Community / Pluralistic World / Spirituality

Facing Guns and Horror

In a thoughtful and pained reflection, “The Inexplicable: Inside the mind of a mass killer,” Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard tries to comprehend the awful tragedy of Anders Behring Breivik. The country of Norway, Knausgaard notes, is not large, is “relatively homogeneous and egalitarian,” and so the events of July 22, 2011 were not merely a brief news cycle sensation but an unfolding horror story that evoked shock, grief and fear in the minds, imaginations and hearts of every Norwegian. That was the day Breivik parked a van in the center of Oslo packed with explosives that he detonated, killing 8 people, and then went to an island youth camp and massacred 69 people, most of them children and many of them at point blank range. Even the judge and attorneys at Breivik’s trial wept as he recounted, without remorse, what he had done, and why.

How could such a thing happen? How could it happen in Norway, a prosperous and free nation? How do Norwegians account for the fact that someone like Anders Behring Breivik lives among them? What does it mean for a society, a nation, a community of persons when one of its members, apparently not mentally ill, commits an unspeakable act and then defends the act as good and necessary? These are the questions Knausgaard poses, the same questions we ask when blood-soaked images and details of similar atrocities—some closer to home—command our attention, break our heart, and fill our soul with dread. Though his subject is Norway, his reflection applies to every corner of the globe and the tragedies that unfold with sickening regularity in America.

We suspect we can never really know the answers to these questions, of course, at least not in a way that fully satisfies. Still, we can’t stop asking them. Our insatiable questioning, I suppose, can be taken as a sign, a proof of sorts, of our humanity and the conviction that something is terribly wrong with the world, and with us. Something simply is not right.

Christians have an added issue to address: how do we explain the biblical understanding of sin in connection with such tragedies? Original sin is one of the historic doctrines of the faith held in disdain by many in our culture today, and it doesn’t, at first glance anyway, necessarily explain enough to be very helpful. After all, we may all be sinners but we don’t all shoot children in the face and insist that doing so is good, a valiant effort to save a nation from an insidious and dangerous influx of foreigners. Besides, the children Breivik slaughtered were not even among the foreigners and immigrants he feared and despised.

Knausgaard points out that killing does not come naturally to most human beings. “Even in the military,” he says, “where killing is not only socially acceptable but something that soldiers are encouraged to perform, the inner resistance to killing another is so strong that it must be broken down systematically.” Troops must be conditioned to kill their enemy, and reports from battlefields show that many hesitate, endangering themselves and their comrades in the process. It may not be too hard to push a button if you are operating a drone armed with guided missiles from the safety of a bunker half a world away, but it’s a different story when you are face-to-face with another human being. Then pulling the trigger is far harder than the movies suggest. Knausgaard’s careful reflections are worth quoting at length:

Murder is against human nature, but in extreme cases this can be overcome if the community to which one belongs enjoins or encourages it. The events that are now occurring in Iraq and Syria, the brutal murders committed by the Islamic State, cannot be ascribed to people having suddenly become evil but, rather, to the disintegration of the mechanisms that in a civilized society typically prevent people from engaging in rape and murder. A culture of war and murder has arisen. It happened in Rwanda and in the Balkans. It is one of the possibilities human beings contain within themselves. However, it is so distant from what most of us experience that we cannot begin to identify with it. They burn prisoners in cages. The ruthlessness and the indifference to life that these actions suggest are unfathomable.

Breivik’s deed, single-handedly killing seventy-seven people, most of them one by one, many of them eye to eye, did not take place in a wartime society where all norms and rules were lifted and all institutions dissolved; it occurred in a small, harmonious, well-functioning, and prosperous land during peacetime. All norms and rules were annulled in him, a war culture had arisen in him, and he was completely indifferent to human life, and absolutely ruthless.

This where we should direct our attention, to the collapse within the human being which these actions represent, and which makes them possible. Killing another person requires a tremendous amount of distance, and the space that makes such distance possible has appeared in the midst of our culture. It has appeared among us, and it exists here, now.

The most powerful human forces are found in the meeting of the face and the gaze. Only there do we exist for one another. In the gaze of the other, we become, and in our own gaze others become. It is there, too, that we can be destroyed. Being unseen is devastating, and so is not seeing.

Breivik remained unseen, and it destroyed him. He then looked down, and he hid his gaze and his face, thereby destroying the other inside him. Five years before the massacre, Breivik isolated himself in a room at his mother’s flat; he saw practically no one, refused visits, hardly ever went out, and just sat inside playing computer games, World of Warcraft mostly, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month. At some point, this fantasy took over Breivik’s reality, not because he experienced a psychotic break but because he discovered models of reality that were as uncomplicated and manageable as those of the game, and so, incited by the power of his fantasies, especially by what they enabled him to become—a knight, a commander, a hero—he decided to bring them to life. He had been a nobody—that is to say, dead—and suddenly he arose on the other side, no longer nobody, because, by virtue of undertaking the inconceivable, which was now conceivable, he would become somebody.

Though it may be uncomfortable to reflect on such things, we all know intuitively that as Christians we need to concern ourselves with these issues. For one thing, such tragedies are not merely happening overseas, in Norway or Syria. Nor is their impact limited to soldiers, police, victims of attacks and their families. I live in Minnesota near the Twin Cities, where a multitude of Somali immigrants have settled and from where a number of young Somalis have left to join ISIS. Reports indicate most were not deeply devout when they joined but all were marginalized, felt unseen, and had little hope they could thrive in America. Even more importantly, the issues Knausgaard explores in this article are issues addressed in the gospel of Christ. Being able to talk intelligently about these things with our neighbors and colleagues that do not share our deepest convictions and values is essential to our calling to follow Christ into the world.

