader public. Better yet, you won't even go on trial as suspected accomplices in Friday's killing rampage. No, the guilt-by-association principle does not apply to you when unspeakable violence is carried out in the name of Christianity, even if historically there is a track record of such violence from the Crusades to the Atlantic slave trade and European colonial enterprises to the lynching of African Americans. Rest assured that you can go about your day-to-day business, attend worship services and live out your religious convictions without any fear of reprisals from politicians or the larger public. You're off the hook.

I suppose the same applies for any of you with blond hair and blue eyes who looks like you just stepped off a Viking ship. Sure, you might resemble Breivik based on outward appearances, but you will not be subject to increased racial profiling or heightened airport security. Whether you are walking the streets of Oslo, Ottawa or Orlando, few will suspect you of being in cahoots with Breivik, much less of harboring any sympathetic feelings toward his heinous crimes.

If only the millions upon millions of Muslims who deplore the violence committed by radicals in the name of Islam could be given this same benefit of the doubt. Clearly there is a double standard. Muslims who make the same theological point as Christians -- that violence and hatred are not a part of the Islam they know and practice -- are routinely ignored. Their case is not even helped when prominent political leaders with a strong Christian identity voice the same sentiments. When President Bush spoke at the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. the week after 9/11, he insisted that "[t]he face of terror is not the true faith of Islam," that "Islam is peace." But too many in the West, including too many Christians, simply shook their heads and told themselves, "That can't be true." I'll set aside for now the debate over whether President Bush himself fully believed what he said.

Had Muslims carried out Friday's attacks (and the earliest media reports assumed as much), once again, we would be debating the face of Islamic terrorism. And once again, the religion of Islam and anyone connected with it would be on trial as suspected accomplices. As it happens, what we have is a Christian, not a Muslim, who is responsible for the attacks. What we don't have is a corresponding vocabulary and a set of unquestionable assumptions about some inherent relationship between Christianity and terrorism. That's as it should be. It was a self-proclaimed Christian, not Christianity, that committed these violent acts in Norway, and the majority of Christians and indeed Westerners certainly recognize the difference. If only this same courtesy could be extended to Islam.