breivik’s candle

August 25, 2012


Yesterday it was a courtroom, sitting in the presence of a killer. Now, 24 hours later, I’m in a cathedral sitting in the presence of the killed. Yesterday’s subject was a man who took the lives of 77 others as payment for what he perceived to be the sin of a nation. Today’s subject is a man who gave his life for the sin of the world.

First, the unclear.

It is unclear to me how our Christ feels about Anders Behring Breivik. Is his heart filled with compassion as it was for the criminals hanging next to him on the cross? How can it be? Mr. Breivik (as I was forced to call him in our story yesterday — click here to read) still regrets not having killed more. Mr. Breivik appeared emotionless as a judge read a detailed account of the way that all 77 people died on July 22, 2011.

Over and over, the judge used the words “rapidly lost consciousness” and “rapidly died” to describe the way Mr. Breivik’s victims left the world.  Shot in the head, the chest, the groin, the kneecap, the throat, the arm. Bullets grazing off an elbow, a cheekbone, a foot. The bombs he used caused shards of glass to puncture skin, splints of wood to pierce hearts. Children born when I was in high school ran in fear as the killer approached, hid in bushes, scaled down rock faces, crouched behind pianos. Mr. Breivik would seek them out, shoot them as if he were playing a twisted video game in his mother’s basement. Others were paralyzed by his rage. A year later, a student can no longer remember her name. An athlete can no longer walk.

Just as journalists are not really supposed to cheer in the press box of a sporting event (I did that once), we’re not really supposed to cry when we sit in the gallery. I’ve sat in some pretty chilling courtrooms – including the trial of 14 year old Joshua Smith (who repeatedly shot his mother in the face with a rifle) – but hadn’t yet felt the urge to just bawl. This courtroom was different.

I evaded the tears by fiddling with our story, rearranging paragraphs, sharpening prose, rechecking quotes. But Mr. Breivik, swimming in the blood of others, shouldn’t have been so lucky. The reading should force him to his knees. Instead, he jotted notes on a pad with a rubber pen (rubber so that he can’t use it as a weapon); he looked around the courtroom; he sipped water from a little cup; stared squarely at the judge. No tears, no sign of strain. At times, he even smirked or slightly rolled his eyes in boredom.

This is the face of evil. This is what it must have felt like to sit at the Nuremberg trials.

It has become chic in Christian circles to be a fan of the outcast, to applaud the lost person as she seeks the truth. I have no qualms here. But love has it’s limits and I would have no issue with love if it refused to extend itself to the pine table in Oslo District Court where Mr. Breivik sat for nearly eight hours on a Friday.

Love for Mr. Breivik as he waltz off to a 21-year sentence in a relatively posh Norwegian jail? I. Am. Not. Certain.

But this I know. This much is clear.

There is a collection of Norwegians who have forgiven Mr. Breivik. I kid you not. For in forgiving him, they have taken the necessary sip from a cup greater than the one from which the killer sipped on Friday. They drink from a cup of grapes crushed under the weight of the universal chaos that stems from our free will.

In Mr. Breivik, the clash of our will and God’s redemption is at its most vivid. Many travel to the upper reaches of this country to see the northern lights — where a wonder of nature can be viewed in uninterrupted awe, where nature shows off its beauty in the most crisp and evident way. There is a touch of irony that I could stare at such a vivid display of such an opposite force in a court house a bit to the south.

Mr. Breivik – like it or not – is a proxy for humanity. Many have tried to paint him as an extreme splinter of an isolated fascist movement. Really, though, he is a reflection of the evil that can tuck itself away in all of our hearts.

We hate him primarily because he harmed innocents. We hate him because he is so brazen and his acts are so heinous. And  we hate him because he is unrepentant. There is no Facebook Breivik — no image-conscious pretender trying to flash his best side so that you’ll like his status or comment on his photo. This being the case, we feel extremely uncomfortable with his honesty, and we feel comfortable in our thirst for his demise. Heck, I would have stood and cheered if Jack Ruby would have walked into the courtroom and shot Anders in the gut, or better, in the leg, then the arm, then the foot, and then the head.

One of the victim’s family members told us he wants a tooth for a tooth, and if Mr. Breivik ever emerges from prison a free man “I will be waiting for him.” Damn straight. Where do I sign up?

But I am not Norweigian, I am not kin to the killed, and I am not Jack Ruby. I am but a journeyman paid to observe and write down what I see. Detached, but empathetic. And I have had a day to stew in my anger, and let the thaw of an unspeakable mercy punch me in my own gut.

In this cathedral, as dozens of voices sing “Lord, Hear My Prayer” under an icon of the crucified Christ, I have a choice to make as a kid from Michigan trying to find redemption. Do I want to shell out the 5 krone it costs to buy a little white candle and light it in prayer for a killer? Do I want to spend that emotional investment to intercede for such a blatant sinner’s soul? The dead are gone – their fate is in the hands of the father – but a monster remains among us.

Keep this in mind, if one lights a candle here, it is done while reading the words of Psalm 139: If I say, “surely the darkness covers me and light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is light to you.

It would be easy for me to light a candle for Jeff Zaslow or Jan Willem or Jason Mitchell – friends taken too soon. One from a car accident, one from sickness, one from suicide. Or just as easy to light one for my friend Albert or even Joshua Smith — two souls who lost their way.

But my inconvenient confrontation on Friday has somehow driven me to the edge of a cliff, and all that I can see beyond its edge is a chasm of darkness. To walk away would be acceptable. No one should blame this brand of judgment. In our modern moral economy, we hate those who hate. A jumping off this cliff by lighting a candle for a 33-year-old terrorist would be a questionable stab at grace, at best. At worst, it could be a slap in the face of the 33-year-old carpenter hanging in the rafters.

My eyes return to the crucified Christ, hanging high above the pews and ecclesiastical knickknacks of Oslo Domkirke, a church where they passionately mourned Mr. Breivik’s victims. It’s almost as if that carpenter is hanging over a cliff, where all that can be seen is a chasm of darkness, and the only respite from this midnight tapestry are the pinpricks caused by flickering candle light. And each pinprick represents a hail Mary of hope.

So I jump. I light a candle for the most deviant wretch I’ve ever encountered. I do so as The King’s Church is about to close its doors for the evening. And doing so gives me a pang of discomfort because this is not a natural exercise. Breivik’s candle will burn overnight, whether he likes it or not. And Breivik’s candle will burn overnight, whether I like it or not.


John Stoll is a Detroiter – good friend now working in Sweden

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