Black metal is a musical subgenre that grew out of death metal and, more broadly, heavy metal. In general, it pushes certain aspects of this genre to even farther extremes: fast tempos, shrieking vocals, and violent stage acts. Black metal bands can be found almost anywhere—Europe, North America, East Asia, even Indonesia and Israel.
In one country, however, it has developed differently, taking violence off-stage and into the political arena. That country is Norway. In the early to mid-1990s, black metallists launched a wave of arson attacks on churches, including one dating from the 12th century. By 1996 there had been 50 church burnings, with similar attacks spreading to Sweden.
Those convicted showed no remorse, and lack of remorse still prevails among many in the black metal scene:
Many, such as Infernus and Gaahl of Gorgoroth, continue to praise the church burnings, with the latter saying “there should have been more of them, and there will be more of them”. Others, such as Necrobutcher and Kjetil Manheim of Mayhem and Abbath of Immortal, see the church burnings as having been futile. Manheim claimed that many arsons were “just people trying to gain acceptance” within the black metal scene. Watain vocalist Erik Danielsson respected the attacks, but said of those responsible: “the only Christianity they defeated was the last piece of Christianity within themselves. Which is a very good beginning, of course”.(Wikipedia, 2015b)
Why this hostility to Christianity? And why is it more extreme in Norway? These questions are raised in a review of black metal around the world:
Individualistic and anti-Christian rhetoric is common across the American death metal scene, and metal bands worldwide look to native traditions as a means to combat cultural hegemony […], yet nothing on the scale of the crimes in Norway has occurred elsewhere. (Wallach et al., 2011, p. 198)
One reason is the role of organized religion in Norwegian life. Although there are other denominations, the Church of Norway is the leading one and receives State support. Despite recent legislation in 2012 to weaken this relationship with the State, all clergy remain civil servants, the central and regional church administrations remain part of the state administration, all municipalities must support the Church of Norway’s activities, and municipal authorities are still represented in its local bodies (Wikipedia, 2015a)
As either a partner or a rival of the government, the Church of Norway has helped to make public policy: first, the postwar expansion of the welfare state and, later, the boycotts against South Africa. Now, it is leading the push for large-scale non-European/non-Christian immigration, which began in the early 1990s through the “sanctuary movement.” By 1993, as many as 140 congregations were housing 650 Albanians from Kosovo. By reframing immigration in moral terms, the Church made it that much harder to place limits on it, since morality is normally perceived in absolute terms, e.g., murder is always wrong, and not wrong within limits (Lippert and Rehaag, 2013, pp. 126-129).
After a lull, this movement is once more on the upswing:
As the group of unreturnable refugees in Norway has risen over recent years, churches have again become places for public appeals for these groups, through hunger strikes, tents camped as protest at the walls of central churches, and asylum marches following old pilgrimage paths. (Lippert and Rehaag, 2013, p.129).
The Church of Norway is now working with Lutherans elsewhere in Northern Europe to facilitate immigration from Africa and the Middle East. At a meeting this year in Trondheim, the Lutheran World Federation pushed for three measures: expansion of Italy’s Mare Nostrum initiative to the entire Mediterranean; creation of “safe passage” corridors for migrants; and “just distribution” of migrants within Europe (Anon, 2015).
Norway is not the only country where churches have been promoting African and Muslim immigration, but church involvement is especially pivotal there and in Scandinavia as a whole. Because immigration was very limited until recent decades, it is legitimized much more by Christian universalism than by a pre-existing tradition of immigration, as in the United States, Canada, and France. A second reason is the relative dominance of one State-supported church and the unthinking adherence of most Scandinavians, even atheists, to the Lutheran tradition. Thus, in comparison to other predominantly Christian societies, they can more quickly reach a policy consensus, or have one imposed on them.
When a stage act leaves the stage
This was the social context that radicalized Norway’s black metal scene, causing it to go beyond the fake violence of stage performances. Wallach et al. (2011, p. 196) argue that the acts of arson had their roots in “disaffection and alienation from the dominant society,” which many musicians tried to channel into “an extended campaign to return Norway to an idealized pagan past through acts of destruction.”
That campaign failed. It foundered on the movement’s nihilism and contempt for ordinary men and women. “Extreme metal in general does not lend itself well to inciting social change beyond its own scene, since the lyrics are frequently indecipherable and the musical characteristics are often confounding to the uninitiated listener” (Wallach et al., 2011, p. 196). Moreover, as a haven for disaffected people, the metal scene tended to attract loners, exhibitionists, and other misfits. Though perhaps better at seeing through the lies of mainstream society, they lacked the social skills to win the mainstream over to their point of view.
There were of course other reasons why they failed to win over the mainstream. The burning of historic churches antagonized Norwegians in general, including traditionalists and even many black metallists, thus making it easier for the police to crack down and sentence key individuals to lengthy prison terms. Commercial success caused others to become apolitical: “many black metal musicians are now attempting to focus on their actual music and do not want that to be overshadowed by social and political activism” (Wallach et al.,2011, p. 196).
Today, the black metal scene exists mostly as a weird subgenre:
Isolated acts of vandalism still occur, and some in the scene, like Gaahl of Gorgoroth, still engage in violence. Yet the incendiary rhetoric frequently leveled at Western urban society, multiculturalism, and Christianity has not produced the uprising and pagan resurgence that some in the scene claim to desire. (Wallach et al., p. 196)
It would be tempting to see the church burnings as a prelude to Anders Breivik and the 2011 Norway attacks. Yet, by his own account, Breivik was never into black metal, preferring hip-hop instead. In his manifesto, he disparaged the Oslo metal scene as quiet and law-abiding, an indication that the church burnings had limited support even within that subculture.
