Social media have recently been buzzing about whether Brenton Tarrant’s mass murder of Muslims in a New Zealand mosque should be called “Christian” and/or “religious” terrorism. RD’s Murali Baraji sparked a series of impassioned exchanges for allegedly conflating the Australian shooter’s “white terrorism” with “Christian nationalism.” Even though “Christian nationalists” may lack strong biblical foundations or even a mature theological basis, Tarrant comfortably takes his place alongside other self-identified “Christian” nationalists. Here, Norwegian Aryan “knight” Anders Breivik and the Mother Emanuel shooter, Dylann Roof, like Tarrant, see themselves as “self-styled (and self-described) soldiers in a fight against…threats” identified by the original 19th-century Christian nationalists as “secularism and pluralism.” These men and the networks connected with them, says Balaji, constitute an “increasingly pandemic problem across white-majority nations in demographic transition.”
Firing back at Balaji on Twitter is Michael Kellahan, executive director of Freedom for Faith. In his 18 May tweet, Kellahan says that while Tarrant’s manifesto “may claim that” he’s Christian, “It is not true. Far right white nationalist, yes. Christian, absolutely not.” In a later tweet, Kellehan appeals to lived-in social criteria for Christian identity, while Balaji writes only of possible intellectual “theological roots.” Has Tarrant actually been “socialised among any actual christian community,” Kellahan asks? And, what if those churches “are less white and more tolerant than rest of society? [and]… play no role in the radicalisation?” What then of Balaji’s attempt to slap the “Christian” label on Tarrant? Who wins?
One might expect that a survey of all the mentions of “Christian” in Tarrant’s manifesto would resolve the row between Balaji and Kellehan. Interestingly, it both does and does not, as I shall explain. Initially, Balaji seems on firmer ground, even though in response to his Were/are you a Christian? question Tarrant says evasively, “That is complicated. When I know, I will tell you.” But as Tarrant reveals more, Balaji’s view of him as a “Christian” informed by “resentment toward Others (generally non-white and non-Christian populations),” comes to the fore.
No surprise, Tarrant celebrates Pope Urban II’s exhortation to begin the First Crusade with an extensive quotation of Urban’s plea for holy war, a short passage from which I include here. “Let the fire of our repentance raise up the Holy War and the love of our brethren lead us into combat. Let our lives be stronger than death to fight against the enemies of the Christian people.” Tarrant concludes his citation of Urban with a call to action: “ASK YOURSELF, WHAT WOULD POPE URBAN II DO?”
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Finally, the manifesto menaces the modern-day Turks with words, recalling what Balaji termed Tarrant’s essential “resentment toward Others.”
You can live in peace in your own lands, and may no harm come to you. On the east side of the Bosphorus. But if you attempt to live in European lands, anywhere west of the Bosphorus, we will kill you and drive you roaches from our lands.
Not satisfied to keep the Turks (and Muslims) out of Europe as he has just said, the manifesto invites a Christian reconquista of 15th-century Ottoman conquests (caps in the original):
We are coming for Constantinople and we will destroy every mosque and minaret in the city. The Hagia Sophia will be free of minarets and Constantinople will be rightfully christian owned once more. FLEE TO YOUR OWN LANDS, WHILE YOU STILL HAVE THE CHANCE.
Claims like these vouch for the sincerity of Tarrant’s nationalist intentions as “Christian.” And, if we add Balaji’s extended definition of white Christian nationalism, as defined by “resentment toward Others (generally non-white and non-Christian populations),” Tarrant fills the bill. So that would seemingly settle the matter in Balaji’s favor. The problem is, however, that despite Balaji’s arguments and Tarrant’s self-identification as “Christian,” Kellehan says, in all sincerity, about Tarrant, “Far right white nationalist, yes. Christian, absolutely not.” So how can Kellehan possibly deny the words that Tarrant has plainly written?
Well clearly, like many Christians, he’s claiming that Tarrant is not a real Christian. For someone like Kellehan, one might assume that he’d cite the Sermon on the Mount, the Two Great Commandments, or passages like “God is love and whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). Tarrant and his ilk would retort by citing Constantine and the Crusades, the Jesus of the Book of Revelation, or biblical passages like Luke 12:51-3, where Jesus shows his teeth, so to speak, and says things like:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
So, who wins? Which Christianity is the real and true one?
Now, whatever Christians like Kellehan may think of Tarrant’s nationalism, it is, at least on the surface, recognizably “Christian.” How much or how authentically is hard to say. I’d prefer not to fall prey to the “religion-is-good” fallacy and thereby dismiss Tarrant’s Christianity because of its violence and merciless cruelty. What I suggest we are witnessing in Christian nationalism and its contestations are like troop maneuverings in a war, the aggressive advancing of different understandings of “Christian.”
Without committing to post-modern dogma, perhaps these and other disputes about classifying an act as “Christian” will remain at loggerheads for the lack of an authoritative metanarrative. In other words, the question of the “Christian” nature of Tarrant’s terrorism cannot be answered by appeal to a neutral umpire or standard. Hard as it may be to accept, I do not think a single, uncontested, objective yardstick exists against which to measure the “Christian” character of his act. What is “Christian” is—and always has been—TBD. No one gets anywhere.
Neither side makes progress because both assume a notion of Christianity that ignores the role that contested historicity has played in defining what Christianity means from age to age. Every age will decide for itself what features of Christianity matter most. And, who can gainsay that effort? Ask Reinhold Niebuhr (if one could) about how “Christian” it would have been to turn the other cheek to Hitler? How essentially “Christian” was pre-Constantinian Christian pacifism, then, in the face of what would become the Holocaust? As a progressive, I especially worry that progressives will forget that they may need to fight to establish what is desirably “Christian.” The very existence of the Christchurch white “Christian” nationalist shows that the meaning of what is “Christian” is not universally shared.
Put otherwise, one might dismiss these widely different understandings of “Christian” as aberrations, exceptions, deviations, or departures from some unproblematic norm. But what if no such norm existed, and the diversity of Christianities were merely alternatives? I’m arguing that the history of Christianity is better read as a history of Christianities-in-conflict.
In this light, we’d be better advised to see that long story as a series of episodes with different “winners,” rather than, as is often the temptation, seeing a single, true, purified Christianity emerging, like the Buddhist analogy of the lotus rising triumphantly out of the muddy bottom of some fetid pond. It’s all too easy to think of a religion—in this case, Christianity—as progressively evolving, even when some think that the latest evolute is imagined as a classic return to the purity of origins, or when the Christchurch shooter believes it means purging the West of Muslims. Things change in religion as in everything else, and not necessarily for the better, as one sees it.
The worst thing one could do in response to the horrendous acts in Christchurch is to hunker down with a preferred sense of what a Christian is. People who would identify as “Christians”—either explicitly or implicitly—need to realize they’re in a life or death struggle to command the meaning of “Christian.” It’s possible for progressives to make a case for a Christianity conforming to their views—that MLK Jr. was a better Christian than Dylann Roof, or Sister Marta Wołowska of Słonim more deserving of the Christian epithet than the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Robert Bowers.
In arguing that the rise of white Christian nationalism should make us acutely aware that the “Christian” label is up for grabs, I’m also arguing that progressives need to do a healthy share of the grabbing.