US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Does religion cause violence?

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Americans are quick to associate terrorists of Arab descent to Islam. Can we do the same when the terrorists are European and Christian? Guest blogger Kevin Considine explores the relationship between faith, albeit a distorted one, and violence.

By guest blogger Kevin Considine

By now, I’m sure all of us have heard about the tragedy in Norway where Anders Behring Breivik allegedly detonated a bomb in Oslo and went on a shooting rampage at a youth camp, murdering upwards of 70 people. Such an atrocity is beyond words. Its evil speaks for itself.

Recently, Chicago Theological Seminary professor Susan Thistlethwaite raised a question in the Washington Post: Can we ignore the connection between Breivik’s horrible actions and his professed allegiance to a twisted, fundamentalist Christianity that validated his murders?  I believe there is no simple answer to this question. 

For her part, Thistlethwaite argues that we cannot.  She thinks that as we connect some extremist terrorists to their professed twisted version of Islam, we should also connect other extremist terrorists to their professed twisted version Christianity.  For example, as we connect the violent extremism of Al Qaeda to some version of Islam we should connect Timothy McVeigh’s violent extremism to some version of Christianity. This doesn’t mean that any of us would recognize a terrorist such as McVeigh as a disciple of Christ in any way whatsoever. But it does mean that he found some validation for his violent actions in his understanding of the Christian religion.

There are too many issues here to unpack, but one stands out: One’s spirituality and theological views are connected to one’s actions, for both life and death. This is what has become known as the “mystical-political” dimension of Christianity, the ancient and simple notion that one’s relationship with and understanding of God is directly related to one’s actions in society. And vice versa. In the Catholic world, this is the theological basis for Catholic Social Teaching and the consistent ethic of life, among other teachings.  One’s relationship to God, or perhaps in Breivik’s case, a relationship to a false “god,” is deeply connected to one’s perspective, way of life, and actions.

As Christians, we recognize that Breivik was not serving the God of Jesus Christ—the God of Life.  He was serving his own twisted ideology and the sinfulness and false gods within his society.  But he did not exist in a vacuum.  Although he alone is responsible for his crimes before God and humanity, he is not an isolated individual.  Monsters are not completely self-created.  They are partially created by the sinful elements and false gods within their societies and religions that make it possible for them to see horrible actions as a valid possibility.  Such a context shaped Breivik to demonstrate a perverted “mystical-political” Christianity.  

Was Breivik a Christian in the sense that we would recognize him as a disciple of Christ?  Of course not. Religion, more often than not, is a force for good. Just look at the lives of Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King Jr., to name but a few examples.  And Christians should unequivocally denounce him, his actions, and pseudo-Christian worldview (as the pope recently did).  But can his profession of a militant Christianity to violently combat Islam be ignored?  I don’t think so. A perverted form of religion can indeed lead to senseless violence.  And Breivik's actions are a reminder of that.


Kevin Considine isa doctoral candidate in theology at Loyola University in Chicago.  

 Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.