Claiming, Contesting, Constructing Christianity

Hannah Strømmen and Ulrich Schmiedel | The Claim to Christianity: Responding to the Far Right | SCM Press | 2020

reviewed by Stephen Waldron

“They’re not real Christians.” In recent years, Europeans have watched Anders Behring Breivik commit mass murder in Norway, the Pegida movement rally anti-immigrant mobs on the streets of Germany, and nationalist politicians in UKIP and the Conservative Party shake up the U.K.’s relationship to Europe. In each case, those stirring up hatred and enacting violence have done so in the name of Christianity. Much of this animosity has been directed against Islam and Muslims.

So what are decent, humane, loving Christians to do in response? It’s tempting to dismiss the issue by pointing out that many on the far-right have only a “cultural” relationship to Christianity. They’re using something that isn’t theirs. Many of them don’t even attend church services, and they probably don’t care about the beliefs and practices that are part of truly being a Christian.

Even if this was true (and it’s only partially the case), as theologians Hannah Strømmen and Ulrich Schmiedel point out in their book The Claim to Christianity, this kind of non-response falls into the trap set by these far-right movements: it assumes that Christianity is an identity to be possessed, something to be claimed by some against others. It also ignores the fact that the anti-Islamic far-right is engaging in theology—an engagement that calls for a theological response.

For instance, Strømmen and Schmiedel observe that the far-right and those who oppose them have repeatedly contested the meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan, a key story in which Jesus defines the neighbor. For the far-right, it is important not to extend Christian love too far. After all, the Samaritan did not take the wounded man home with him, but paid for him to be cared for elsewhere. For opponents of the far-right, this evades Jesus’s point that the stranger in need is one’s neighbor.

In their book, Strømmen and Schmiedel call for dialogue around issues like this, offering discussion questions for study groups to examine their own theologies in relation to the claims of the far-right. But they do not do so naively. Indeed, they note that too many documents and statements from church leaders have ignored or downplayed the significance of rampant Islamphobic rhetoric and hatred. Churches like Germany’s EKD (the major national Protestant church body) and the Church of England (including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby) have engaged in “both sides” reasoning that condemns “extremes” equally.

Such church leaders have tiptoed around the issue partly because many of their own church members and even clergy have been sympathetic to the bigotry promoted by the far-right. They have typically failed to accurately frame the issue, let alone to effectively respond. And, while Islamophobia is at the heart of the religion-based “new racism” of Europe’s far-right, other bigotries, especially around gender identity, are also often abetted by the churches. Both courage and dialogue are needed in response.

Strømmen and Schmiedel offer a clear explanation of why this kind of dialogue is necessary: the far-right has relied on the false idea that Christianity and Islam are stable and distinct entities. The new racism is rooted in the concept of a fixed essence of Islam that makes Muslims inherently foreign to a Europe that is supposed to have its own Christian essence. This kind of inherent substance is seen as both cultural and religious.

For Strømmen and Schmiedel, this is both a factual mistake and a practical pitfall. Christian theological responses to the far-right must engage with Christianity as a project that is always being created. As Christians interpret scriptures and traditions, we do so in dialogue with our own shifting and multifaceted cultural contexts. These contexts include the reality of Muslim neighbors, who can be invited, as appropriate, to be partners in the development of the Christian project, even as they are likely to be influenced by their Christian neighbors as well. Religions and cultures are not hermetically sealed entities. They are active projects that are continually recreated in interaction with each other.

While Strømmen and Schmiedel offer helpful critiques of the attempts that churches have made to respond to the far-right, in some ways their approach remains limited. Their intervention addresses a crucial component of the broader problem that surfaces as Islamophobic bigotry. But, as fear and hatred of migrants are widespread in wealthy and even middle-income societies, an approach of contact and welcome will alleviate some of these problems but not the underlying crisis. 

As the Earth’s climate warms and refugees migrate to areas such as Europe in increasing numbers, Christian politics will have to move beyond interpersonal hospitality to address material conditions. Borders will need to be opened, housing built, infrastructure upgraded. So far, opposition to far-right claims to Christianity has been mostly reactive. If Christianity is a project that we are constructing, it should also involve proactive work to make societies materially hospitable at the scale of national policy. The episodic refugee migration of the present, as significant as it often is, will likely become more consistent and far larger, and Christians in rich nations should press our societies to prepare now for many more of our neighbors to arrive in the coming decades. Jesus, after all, is supposed to have dismantled dividing walls and to have prepared a home with many rooms.

Stephen Waldron

Managing editor Stephen Waldron is a Ph.D. student at Boston University School of Theology.