Greg Garrett: Norway, Terror and Forgiveness

So, it's happened again. We always knew it would.

A religious fundamentalist has masterminded a spectacular and deadly attack on one of the Western democracies, an attack designed to inspire terror and draw the eyes of the world. This act has imposed violence onto a place that never expected it, and has confronted us and its victims with the question of how to respond to the perpetrators. And how to live in its aftermath.

This time, of course, the twist is that (although the Wall Street Journal and other respectable news sources immediately jumped to radical Islam as the culprit), the mastermind behind this attack is a Christian, Anders Behring Breivik, and his fear is directed at Muslims, although-horribly, and without apparent logic-his victims were primarily young Norwegians, guilty only, apparently, of being future leaders in a culture that values multiculturalism, that oh-so-dangerous specter stalking both Europe and these United States.

And so it is that, like the radical imams who once hated disco and now hate Real Housewives of Wherever, this radical Christian also seems to have struck a blow at Western democracy, a blow against permissiveness, a blow in the name of true religion. Breivik wrote in his manifesto that "What most people still do not understand is that the ongoing Islamicisation of Europe cannot be stopped before one gets to grip with the political doctrine which makes it possible."

So democracy, apparently, and the idea of respect for every human being, can come to seem like the enemy, an enemy worth destroying.

It's dangerous to provide rational motives for an irrational act, and I'm also reminded of Rachel Maddow's thoughtful caution during the Osama bin Laden aftermath not to speculate too much about fast-moving news events. This man may indeed be part of a right-wing Muslim-hating Christian terror network, as he claims; he may be a lone gunman, a single mad individual whose box is short a substantial number of Fruit Loops. In any case, we don't know all the facts, and are not anywhere close to knowing them yet.

But this act prompts hard questions-and offers us a way into our own reflection on 9/11, a terrorist act perpetrated against the United States by other religious extremists.

Why did Breivik do it? He says he hates the growing Islamization of his culture, the loss of a historic monoculture. That might explain it. Norway has been an ally in the War on Terror-a war purportedly fought against radical Islam-so geopolitical arguments don't seem to hold water here. Norway is no foe to Christianity; Norway has a national church (Lutheran), and a Sunday morning memorial service held in the 17th-century cathedral in Oslo attracted a huge crowd, including the King and Queen of Norway. Crowds stood at the back and sides of the Cathedral, and out into the rain. The Cathedral has become the locus for mourning, as cathedrals should.

The sort of explanations offered by President Bush and various talking heads after 9/11 actually seem to make some sense here in Norway, where the terrorist attacked his fellow citizens instead of the enemy he feared most. In striking out against government offices and a camp for future leaders of the Labour Party in Norway, he was apparently making as symbolic a gesture as the 9/11 bombers who hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. He hated the freedoms his country granted to those with whom he disagreed. He hated Norway's tolerance of those he feared. He thought that liberals were too cozy with the Muslim enemy.

Maybe. Perhaps the book-length manifesto he has written will explain everything.


But if we can't explain away the attack, what can we learn from this horrible disaster?

Here we may be on safer ground. How are the various parties responding to this attack? Is, for example, the camp instituting radical new security procedures? Is it planning to screen each visitor, x-ray them search their bags for weapons, explosives, exotic poisons?

It is not planning to, as of this writing.

Is Norway planning to ramp up homeland security, trade away some rights for the possibility of a little more safety? Is it going to become less liberal (in the classic sense), more suspicious, less tolerant, more fearful?

Again, it's early in the race, but it doesn't appear so. As the BBC noted, "Norwegians seem determined not to let the attacks change their society," and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg spoke of how after these attacks the goal should still be "an open Norway, a democratic Norway and a Norway where we take care of each other."

And while there is an understandable amount of anger-some are even calling for the revival of the death penalty-more seem to be concerned that Norway continue to be a beacon of democracy and liberalism. In familiar post-9/11 terms, they do not want to allow the terrorists to win by changing the nation into something unrecognizable. A widely-reported and tweeted response from one of the survivors, interviewed on CNN: "If one man can show this much hate, imagine how much love we can show together."

Some in the U.S. would regard this failure to pursue hatred as the height of insanity. For those who are seized by fear, any possibility of preventing further attacks might be worth considering. After our own attacks-perpetrated by suicide bombers from whom we had, presumably, nothing further to worry, if planned by Osama bin Laden and others overseas-we contracted. As Jane Mayer has noted in her wonderful and horrifying book [The Dark Side](, Vice President Dick Cheney had been practicing for doomsday for decades as a public servant, and after the 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, he "saw the terrorist threat in such catastrophic terms that his end, saving America from possible extinction, justified virtually any means."

But the power of love, naïve as it seems, may be the only way forward. Although our own response was military, judicial, punitive, and repressive, all we seem to have to show for our own post-attack ledger sheet is some dead terrorists, trillions of dollars expended, and our own nation changed-in some ways-into something unrecognizable.

And terror, as is its way, is still alive and well.

If I could give one piece of advice to those grieving in Norway, it would be to take on the monumental task of forgiveness. I wouldn't ask them to set aside justice; if Anders Behring Breivik is responsible for these heinous crimes, he deserves the full weight of punishment. But like the nameless Norwegian girl who saw a better way forward, love can conquer hate, and it does so not through violence, but through forgiveness, and forgiveness can only come from those who have already been profoundly hurt.

Martin Luther King wrote in [Strength to Love]( _that "the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some torturous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression." It seems patently unfair and unjust that those who have already suffered should be asked to take on the challenging act of forgiveness.

But it is clear that hatred goes nowhere, fixes nothing, and leads only to more hatred. "The only right way," as John Calvin wrote in [Institutes of Christian Religion](, "is the way of love." (IX.7.5)

Next week, we'll consider what people believe they know about 9/11, how they got their information, and how being informed-or un-informed-affects our own desire to achieve justice, face fear, and forgive our enemies. Until then, may God grant peace to the victims of this attack and to the people of Norway, and may God grant us all the power to forgive.

Originally posted on 7/27/2011. "Like" the Patheos Progressive Christian Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christian issues.

Garrett's column, "Faithful Citizenship," is published every Thursday on the Progressive Christian portal. Subscribe via email or RSS.