A Crusade to Save Christendom
On Saturday, July 22, 2011, a young Norwegian named Anders Behring Breivik, described by police as a “right-wing Christian fundamentalist,” was charged by Norwegian police with committing attacks that killed at least 92 people. This was the deadliest attack in the country since World War II. The killer left behind a detailed manifesto outlining his preparations and calling for a Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination. Breivik was described by acquaintances as being obsessed with the threats of multi-culturalism and Muslim immigration. In a 1500 page manifesto he claimed to be part of a group that intended to seize political and military control of western European countries and implement a culturally conservative political agenda. The time for dialogue, he believed, was over; the time for armed resistance had come. Liberalism and multiculturalism were destroying European Christian civilization.1
The Norwegian people, at least publicly, totally repudiated Breivik’s call for a Christian crusade against Islam and an end to multi-culturalism. Bishops of the Church of Norway set the tone, speaking out in a united pastoral response to the tragedy and sharing the limelight with Muslim leaders at memorial services for the victims. “We are filled with sorrow. . . But in the midst of hopelessness, crying and tears, we’ve seen and still see hope, faith and love standing up against evil, hate and destruction,” said Presiding Bishop Helga Byfuglien. The task of the church, said Bishop Laila Dahl, “is to give faith for the future, belief in victory of good over evil, because God is stronger than evil. . . We must work for an even more inclusive society with open debate.”2
The Norwegian General Secretary of the WCC, Olav Fykse Tveit, declared that Breivik was “criminally wrong” in his view that diverse civilizations must inevitably clash. He lauded the churches of Norway for demonstrating “how to embody a genuinely Christian culture and act in line with truly Christian values.” The people of Norway had demonstrated “that a non-violent response to violence is the strongest, most courageous response possible,” added Tveit. The picture of a Christian pastor and a Muslim Imam standing side by side at a funeral of one of the victims had become “a nearly iconic symbol of the determination to build a sustainable, caring, open society together.” This meant continuing in dialogue with our neighbors and reflecting on the most fundamental of Christian values: the command to love our neighbor.3 For a brief period the Norwegian response to a tragic event which caused national pain and consternation had become an international symbol of the power of love and reconciliation to foster healing in a world struggling to deal with the consequences of mass migration by ethnic groups and the mixing of diverse religious communities.
But could the amazing Norwegian response be sustained over a longer period? Could it be replicated in other societies? Reports of islamophobia, nativism, hostility to immigration, and opposition to multi-culturalism had already begun to surface in the Netherlands, France, Germany and elsewhere. Anders Breivik was said to have had high praise for the Netherlands and to have been a special admirer of the aggressively anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim politician, Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch right-wing Freedom Party. Wilders has said that immigrant Muslims and their children should be deported if they broke the law or engaged in behavior which he describes as “problematic.” Wilders also warned of a supposed Muslim plot to create “Eurabia.” Some Dutch communities now have 60 percent or more immigrants from Morocco, East Turkey or Surinam. A Dutch academic commented that it was now taboo to say anything favorable about multi-culturalism.4
In Germany, where the Hitler salute and the swastika are now banned, and there is special sensitivity to matters of race, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments have recently burst into the mainstream. A recent book blaming Muslims for many of Germany’s problems has sold more than one million copies, and the usually reserved Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared that multi-culturalism has “utterly failed.” A combination of the financial crisis and the failure of multi-culturalism, warns a German parliamentarian, opens the door to right-wing extremism. Police report incidents of violence against immigrants and their German-born children.5 Given these circumstances, how is the beautiful Norwegian model advocated by the Church of Norway supposed to succeed?
