Lesson Learned: Norwegian Gunman & 9/11

When Islamic jihadists hijacked and flew airplanes into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, our global village did more than ring the door bell; it kicked in the door.

Immediately the American public started inquiring about Islam:
Why did those men believe it was their duty to God (pronounced "Allah" in Arabic) to cause pain, destruction, and death? Is that something taught in the Qur'an? Does every Muslim person think the same way the terrorists did?

Those questions gave rise to a knee-jerk fear (suspicion?) that maybe, just maybe, our Islamic neighbors and coworkers might actually be planning similar schemes. Suddenly any person wearing a head covering in the airport, or in the checkout line at Target, was singled out as a possible threat to our safety.

Most of that initial hysteria has gone away, but I still encounter people who talk about Muslims as if they're all terrorists who are either training to strike or waiting for the right opportunity to attack. For the people I have in mind, the saddest part is that they don't even know a single Muslim person. They just watch the "news"[1], so their fear has been fed by a steady diet of conspiracy theories which connect dots that shouldn't be connected, and by an ultra-patriotism that fears being called "unAmerican" more than "unChristian."

I know a guy who can't make it through a conversation without letting everyone know that he exercises his second amendment right to "keep and bear arms." But at the same time, he thinks we should abolish the first amendment (the one that protects freedom of religion) in order to prosecute all who practice Islam in the United States. I find that position awkwardly ironic to say the least.

Then on July 22, 2011, Christians had their own act of terrorism to denounce: Anders Behring Breivik, whose Facebook profile lists him as a conservative Christian [2], used guns and bombs to kill at least 91 people and injure another 96 in an attack in Oslo, Norway.

Events like this teach the world many valuable lessons, but I want to highlight one lesson in particular for my American friends who insist on bashing a religion for the actions of its most extreme expression:
a religion, ideology, or philosophy should not be judged by it's worst adherents.

We would not like it if the Norwegians reacted to Christianity the way that some Americans have reacted to Islam after 9/11 (especially the reaction of my "second amendment friend"). We would insist that we're not all like that. In fact, that's exactly what's happening. Therefore, recognizing that every group has its extremist factions, we should avoid stereotyping a whole group based on one segment of the "fanatic fringe." Instead, we should seek to learn about a group's particular beliefs, goals, and practices from those who live within the largest expression of that group - the mainline.

In his book, Humble Apologetics, John G. Stackhouse gives all of us some wise counsel on learning about other religions. He says, "one should try to find the most faithful mosque, or temple, or synagogue one can - one that is most vitally living out the mainstream of that religion - and get to know believers who can help the inquirer understand the plausibility and attraction of this religion"[3].

I think that such an attempt helps to humanize the people who believe differently than we do. And when we see them as fellow human beings, we will see that they too are made in the image of God and sustained by the grace of God. They belong to the people of whom Jesus came "not to condemn, but to save" (John 3:17).

We, as Christians, denounce the actions of the Norwegian Gunman. His actions and goals represented neither Christian faith nor Christian practice. He is answerable to God (and the courts of Norway) for such a twisted scheme. We ask Norwegians and the world not to base their assessment of Christianity on the actions of the extremists on the fringe. We invite them to look at the core where the central message resounds that, "In Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself." Or again, "Three things will last forever - faith, hope, and love - and the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT).

May we all learn from this tragedy.

[1] Neil Postman asserts that television news, like any television sitcom, is a just a form of entertainment programming. Theme music, commercials/advertisements, and "talking hairdos," according to Postman, bear witness that televised news cannot be taken seriously. See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

[2] It is important to note, however, that Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit (head of the World Council of Churches, who is also Norwegian) has accused Breivik of blasphemy for citing Christianity as any sort of justification for the attacks.

[3] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 101.

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