Most importantly, Knausgaard correctly identifies a deep wound that runs through the heart of modern society. “Being unseen is devastating, and so is not seeing,” he says, and anyone who doubts that this is not rampant in our world is too busy and distracted for their own good.

A proposal: bring a copy of Knausgaard’s article—or the above excerpt—to work or to some gathering where Christians and non-Christians might be willing to discuss it with you. And to prepare for that discussion, here are some questions that might help you reflect on the issues involved.


1. As objectively as possible, briefly summarize in your own words what Knausgaard is saying. What sentence(s) best capture his thesis or his reasons(s) for his thesis?

2. With what do you agree in this excerpt by Knausgaard? Why? What might you question or challenge? Why? How would express your concerns or disagreements to the author?

3. What words would you use to describe your reaction when you hear of atrocities in the news like the one perpetuated in Norway by Breivik? What attack had the greatest impact on you when you heard about it? Why?

4. To what extent has the frequency of racial and terrorist attacks seemed to numb your ability to react to such tragedies? What should we do to remain sensitive to the tragedy without being overwhelmed?

5. Do you find the doctrine of sin an adequate explanation for Breivik’s actions? Why or why not? Consider the biblical concepts of 1) sin, 2) original sin, 3) the fall of Genesis 3, and 4) falling short of God’s glory. What other biblical concepts or terms can be added to this list? How do you understand these concepts? From where have you adopted this understanding? How confident are you that your understanding is the historically orthodox biblical explanation of these concepts? What needs to be added to the discussion to make sense of what Breivik did?

6. You are discussing this excerpt with non-Christian friends and one of them, knowing you are a Christian says: “I guess you believe Breivik slaughtered all those children because Eve ate the apple, right?” How would you respond? What other caricatures or aspects of Christian belief deemed incomprehensible today might be raised?

7. You are discussing this excerpt with Christian friends and one of them says: “Breivik is a sinner. It’s been going on since Cain killed Able. That’s all you need to know to understand what happened.” How would you respond?

8. Some Christians may disagree how to talk about this issue with non-Christians. Some, for example, might hesitate to use the term “sin” in the conversation because they fear the religious connotations might cause some people to react negatively. Others would argue this hesitation means we want to be liked more than we want to stand for the truth of scripture. How would you respond?

9. Anders Behring Breivik insists that he is a Christian, and that this is related to what he chose to do on July 22, 2011. If you are a Christian, how do you respond to that? Would you like his claim repeated in the media when his crime is mentioned? Many Muslims insist that when the media emphasizes that Midddle Eastern terrorists are Islamic this rhetoric distorts the perception of the faith of many millions of Muslims who are convinced that terrorism is forbidden by Islam and the Qur’an. Research indicates that most Westerners who seek to join ISIS are not particular devout. One researcher discovered that most have in common one thing: ordering Islam for Dummies. Discuss.

10. The Orthodox Church in America ( published, “O Lord, Make the Evil Be Good: A Christian Response To Terrorism,” to provide believers with a guide “to discuss and reflect on the Orthodox Christian response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in the United States.” Those of us who are not part of the Orthodox Church would do well to read and reflect on it.
a) “Remember,” the Holy Synod instructs the faithful, “what God gives us is not protection from harm, but a way of living—and also a way of dying, when that time comes. The question for us is: How do I live a Christian life in the face of danger, not how do I live without danger?” Is this included in your understanding of living as a Christian in a world in which terrorism is a threat? Do you agree? Why or why not? Is this something you would mention to a non-Christian friend? Why or why not? How do we maintain this conviction while also believing that the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens from attack?
b) “The primary and prayerful Orthodox response to any tragedy and violence is personal repentance—never a call for vengeance,” the guide states. “To repent and turn toward God means that we are to align ourselves with Him and to acknowledge and pray for forgiveness for the many things we have done in opposition to what He has shown us to be healthy and life-giving. When we truly repent—truly change the direction of our life—then we are open to God working in our life, realize what it is we actually need, and can cry to Him in faith and humility (James 4). To repent also means to reconnect ourselves to our neighbor. Remember, Christ tells us all people—even our enemies—are our neighbors (Luke 10:29-37). This means we need to act more as Christians personally and corporately as a nation. We, as the Church in this land, need to show that our Faith is not something we say we believe, but is at the core of who we are and what we do. Even in the face of such anger and hate, we respond with love—the kind of love a father or mother has for his or her children when they do something that harms other people.” Discuss.

11. “Being unseen is devastating, and so is not seeing.” Who do you tend to not see? How might you find out if there are more you do not see? Who do you have contact with—even if only superficially—who might be or feel largely unseen? When Christ described the mission he had received from his Father, he quoted a messianic promise first spoken centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said, “because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18, see Isaiah 61:1-2). Besides the physically blind that he healed, could this also have meaning for those of us who are blind to needy people who are around but out of sight?

12. What implications for Christian life and ministry do you see in Knausgaard’s excerpt? What texts of scripture seem to apply? What do you need to confess? What plans should you prayerfully make?


“The Inexplicable: Inside the mind of a mass killer,” in The New Yorker (May 25, 2015) pp. 28-32