Unmasking Religious Terrorism

Increasingly religion and violence, piety and pandemonium are being mixed in a volatile and deadly cocktail. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the massacre of innocent worshipers at the Mosque in Hebron, true believers are translating their visions of cosmic warfare into acts of terrorism. How then can biblical renewal take the church beyond its war on the world?

Timothy McVeighOn April 19, 1995, at 9:03 a.m., just after parents dropped their children off at day care at the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, the unthinkable happened. A massive bomb inside a rental truck exploded, obliterating half of the nine-story building. A nation watched in disbelief as bodies of men, women and children were pulled from the rubble. When the rescue workers were done, 168 people were dead, including 19 children.

Within two hours after the explosion, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol officer pulled over a 27 year-old former Army soldier for driving without a license plate. Right before he was to be released two days later, Timothy McVeigh was recognized as a bombing suspect. In 1997 a jury found McVeigh guilty on all counts of first-degree murder, including conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction. Now six years after this tragedy, McVeigh faces death by lethal injection for committing the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Prosecutors believed that McVeigh’s attack was motivated by anti-government feelings over the failed 1993 raid on the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic group that stockpiled arms in its Texas compound. In addition to the Waco anniversary, it appears that April 19th also was significant to McVeigh. It was the day in 1943 that Nazis moved on the Warsaw ghetto to destroy the Jewish population. It was also the exact day, in 1995, when a Christian Identity activist, Richard Snell, was due to be executed in prison for murder charges. Snell had planned to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building twelve years earlier. Hours before his death, Snell caught glimpses of the bombing and proclaimed, “Hail his victory.”

Was it only coincidence the Murrah Federal Building was destroyed on the day of Snell’s death? Mark Juergensmeyer, author of the book, Terror in the Mind of God, thinks not. He cites an activist who claims that McVeigh had visited Elohim City, the Christian Identity encampment where Snell once had been based and was there exposed to the militant theology of the Christian Identity movement, which is based on racial supremacy and biblical law.

The Rise of Violence

Increasingly religion and violence, piety and pandemonium are being mixed in a volatile and deadly cocktail.

This combination was released in the catastrophic bombing of American embassies in Africa, at the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, at the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister and at the massacre of innocent worshipers at the Mosque in Hebron.

Religious violence is not just a problem of the Abrahamic faiths. It is also appearing in off-shoots of Japanese Buddhism, as the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo sect demonstrated.

Virtually all the world’s religions contain martial metaphors. Whole books of the Hebrew Bible are devoted to the conquests of great kings. In Hinduism, warfare has contributed to great religious epics such as the Mahabharata. Warfare, however, is not just confined to mythic legends. It has spilled over into history with conflicts such as the Crusades, the Muslim conquests and the Religious Wars of the sixteenth century.

But why in our time has religion escalated its attacks on society?

“What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless,” claims Juergensmeyer, “is that its perpetrators have placed such religious images of divine struggle–cosmic war–in the service of worldly political battles.” Acts of religious terror “serve not only as tactics in a political strategy” but also evoke “a much larger spiritual confrontation.”

A Spirit of Violence

Among religious Americans, this sense of “spiritual confrontation” has been heightened over the past decade and a half by two seemingly harmless factors.

The first influence that led Christians to relocate a supposed “War in the Heavens” on earth was the publishing success of the supernatural suspense novel, This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti. First published in 1986, Peretti’s book told the story of how a journalist and a small-town preacher uncovered an occult plot to take over the local college.

Superimposed on this earthly drama was a heavenly clash between good and evil, fought between beautiful angelic warriors and sulfur-breathing demons. The premise of Peretti’s book was the power of prayer to influence the forces in the spiritual world.

By 1999 This Present Darkness and its sequels had sold nearly eight million copies, as Christians presumed they were discovering a new way to combat a creeping spiritual darkness.

The second factor that defined a culture of confrontation among American Christians is the practice of “spiritual warfare.” In 1989 Fuller Seminary professor Dr. C. Peter Wagner formed a “Spiritual Warfare Network.” Its stated aim was to encourage “seminars, workshops, and ‘commando groups’ to begin taking offensive action against satanic forces.”

Over the next few years a tide of “how-to” books flooded the market with titles such as Wrestling with Dark Angels, Warfare Prayer, Breaking Strongholds in Your City and Possessing the Gates of the Enemy. Christians who previously had steered clear of Pentecostal practices now were practicing “spiritual warfare” through militant prayer and deliverance ministry. Each book seemed to introduce a new array of militant terms to describe “strategic-level” prayer that countered “territorial spirits” or demons assigned to subvert nations, regions or institutions, or encourage false worship or human vices such as pornography, abortion or rock music.

A Military Command Post?

