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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Christian Terrorism: An Uncomfortable Reality?

Although much of the world’s understanding of contemporary religious violence is focused on Islamist activity in the Middle East, religious terrorism is not confined to either.  Militant Christian organisations termed the Christian Right have been active in the West since the mid 1980s, and ‘for years leftist extremists have been saying the worst terrorists are Christians’.[1] Anders Breivik has become the newest poster boy to represent the evils of Christian militancy,[2] and currently, ‘most right-wing terrorism in the United States has a religious (Christian) component’.[3] (There is debate concerning Breivik’s status but Juergensmeyer affirms:  ‘if bin Laden was a Muslim terrorist, Breivik is a Christian terrorist.’)

The mainly Protestant Christian Right is comprised of several schools of conservative Christian thought, linked by the belief that secularism poses a severe threat to democracy, pluralism, and liberty, and Christianity must reclaim its position at the forefront of society. The movement advocates dramatic societal changes, and argues that any level of violence is deemed both necessary and acceptable in the struggle to rearrange social order and implement Christian nations. 

In 1987, white supremacists plotted to poison the municipal water supplies of two major American cities in a bid to instigate Armageddon through the process of religious and racial purification, while 1999 saw a Jewish day-care centre in California ransacked by Christian terrorists in a religiously-motivated attack. In 2001 two Christian white supremacists were convicted for planning to destroy African American and Jewish landmarks, with the purpose of igniting a cataclysmic race war, which would supposedly usher in the Parousia. The militant pro-life movement has also waged a long-running campaign of violence against abortion facilities and their employees since the mid 1980s. It was the dramatic proliferation of such attacks that prompted the American government to categorise many extremist groups as domestic terrorists, rather than hate groups.

However, controversy has long surrounded the relationship between terrorism and Christianity as there appears to be striking antithesis between the two. How can a religion that promotes peace – ‘turn [the] other cheek’ – produce hate groups? Where is the correlation between the central precept of ‘love thy enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ and the actions of the ‘devout’ individual responsible for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta?  How can ‘Christian terrorism’ exist if ‘there is literally no place for hate in faith’?[4]

Juergensmeyer clarifies by stating that Christianity and violence are far from mutually-exclusive: ‘despite its central tenets of love and peace, Christianity – like most traditions – has always had a violent side. The bloody history of the tradition has provided images as disturbing as those provided by Islam or Sikhism, and violent conflict is vividly portrayed in the Bible’.[5] It is this history and these biblical images have provided the raw material for theologically justifying the violence of contemporary Christian groups.

In fact, violence in the name of Christianity has been one of the most powerful and destructive examples of religious violence throughout history. The Crusades and Inquisitions of the middle Ages are often highlighted as some of the most notorious patterns of Christian brutality, (although there is debate surrounding their classification of these as terrorist acts). Thousands of Jews and Muslims were killed throughout, but ‘the Church-sanctioned invasions and atrocities were deemed to be in accordance with God’s wishes and therefore perfectly acceptable,’[6] which is the same logic that is supplied by modern-day terrorists to explain their actions. Coetzee claims that there is essentially no distinction between the violence committed in the name of God during the Crusades and that perpetrated by the present-day radical Christian Right. ‘There is little difference in praxis between the crusades and modern day Christian terrorism. When the Christian faith (or any faith for that matter), is employed to legitimize violence, Christians also declare “God to be on their side,” and they see “themselves as soldiers of God.”’[7]

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