Pew Forum Research
Another perspective on the problem of Christian witness in multi-cultural and multi-faith contexts is provided by the Pew Forum’s recent report on “rising restrictions on religion”.6 What is the relevance of this report? The report’s finding that about 70 percent of the world’s population are living in countries where governments impose high restrictions on religion, or where there are high levels of religious hostility in society, means that public Christian witness, to begin with, now faces serious obstacles. Witness in multi-cultural and multi-religious contexts, becomes even more difficult and dangerous. The new study finds that more than 2.2 billion people — about a third of the world’s population — live in countries where government restrictions or social hostilities involving religion are increasing. Moreover, the increases in restrictions tend to be in countries where restrictions are already high, thus compounding an already difficult situation.7
The Pew Forum research measured restrictions on religious beliefs and practices in 198 countries between 2006 and 2009, and found that in 23 countries restrictions increased, while in 12 countries there was a decrease or no measurable change. The study’s “government restrictions index” measured government laws, policies and actions that restrict religious beliefs or practices, such as government efforts to ban particular faiths, prohibit conversions, limit preaching or give preferential treatment to one or more religious groups. The “social hostilities index” measured acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations and social groups, and included mob or sectarian violence, harassment over attire for religious reasons, and other religion-related intimidation or abuse.8
The government of China’s dealing with both registered and unregistered religious organizations, especially Christians, fits the first category. In India, Hindu groups advocating “Hindutva” (Hindu dominance) and seeking to prevent or reverse conversions to Christianity, fit the second category. In North Africa and the Middle East, or wherever Islam is the dominant faith, the restrictions may arise from a combination of governmental imposition (e.g. Shariah Law) and opposition by the local religious community. In the most extreme case where Shariah law is imposed, non-Muslims may be banished or executed for blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation of religion. Under these circumstances public preaching becomes impossible and conversions, including Christian baptism, seldom or never take place except in secret. While the Pew document accurately describes the overall situation as dark and threatening, there are always happy exceptions to the rule and variations in local cases.
An Ecumenical Effort Toward a Breakthrough
Christian missionary groups have for more than five centuries attempted to fulfill their missionary obligation and to carry out the Lord’s mandate in Matthew 28:18-20. The greatest Christian advances took place during the first four and a half centuries (1492-1948) of what is sometimes referred to as the “Vasco da Gama era,” under the powerful aegis of western colonialism. The last six decades, however, have presented the Christian world mission with a totally new situation, one characterized by a post-colonial world, the resurgence of major world religions, the recovery of cultural identity, the combined phenomena of technological change, instant communication, globalization and mass migration.
Among the greatest Christian achievements of this post-colonial era has been the rise of the modern “ecumenical movement,” uniting Christians across continents and confessional lines. The world mission of the church has now become, at least in principle, fully ecumenical. Since about 1950 it has been fashionable to say that western Christian missions have “lost their way.” A new missionary model is being tested by Christians from all six continents, with agents of mission going out “from everywhere to everywhere.” The entire world — the secular west and the rapidly christianizing “global south” — becomes a single mission field with a single mission force. This is a visionary projection to be sure, but there can be no doubt that the second Edinburgh missionary conferences (2010) marked a dramatic change. Now a freshly minted ecumenical document entitled “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct” attempts to give public expression to the church’s new understanding of global mission, and to demonstrate broad agreement on the manner in which Christian witness must be given.
The convergence of viewpoints in the ecumenical statement is of great significance considering that participation in the drafting was mandated by the highest authority in each of the three signatory religious communities: Ecumenical (World Council of Churches, including Orthodox and mainline Protestant input), Roman Catholic (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue), and Evangelical (World Evangelical Alliance, incorporating The Lausanne Movement, Pentecostals, and many evangelical missionary organizations). The collaborators met three times between May 2006 and January 2011. Their aim was not to prepare an agreed theological statement on the nature of the church and its mission; such a statement, prepared by the Faith and Order Conference, has already existed since 2005 (Faith and Order Doc. No. 198), and could serve as a common point of reference.
The major purpose of the new statement was to outline “recommendations for conduct” by agents of Christian missionary organizations (church mission agencies or independent mission societies), especially with regard to inter-religious contacts and the practice of Christian baptism and conversion in a multi-religious context. This sensitive area had been burdened since about 1950 by sharp conflicts and disagreement, not only between Christians and their non-Christian opponents, but also between different constituents within the Christian community.