SoldierIn 1998, Wagner’s spiritual warfare operation moved to Colorado Springs and opened a multi-million dollar World Prayer Center to collect strategic prayer requests and to interpret them through “spiritual mapping” as a prelude to a “new apostolic reformation.” They aimed to form a “united prayer front that opposed Satan’s attempt to divide and isolate believers, and blind so many to the Gospel.”

Following the opening of the World Prayer Center, a nearby Woodland Park resident wrote the local Gazette newspaper. He confessed, “I find the concept extremely frightening. These people characterize the so-called Prayer Center as a paramilitary command post, designed to be the staging area and nerve center for psychological warfare operations on a global scale.

Based on the rhetoric reported–talk of preliminary air strikes to be followed up by massive ground assaults–I’m not at all sure that they intend their offensive against humanity to remain solely psychological. They openly state that they are working for the destruction of the world as we know it, for the subversion and destruction of all existing governments and cultures and their replacement with a brutal theocratic totalitarianism with themselves as absolute rulers. Am I the only one who sees anything wrong with this?”

Even though “spiritual warfare” has blurred the line between fantasy and reality, very few practitioners of militant prayer would think of themselves as accomplices to religious terrorism. The line, however, increasingly is being crossed.

This past September the World Prayer Center hosted a meeting that featured Gershon Salomon, the founder of the “Temple Mount Faithful.” At the end of the meeting they took up an offering for his work in Israel. In 1990, Salomon, a Jewish extremist, sought to enter the “Temple Mount” compound in Jerusalem and place a cornerstone for the building of “a Jewish Third Temple.” His actions directly provoked the “Haram al-Sharif Massacre” where Israeli military forces slaughtered 18 Palestinians and injured more than 150 civilians, who spontaneously protested Salomon’s actions. Salomon has attempted to repeat his para-military raid each year during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.

Juergensmeyer writes, “…it takes a community of support and, in many cases, a large organizational network for an act of terrorism to succeed… Even those acts that appear to be solo ventures conducted by rogue activists often have networks of support and ideologies of validation behind them, whether or not these networks and ideologies are immediately apparent.”

A Time to Kill?

Warfare is not just an attitude or posture of prayer for most true believers. The concept of redemptive violence often defines cosmology, history and eschatology, and offers the promise of political control.

This has particularly been true for conservative Dominion Theology, a position that Christianity must establish the dominion of God over all things, including secular society. One wing of this ideology, “Reconstruction Theology,” believes that Christ will return to earth only after there has been one-thousand years of Christian rule in society, based on Old Testament theocratic law.

While most Reconstructionist thinkers such as Gary North preclude the use of violence, some activists like Rev. Michael Bray advocate killing abortion doctors. Bray, a 48 year-old pastor of a small Reformed Lutheran Church, grew up in Bowie, Maryland. He began his career as an abortion clinic bomber in 1984. Ten years later, after his release from prison, he published his book, A Time to Kill, a Reconstructionist attempt to justify the use of violence in killing doctors who perform abortions. Along with other “Army of God” chaplains, Bray considers himself at war with the secular U.S. government, in a contest between the forces of spiritual truth and heathen darkness. Bray is certain that he is acting in God’s name.

Although some observers try to explain away religion’s ties to violence as an aberration, or some form of renegade nationalism using religion for its purposes, the facts are otherwise. While some activists involved in religious terrorism have been twisted by mental problems, others appear to be normal and socially well adjusted, only caught up in extraordinary communities who share extreme views.

Should Christianity today be thought of as an extreme or militant worldview? To challenge stereotypes of Christians as “ignorant zealots,” sociology professor Christian Smith conducted face to face interviews with some 300 Protestant Christians across the U.S. He particularly focused on how born-again Christians interact with, and attempt to influence, secular society. What he found was something of a mixed blessing, as he documented in the book, American Evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism is strong, Smith found, “because it is–or at least perceives itself to be–embattled with forces that seem to oppose or threaten it. Indeed, evangelicalism thrives on distinction, engagement, conflict and threat.” Ironically, Smith concluded, “Contemporary pluralism creates a situation in which evangelicals can perpetually maintain but never resolve their struggle with the non-evangelical world.” God at War?

In 1997, Bethel College professor, Greg Boyd, published a massive treatise entitled God at War: the Bible & Spiritual Conflict. Through a literal reading of the Old and New Testaments, Boyd proposed that the problem of pain and suffering today should not be considered part of God’s mysterious “good” purposes. Instead, God has been engaged in an age-long battle against Satan and that this conflict “is a major dimension of the ultimate canvas against which everything within the biblical narrative, from creation to eschaton, is to be painted and therefore understood.” Accordingly, modern Christians should not be baffled by evil, but should instead be mobilized to fight against it.

Recently, however, the “warfare worldview” buttressed by Boyd has come under increasing scrutiny. This past August some 30 theologians, pastors and “spiritual warfare” practitioners involved with the Lausanne movement met in Nairobi for six days to examine the doctrine of “spiritual conflict.” The consultation warned against syncretism and cautioned practitioners from turning spiritual warfare into Christian magic. “Any suggestion that a particular technique or method of spiritual conflict ministry ensures success is a magical, sub-Christian understanding of God’s working,” the consultation statement says.

