The Nightmare in Norway: A Familiar Face

by Michael Sean Winters

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I recall a Frontline documentary about 9/11. It began, of course, with the iconic images of the planes hitting the towers, but then it turned to Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete who said to the interviewer, “I recognized that morning, in those horrific images, a familiar face, the face of religion.”

Those words came back to me as I read the accounts of Anders Behring Breivik, the madman in Norway who killed more than ninety people, most of them children, in part to encourage a Christian holy war against Islam. The children were attending a camp run by Norway’s governing Labor Party which upholds a tolerant, humane attitude towards migration. Earlier in the day, the killer had blown up the building in Oslo where the Prime Minister’s offices were located. These acts were done in the name of a quasi-religious, quasi-political creed of venom, intolerance and, of course, Protean self-assertion. Parts of Breivik’s diary has a distinctly Randian feel to it, in his denunciations of a weak government and the need for a heroic stance by individuals to combat the threat of “cultural Marxism” and “multiculturalism.” And, of course, there is the exultation of martyrdom, perhaps the most dangerous religious posture of all when put into unstable hands. “Onward Christian soldiers!” he said in a video. “Celebrate us, the martyrs of the conservative revolution, for we will soon dine in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

There will be those who argue that this outburst of violence in the name of Christianity proves that any intermingling of religion and politics is bound to issue in a renewal of the Thirty Years’ War. They are wrong. Not only is such a thing improbable, we have come to recognize as a culture, largely through the speeches and writings of the Holy Father, that there are dangers when religion is removed from politics. John Courtney Murray argued that the Bill of Rights were “articles of peace” not “articles of truth” but his construction no longer satisfies. Freedom unmoored from truth has resulted in less explosive, but no less insidious, threats to humankind. In the great state of Oregon, certain procedures for the gravely ill are not paid for by Medicaid, but the patient is provided with a brochure about assisted suicide.

Nonetheless, there are distinctions between religion and politics that our culture must address. Religion is concerned with ultimate truths, and so of necessity it invites a cast of mind that is properly concerned with orthodoxy. Politics is not concerned with such ultimate truths and so the religious cast of mind must be adjusted, it must recall that at issue in the political realm are issues that are not ultimate. Take the most hot button issue of our time, abortion. We Catholics can all agree that abortion is a grave evil but how we combat that evil, politically and culturally, requires a different lens. We live in a pluralistic society, where many people do not share our views or our values. How to persuade them of the evil of abortion is a question to which there are many answers, many of which are plausible. Christian leaders must remember that while the horror of abortion provokes us to provocative language, such language poses a danger when it is spoken to an unstable mind.

The answer to these conundrums – at least for us Catholics – are found in Jesus Christ. Yesterday and last Sunday, we had Gospel readings that spoke of judgment, of the weeds being cast into the fire. But, the fire comes at the end of time, and we are not living at the end of time. More importantly, the judgment is reserved to God, not to us. Even Jesus Himself declines to grant the wish of two apostles to be seated one on His right and the other on His left in heaven. That is for the Father to decide.

Hans Urs von Balthasar proposed that the “form” of Christian engagement in the world must take the form of Christ. In the face of evil, that form is one of suffering love. Jesus did not strike back at His accusers: He begged forgiveness for them. Jesus did not call down the angels to render a final judgment, but surrendered Himself, emptied Himself, abandoned Himself with absolute trust into the Father’s love. If we Christians do not believe that Jesus died into God, not into nothingness, we do not believe anything. Von Balthasar goes further arguing that such suffering love is the form of the beautiful.

The murdering Mr. Breivik is not beautiful. The love shown by the saints is beautiful. And, as Father Giussani used to teach, sin is the destruction of the beautiful. Those children in Norway were beautiful. Those elderly people facing horrible pain in Oregon are beautiful. Christ on the Cross is beautiful. We shall never achieve a culture of life until we recognize and celebrate the beautiful, the suffering love of Christ and His followers in the face of the evil in the world. Ten days from now, we will need a Google search to recall Mr. Breivik’s name. But, we don’t need Google to recall Jesus Christ. He is present in every act of suffering love. He is present in the Eucharist when we recall and re-enact His death and resurrection. He is present when, in the face of unimaginable tragedy, we show forth the suffering love He showed on the Cross.

One other aspect of this nightmare requires our attention. Mr. Breivik directed his gun at children but his hatred was nursed by anti-Islamic bigotry. That bigotry is abroad here in the U.S. too. It is hateful. It is wrong. It is unchristian. When its expression earned rounds of applause at the recent GOP presidential primary, my blood went cold. When Herman Cain says he would not feel comfortable appointing a Muslim to his cabinet or suggests local communities should be able to prevent the building of a mosque, that is bigotry. When the Oklahoma legislature passes a law banning the introduction of sharia law in that state, that is bigotry. The fact that it is ridiculous as well cannot be permitted to hide the bigotry. And shame on Christian leaders who do not denounce that bigotry.

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