Even so, the new statement deals not simply with issues of missionary conduct but also includes a theological basis for Christian witness (seven points), a list of guiding principles (twelve points), and key recommendations for conduct (six points). We shall summarize the main points and comment especially on recommendations for conduct which break new ground.
The preamble begins by stating that “mission belongs to the very being of the church,” a statement on which there has been broad consensus since Vatican II. The basis section states that Jesus Christ himself is the supreme witness; and participation by the Christian community is a sharing in Christ’s own witness which includes proclamation of the kingdom, service to the neighbor, identification with the cross, and witness in word and action to the love of the Triune God. It declares that “Christian witness in a pluralistic world includes engaging in dialogue with people of different religions and cultures.”
This point has been a cornerstone of Roman Catholic practice since Vatican II, and has generally been endorsed by the WCC, but up to now has not been accepted by most evangelicals, who believe that gospel proclamation must remain unconditional. The agreement to link Christian witness with ongoing dialogue is new. However, this must not be understood to mean that dialogue replaces witness. Even where Christian witness and living are difficult, hindered or prohibited, says the statement, Christians are commissioned to continue faithfully in solidarity with one another in their witness to Christ. The statement’s unanimity on this point is impressive.
If Christians engage in inappropriate methods by resorting to deception and coercive means, the statement continues, they betray the gospel and are called to repent. Christians affirm that while it is their responsibility to witness to Christ “conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit blows where it wills and is not controlled by human beings. This section is marked by a deep sense of humility.
The list of principles appropriate to working in an inter-religious context includes “acting in God’s love,” “imitating Jesus Christ,” practicing Christian virtues and overcoming arrogance, condescension and disparagement; performing acts of service (education, health care, relief services, acts of justice, and advocacy); exercising discernment in ministries of healing; rejecting all forms of violence, including discrimination and repression; upholding the right of religious freedom, and denouncing persecution; practicing mutual respect and solidarity, and engaging in inter-religious cooperation; renouncing false witness, and appreciating what is true and good in other faiths; practicing personal discernment in matters related to changing one’s religious belief or community; and building interreligious relationships to facilitate deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation for the common good.
Underlying many of these principles is a marked shift from an earlier adversarial relationship with people of other faiths toward a more friendly, respectful and trusting relationship. This shift is especially remarkable against the background of other statements in the document which say that living and proclaiming the gospel must be faithfully continued even where the task is “difficult, hindered, or even prohibited.”
The joint consultation of the three participating bodies, “having acted in a spirit of ecumenical cooperation to prepare this document for consideration by churches, national and regional confessional bodies and mission organizations, and especially those working in interreligious contexts,” concludes by making key recommendations for reshaping the conduct of missionaries and missionary organizations.
These recommendations embody the key changes which the signatory groups believe must take place. Many are not new but express a growing convergence during the last three or four decades in the views of national, regional or global missionary organizations. One is strikingly new and will be mentioned last. Here, abbreviated, are the more conventional recommendations:
- Study the issues set out in this document and formulate guidelines appropriate to your own group’s particular contexts.
- Build relationships of respect and trust with people of all religions, and seek to resolve conflicts, etc.
- Cooperate with other religious communities, engaging in interreligious advocacy towards justice and the common good.
- Call on governments to ensure that freedom of religion is properly respected.
- Pray for (non-Christian) neighbors and their well-being.
The single recommendation which is calculated to make the greatest difference in reordering relationships is the third, which is here quoted in full:
- Encourage Christians to strengthen their own religious identity and faith while deepening their knowledge and understanding of different religions, and to do so also taking into account the perspectives of the adherents of those religions. Christians should avoid misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of people of different religions.