The existence of territorial spirits and strategies of prayer against them sparked the sharpest disagreements. While embracing the overall concept of cosmic warfare, the conference cautioned against “warfare language pushing Christians into adversarial attitudes” with society. “Christian ethics could be undermined where human responsibility is set aside by referring matters inappropriately to demonic activity.”

The Indo-European Myth

Dr. Paul Heibert, former missionary to India and professor of anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wonders to what extent Christianity’s warfare worldview draws from mythology of Zoroasterianism, Manicheism or Hinduism, rather than the Bible.

At the Lausanne consultation in Nairobi, Heibert described this Indo-European myth. He claims this warfare worldview saw the entire universe locked in an eternal struggle. In this dualistic world, all reality is divided into two camps, good gods and bad gods, angels and demons, good nations and evil ones, good humans and evil ones.

Central to this worldview, Heibert claims, is the myth of redemptive violence. Order can be established only when one side defeats the other in spiritual warfare. In other words, violence is necessary to reduce chaos and bring order in society.

While the lines between the two camps are sharp, Heibert says, the good may be deceived or forced into doing bad things. Heibert says our dualism, based on the Indo-European Myth, colors our political views and leads us to categorize almost everything in opposites, good-bad, big-small, sweet-sour, success-failure, or truth-falsehood. The central issue in the Bible, according to Heibert, is not power or control, but faithfulness.

The Great Revolt

Descent of the Cross“The biblical image of reality differs radically from the Indo-European Myth,” claims Tim King, Evangelical author. “The Scriptures teach us that the cross was the ultimate victory over Satan–and God put down the ultimate Great Revolt against His reign during the Roman-Jewish War of A.D. 66 – 70.”

There is evil in the world today, according to King, but that evil is not the evil that Paul the apostle said would soon be crushed (Romans 16:20). King says evil today comes from human double-mindedness; as the Book of James states, “But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it” (James 1:14).

In other words, the Final Battle is finished. The War to end all Wars has been won.

“It is significant,” King adds, “that when the Final Battle was won, God won it by losing on the cross. He did it non-violently!”

“People turn to redemptive violence today,” King says, “because they don’t believe that God already has won the battle!”

In view of confusion over whether Christianity is based on power or love, King is hosting a national conference in June on this subject of “Kingdom: past, present and future.” King claims it will look at how Christ ushered in a domination-free world in the first century, and how the 21st century church and society can live in it.

“So where is God’s reign today?” King asks. “It’s where people turn from idols of power and wealth and turn toward servanthood and community.”

He concludes, somewhat wistfully, “The tragedy these past 2,000 years is that most churches have never renounced religious violence.”

Come on Out, the War is Over

Ultimately, the power to change from a warfare to a relational mentality can come only through a profound paradigm shift based on biblical truth. If the cross of Christ and his first-century return destroyed satan, there is no longer any reason for believers to “demonize” their opponents and wage war against society.

In 1944, the Imperial Army of Japan sent Lt. Hiroo Onoda to the remote Philippine island of Lubang. His mission was to conduct guerilla warfare during World War II. Unfortunately, Onoda never was officially notified when the war ended. He continued to live in the jungles, eating coconuts and bananas and evading search parties he believed to be enemy scouts.

When one of the cells under his command found a leaflet in 1945 left behind by islanders that read, “The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains,” they reasoned it must be a clever ruse by the Allied propagandists.

Newspapers were left. Photographs and letters from relatives were dropped. Friends spoke over loudspeakers. But Onoda felt there was always something suspicious. This continued for some 29 years. After all of Onoda’s comrades died, he still held out.

By 1974, a college dropout left Japan to search for Onoda. He found Lt. Onoda, a 53-year soldier, still wearing his fatigues. Onoda agreed to surrender only if his commander ordered him to do so.

So on March 9, 1974, Onoda’s former commander, Major Taniguchi, came to the Lubang Islands and read the Imperial Orders of the King of Japan that all combat activity had ceased.

Lt. Hiroo Onoda Onoda was stunned. He felt like a fool. Worse than that, he asked himself, What had I been doing all these years? During the 30 years that Onoda remained hidden on the island, he and his men had killed at least 30 Filipinos and wounded one-hundred others. In his biography, No Surrender, he states, “I finally pulled back the bolt on my rifle and unloaded the bullets.”

After formally surrendering to the Philippine President, Onoda received a full pardon. He returned to the land of the Rising Sun as a humbled hero.

Perhaps no true-life story better illustrates how the Battle of the Ages is over, and how God receives anyone who is ready to renounce redemptive violence.

Dr. Jay Gary is president of PeakFutures.com, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

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