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Thursday, 6 October 2011

1.5 – The Religious Justifications Provided by Christian Extremists: Do They Stand Up to Scrutiny?

Although Christianity does not sanction terrorism per se, several Christian principles do justify aggression in certain circumstances, and it is these that terrorists frequently cite as theological justification for their actions. The following principles of self-defence, just war, and double effect, are often invoked, although terrorist groups often employ only a narrow reading of them, which presents a somewhat distorted understanding. This article will address each concept and explore whether it is actually religious faith that lies at the epicenter of radical violence, or if religion has been purposefully distorted to provide legitimacy for actions that are secular in essence and bring about social chaos.

Cosmic War
Members of the militant Christian Right see themselves as being embroiled in holy warfare and this state of conflict comprises the primary justification for their violent behaviour. Christian militants believe they have participated in an ancient and ongoing cosmic war between the forces of good and evil, with Christianity representing the former, and the dark forces of secularism, modern depravity, and religious and racial integration, the latter. They believe their religion and whole way of life is in jeopardy, and this ‘struggle to the death between the people of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan’[1] is woven into the fabric of Christian doctrine: ‘For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’. 

Just War
Within the context of warfare, the ‘just war’ theory is the bridge between violence and the Christian faith and one often invoked by Christian terrorists. The conditions for just warfare were proposed by Aquinas in the fourteenth century,[2] but many priests believe that it is difficult to meet such conditions in order to theologically legitimise warfare. Johnson and Kelsay defined the just war tradition thus: ‘having recognised the possibility of ‘exceptional circumstances of “supreme emergency” or “necessity” in which in the face of an imminent and serious danger, it is permissible to adopt extreme measures, including deliberate, direct attacks on non-combatants’.[3] However, Christian militants, like other religious terrorists, see their religion and value systems as being under attack and thus interpret violent behaviour as being ‘religiously and morally permissible’.[4] As long as a terrorist group defines their campaign as being for the greater good, any level of violence becomes acceptable and divinely decreed – ‘just war violence may be justified for a future good of society’.[5] However, extremists only adhere to a selected understanding of what constitutes just war, which leaves them with fewer constraints and a broader scope for violent action.

Self Defence
In compliance with the tenets of Christian faith and the doctrine of just war, modern radical Christian movements, like their Jewish and Muslim counterparts, purport to be fighting a defensive war – a necessary evil. Christian terrorists present themselves as being defenders of the faith and believe violence within Christianity is justified when committed in self-defence. Thepro-life campaigner Reverend Michael Bray claimed that Christianity and its central values are under attack, and he was simply defending his faith and the lives of innocents by carrying out an arson campaign against abortion facilities. He believed that Christian theory provided him with theological impetus and justification to protect the unborn by murdering those who would kill them (namely doctors working in abortion clinics). One orthodox priest defined the theory as such: ‘The individual has the right to personal integrity and may defend oneself against an unjust attack. The individual may perhaps, even more, have the duty to protect a third party, an innocent third party from an unjust attack, even if such defence would require killing the attacker.’[6]

Double Effect
The principle of Double Effect is also utilized by the Christian Right terrorists. The concept is found within Catholicism and is centred on the belief that if faced with two or more destructive or principally ‘wrong’ options, a choice must be made, which should address the greater good for humanity.  Michael Bray used the principle of Double Effect in conjunction with the theory of just war when he embarked on a violent campaign against abortion clinics and their employees. Bray believed that abortion characterized the current state of social chaos and heathenism, and despite the Bible’s key tenet, ‘thou shalt not kill’, he believed that ridding the world of ‘baby killers’ through violence is theologically justified as it is for the greater good of mankind. Paul Hill, who murdered a doctor and his assistant outside a women’s health clinic, said that the biblical commandment against murder also ‘requires using the means necessary to defend against murder – including lethal force’. He continued to say he regarded ‘the cutting edge of Satan’s current attack [to be] the abortionist’s knife’, and therefore his actions had ultimate theological importance. In short, if abortion itself is considered a terrorist act (as it is by pro-life militants and Catholic priests), then it becomes a moral duty to oppose the practice using as much violence as is deemed necessary.

Religious Symbolism
The Christian Identity belief system is not expressed through a single holy document, but extremists draw upon historical events, religious symbolism, and Biblical scripture to support their viewpoints and actions. A classic example of religious symbolism is the ritualistic cross-burning made infamous by white supremacist groups such as the KKK. Praying and hymn recital accompany the lighting ritual; all of which were designed to steep the ritual in religiosity. In The Army of God manual, which was amongst the possessions of Rochelle Shannon – the activist from Oregon, convicted for attempted murder and arson attacks on abortion clinics – it was written: ‘annihilating abortuaries is our purest form of worship.’[7]

Like all religious extremists, Christian terrorists refer heavily to the Holy Scriptures to provide justification for their actions. Paul Hill quoted Psalms 91 as providing him with the necessary theological sustenance and justification to commit his murderous act: ‘You will not be afraid of the terror by night, or of the arrow that flies by the day’. Matthew 10:34 is also considered a significant passage by Christian extremists as it demonstrates Jesus’ tenacity and provides theological justification for violence:  ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.’ Bray purported that far from violence contradicting Christianity’s doctrine of pacifism; the two are intrinsically linked, which led one Christian Identity activist to refer to the Bible as ‘a book of war, a book of hate’.[8] Such invocation of Biblical scripture appears to reveal pious individuals who are motivated by faith and believe they are acting in accordance with God’s wishes.

However, all leading Christian figures state that Christianity and terrorism are incompatible, and deny that faith plays any role in extremist Christian behaviour. They claim that scriptural reinterpretation has perverted the religion and is only employed to provide a smokescreen for underlying political and hate-fuelled ideologies. One Catholic priest claimed the Holy Scriptures have undergone such extensive reinterpretation they do not represent the Christian faith anymore.  Speaking of the white-supremacist and pro-life groups he said, ‘any kind of Christian sugar coating on their activities is just an excuse…’[9]

It has also been claimed by opponents of Christian militancy that controversial social issues are incorporated into their doctrine of religiosity in order to provide a wider audience from which to gain support for their more radical and puritanical aims.  For example it has been claimed that ‘abortion is just a skirmish in the battle over the family in the war seeking cultural fundamentalism.’[10] It is an emotive topic that can be usefully employed to agitate and organize a movement which otherwise gets its energy largely from atavistic and racist emotional orientations of followers. However, Teehan claims that, ‘violence done in the name of religion is not a perversion of religious belief…but flows naturally from the moral logic inherent in many religious systems, particularly monotheistic religions.’ He continued to describe how ‘religious morality and religious violence both spring from the same source…’[11] This implies that religion cannot be perverted as the direction for violence is found in the same text that prescribes the tenets of faith.

[1] Al-Khattor (2003), p. 30
[2] The main principles were that the war must be sanctioned by the monarchy or government, and that the aim should be the promotion of good, or the repelling of evil.
[3] Johnson & Kelsay (1990), p. 120
[4] Stern (2003), p. xix
[5] Al-Khattor (2003), p. 57
[6] Ibid p. 56
[8] Juergensmeyer (2003) p. 149
[9] Al-Khattor (2003), p. 56
[11] Teehan (2010), pp. 145-147

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