This twofold recommendation — to deepen one’s own Christian identity through careful scripture and theological study while at the same time exploring the teachings, practices and motivations of people of other faiths, including some degree of immersion into the living reality of those faiths — holds the key to any forward advance by the Christian missionary movement in the multi-faith context (including the western secular world) and any improvement in the currently mostly adversarial relationships between Christians and people of other religious communities.
Lack of conviction on the part of Christians about whether the message of the gospel contains a truth worth sharing, and general ignorance on the part of Christians about the beliefs and practices of non-Christians, constitutes a powerful disincentive to witness and dialogue. To be effective, the statement’s recommendation must go well beyond the training and preparation of specialists or professionals and touch the lives and conduct of ordinary Christians in the pew.
We began by noting the challenge posed by Anders Breivik, however misguided, to arrest the decline and disappearance of western Christendom in his homeland. The ill-fated method he chose to dispatch the foe, a twentieth century version of the medieval crusades against Muslims and multi-culturalism, employed the most powerful weapons and explosive materials available to a single individual. In his passionate zeal to defend Christendom from its arch-enemies, he was in total agreement with the Roman Pope who called for the Crusade.
The national outpouring of sorrow and grief which followed Breivik’s action could easily have resulted in an explosion of anger and a call for retribution, against Breivik himself and his allies or against the enemies of Christian civilization he identified. But in an extraordinary act of pastoral leadership Norwegian bishops and pastors were able to counsel and guide popular sentiment to renounce counter-violence and to demonstrate love and forgiveness based on the cross and Christ’s victory over sin and death. This miraculous achievement surely deserves a place in the annals of Church history, and offers valuable lessons to the Christian community everywhere.
The recent experience of Christian missionary organizations, including above all those in the global south, in carrying out the missionary task in multi-faith and multi-religious contexts, demonstrates how difficult and dangerous the pursuit of Christian mission has become. Adult baptisms and conversions to Christ have virtually ceased, except in a few select places. Local churches become too intimidated to evangelize and focus on their interior life. Dialogue with non-Christian neighbors becomes the preferred option but is itself difficult to practice. A dichotomy develops between biblical literalists who insist that bold proclamation must continue in faithfulness to Christ, and mission pragmatists who argue that for practical reasons viable alternatives must be found. This kind of polarization weakens the total missionary effort.
Against this background the framing of a joint statement on “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World” by competing constituencies reflects the desperate situation in which each currently finds itself. It is deeply ironic that long time mission rivals who have traditionally competed against and denounced one another are now able to agree on fundamentals, but paradoxically this desperate situation in which they all find themselves has led them all closer to the truth. They all have a common interest in salvaging the essential core elements of Christian mission — evangelization, catechesis, baptism, conversion — because not to do so would represent a denial of the reality of the gospel and the purpose of the church.
The mission of the Christian church has reached a very dangerous hour for which it is far from being adequately prepared. The new ecumenical statement may be a small step on the road to mission in unity. We may pray that this will turn out to be so. We may also safely conclude that the Christian mission will not be up to the task of supporting an authentic witness to the gospel of Christ in a multi-religious world until it has “girded its loins with truth” and “put on the equipment of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:14-15), while also deepening Christian knowledge and understanding of other religions.
Professor Emeritus, LSTC
New York Times, July 24, 2011.
Lutheran World Information, “Norwegian Lutheran Bishops Reiterate Gratitude to Global Church for Solidarity,” August 18, 2011, see http://www.lutheranworld.org/lwf/index.php/norwegian-lutheran-bishops-reiterate-gratitude-to-global-church-for-solidarity.html
WCC News, Geneva, 16.08.11. see http://www.oikoumene.org/fileadmin/files/wcc-main/2011pdfs/ChristianWitness_recommendations.pdf
Steve Erlanger, New York Times, August 13, 2011.
New York Times, August 23, 2011.
“Rising Restrictions on Religion: One Third of the World’s Population Experiences an Increase.” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Pew Research Center, August 2011 see http://pewforum.org/Government/Rising-Restrictions-on-Religion.aspx
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Preface, p.7.
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Executive Summary, pp. 9-10.