THE BLOG
01/27/2016 11:12 am ET Updated Jan 27, 2017

The Religious Sources of Christian Terrorism

Alfons Teruel / EyeEm via Getty Images

News reports live a short life in the media. Many seem to have already forgotten the militant organization that continues to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. But then many also do not know that these militants are also Christians.

Their motivation is ostensibly a religious one, seeking to appease the "Lord" by armed struggle, posting footage blowing shofar (the Jewish horns made out of ram horns) as a call for "spiritual warfare". The reference to divine militancy is reminiscent of the tragedy of Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado in November 2015, when a militant Christian, obsessed with eschatology and salvation through sacrifice, killed three people. Then there is Reverend Paul Jennings (1994), Scott Roeder (2009) and many other Christians with similar motives.

So, let's call these incidents for what they are: Christian terrorism. While violence in its terroristic form is not an exclusively Christian practice, it cannot be denied that Christians have committed most acts of terrorism throughout history.

Since antiquity, Christians have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people based on the concept of "Holy War". From the Crusades to European colonial conquests, violence has been a central feature of a faith known for glorifying the suffering of its God on the cross. But such suffering is less about self-inflicted violence and more about seeking spiritual glory on the battlefield exemplified by "soldier-saints" such as St George, St. Sebastian, and Joan of Arc.

In modern history, numerous Christians have committed dreadful acts of violence, many times against the civilian population. Here is a short list of modern Christian terrorist groups: Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda; Antibalaka in Central African Republic; the National Liberation Front of Tripura and the National Socialist Council of Negaland in India; the Maronite Christian militias in Lebanon; and, of course, IRA and the Orange Volunteers in Northern Ireland.

For American Christianity the story has a darker side. Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, Ku Klux Klan has used arson, lynching, murder, intimidation, such as cross burning, against the African-American population. Groups such as the Army of God, Eastern Lightning, a.k.a. the Church of the Almighty God, and the Lord's Resistance Army are just a few Christian terrorist organizations that have used or advocated violence based on the Christian beliefs and values. In fact, since 9/11 white Christian terrorists have killed more Americans in the U.S. than any other terrorist groups.

Most analysts are hesitant to associate terrorism with Christianity, a world religion with the most followers in the world, and prefer to view such violence as a mere marginal features of the Christian world. Christianity, they argue, is the religion of love and peace. Those terrorists who claim to be Christians have merely perverted the true teachings of the Bible to justify violence for their personal gain. And likewise the white American Christians (mostly men) who commit terrorism are "lone-wolves," who have mistakenly adopted an anti-abortion or militant agenda as a Christian ideal.

But a mere a glance at various terrorist movements shows that there is something inherently violent about the faith. The violence of course is a natural extension of the Bible, where violence is explicitly stated in the sacred book in terms of vengeance or punishment (see for example Romans 3:10-18; Numbers 31:2; Deuteronomy 20:16-17; Samuel 15:18; Psalms 55:15).

So how can we hold Christianity accountable for the acts of its violent followers? What can Christians do to change their religion? Does Christianity need to be reformed (again)?

Not really. And what you just read was a mockery of a discourse about Islam that has become all too normal in the American public sphere. I used the example of Christianity as an alternative way to show the simplistic approach that defines religion based on ideas, sacred texts and purported ethical ethos that are actually historically dependent on human interpretation in shifting contexts.

You see, the problem is that religion is not all about ideas, regardless of how often times they are expressed as though. The key to religious action is the complex ways it is performed through social practice, and by that I mean the complex ways people bring into "religion" a feature of their human experience and make them sacred, and by extension profane, in a social setting. Sacred text is only an aspect of the social practice.

In religion there are no fixed contents (though certainly many would like to think there are) but only changing experiences. And you know how experiences are like: confound, blurry, messy, especially when the person claims to be absolutely convinced of his or her faith; that's when doubt is most evident.

Let me explain my point about religious action in a different way. The turning of ideas into action is as complicated as driving your car from home to a grocery store: it involves many turns, lefts and rights, distractions, lane changes, stops, and a hectic parking on a busy day. Forget about actually going to the grocery store; I am just talking about possible ways you can zigzag your way just to get there.

What makes us act or behave in a certain way is always constraint to complex processes, with religious "belief" serving only as a means to make sense of the world. "Belief" does not define the mind-set; it only frames it. Now the notion that there is an autonomous set of ideas called "religious values" expressed through "belief" begs the assumption that those who adhere to a religion essentially take doctrines, theologies, eschatology or orthodoxies at face value. However, values are pragmatic accords in the making, not ready-made objects.

The reality is that there is no stable religious "source" that can produce a specific action. A "Christian terrorist" can have multiple reasons for doing something violent. And sometimes these reasons can be unknown to a person, religious or otherwise. As Susan Sontag paraphrases the sages: "Nobody can think and hit someone at the same time."