Does a Killer’s Religion Matter?

The recent mass murder in Oslo and the extreme reactions among some members of the U.S. media have brought into sharp focus an issue that comes up periodically for me. The apparently confessed perpetrator of this calamity, Anders Behring Breivik, has described himself on Facebook and in other places as a Christian. Many in the U.S. media have taken umbrage at that characterization, suggesting that anyone who could do what he did isn't a Christian. Yet these same commentators are quick to paint Muslims who commit crimes against the Q'ran as exemplars of Islam and thus, in their eyes, representative of a religion that advocates violence.

Apart from the easily provable fact that Islam is no more violent in its teachings than is Judeo-Christianity if you see them through the lenses of literal interpretation of ancient texts, the deeper question is, "What does it matter from a news perspective?" I'm sure that Breivik, like many others who have committed crimes and proclaimed themselves to be Christians, was also a blogger, a reader, a bicyclist, maybe a stamp collector, a fan of some specific movie star or style of music. Why, then, aren't the media referring to Breivik by one of those equally irrelevant labels? Because none of those labels gives rise to antagonism and passion, perhaps? I've read some of Breivik's public writings and I don't see anything in his "manifesto" that makes his embrace of the label of "Christian" nearly as relevant as his anti-multi-culturalism or his anti-Muslim bigotry. 

Add to this the grave difficulty associated with attempting to define for someone else his or her Christian nature, and you have the makings for entrenched and potentially violent defenses of cherished beliefs. To say, as some commentators have, that, "He couldn't be a Christian because his actions are contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ" is to suggest that anyone who behaves contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ cannot be called a Christian. That would, by the religion's own definition, disqualify every single Christian as worthy of that label because "All have sinned and fallen short of God's glory." This in turn demonstrates the absurdity of anyone saying that anyone else is or is not a Christian.

But the really important bottom line here is simply this: using religious labels — particularly when to do so is almost always to misuse them, however subtly — to identify someone and expect that simple act of identification to brand all others who also bear that label as guilty of the same behavior, is practically a textbook definition of prejudice,.

The real story, the real tragedy in Oslo, is not about whether the perpetrator is or is not a Christian according to any standard. The real story is that dozens of people, most of them budding youth, are dead because a single individual believed others needed to die at his hand because they acted, looked, behaved or believed differently from him. Bigotry is the point. Not religion. Not spirituality. Not even politics.

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