[…] As for the right wing community at that time, it was simple. They loved metal and we loved hip-hop. Being into the very small right wing community or the larger mainstream rock community meant Goth girls and hard rock. I disliked both. The big irony was that they; Edward and his friends, were a lot more “normal” than us during this period. They were peaceful while we were violent. They followed the law and rules while we broke the law and ignored the rules again and again. At the same time, the hip-hop community was cheered by the media, praised as the pinnacle of tolerance among the new generation, while THEY were condemned for their political views, systematically harassed and beaten by non-white gangs, extremist Marxist gangs (Blitz etc) and the police. (Berwick, 2011)
During this time of his life, he saw young Muslim men as role models and looked down on “ethnic Norwegians” as sissies:
If I ever got in to trouble I expected my friends to back me up 100% without submitting or running away, as I would for them. Very few ethnic Norwegians shared these principles. They would either “sissy out”, allow themselves to be subdued or run away when facing a threat. […] The majority of people who shared these principles of pride was the Muslim youths and the occasional skinhead.
In time, Breivik became disenchanted, eventually leaving the hip-hop milieu after a personal incident. The more he associated with Muslims and antifas, the more his respect for them became a simple matter of “necessity”:
In Oslo, as an ethnic Norwegian youth aged 14-18 you were restricted if you didn’t have affiliations to the Muslim gangs. Your travel was restricted to your own neighbourhoods in Oslo West and certain central points in the city. Unless you had Muslim contacts you could easily be subject to harassment, beatings and robbery. Our alliances with the Muslim gangs were strictly seen as a necessity for us, at least for me. We, however, due to our alliances had the freedom of movement.
In short, there is no reason to believe that the black metal scene helped to push Breivik toward his terror attacks. The only elements common to both are Norway itself, its policy of demographic change, and the weak hold of mainstream culture on marginal individuals.
Aside from a few frozen islands and a brief claim to part of Greenland, Norway never had a colonial empire. Nor was it ever involved in the slave trade. Yet, today, the average Norwegian feels more guilt over having white skin and more deference toward dark-skinned people than do citizens of most European countries, including former colonial powers. This is a relatively recent development, being postwar and mostly post-1960—a time when Norway and other Scandinavian countries were striving to assimilate modern Western values, including antiracism.
Scandinavians have been very good at internalizing and acting out those values. They are like model students who have learned to outdo their teachers. This partly reflects—ironically—their cultural homogeneity and their ability to reach consensus and act collectively with little foot-dragging.
This also reflects certain profound psychological traits that characterize Northwest Europeans in general, with Scandinavians forming the epicenter. To the north and west of the Hajnal line, Europeans have long had weaker kinship ties and correspondingly stronger individualism. This social environment has in turn favored a greater emphasis on absolute, universally applicable rules, combined with a stronger desire to expel rule breakers. This system of morality differs from the relativistic, kin-based morality that prevails elsewhere in the world, where right and wrong are more a matter of whose side you are on … and who does what to whom.
Moral universalism and moral absolutism have brought many benefits. They have enabled Northwest Europeans to free themselves from the limitations of kinship and build large high-trust societies that leave greater room for the individual. But such societies have an Achilles heel. They are vulnerable to people who play by a different rule book, be they native deviants who practice “selfishness for me and selflessness for thee” or immigrants from low-trust, kin-based societies … in short, the majority of humans on this planet.
In the past, this was no problem because Norway received few immigrants and because rule breakers of any origin were ruthlessly ostracized. Over the past half-century, however, Norwegians have been persuaded that the supreme rule is Thou shalt not be racist. It follows, therefore, that racists are supreme offenders who must be expelled from society, like witches and heretics of another age. A psychological mechanism that once enabled Norwegian society to perpetuate itself has been reprogrammed to ensure its self-liquidation.
That outcome is not far off. In a country of five million or so, it doesn’t take long to elect a new people. Even remote Arctic communities like Narvik are starting to look like a cross between Mogadishu and Karachi. Will Norwegians stop before it’s too late?
Stopping means dismantling the moral consensus that has legitimized this massive demographic change. But how? Violence simply confirms the judgment that racism is evil. This is what happened after the church burnings and the attacks of 2011. A moral consensus can be dismantled only by moral means …by denouncing it openly and nonviolently.
That won’t be easy. No one wants to be a “bad” person, and in a conformist society like Norway a rule-breaker is “bad” no matter how stupid the rule may seem. As long as the rule is affirmed and never challenged, people will obey and make others obey. Only when enough people challenge it—openly and defiantly—will the moral consensus weaken and collapse. To get from here to there will be difficult but it can be done. Rules of sexual morality were deconstructed. Why not antiracism?
Finally, Norwegians should remember the cost of being “good.” A “good” member of a death cult will die just as surely as a “bad” member. And that is exactly what antiracism has become for Norway. A death cult.
Anon. (2015). Europe’s Lutherans pledge increased efforts to welcome refugees, The Lutheran World Federation, May 19
Berwick [Breivik], A. (2011). A European Declaration of Independence.
Lippert, R.K., and S. Rehaag. (2013). Sanctuary Practices in International Perspectives: Migration, Citizenship, and Social Movements, Routledge
Wallach, J., H.M. Berger, P.D. Greene. (2011). Metal Rules the Globe: Heavy Metal Music Around the World, Duke University Press.
Wikipedia (2015a). Church of Norway
Wikipedia (2015b). Early Norwegian black metal scene