In my Twitter feed this morning I saw a link to a 2005 article titled “The Real History of the Crusades” published in Christianity Today. The magazine was retweeting one of its followers who presumably tweeted it as a criticism of President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast:
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
President Obama was making the point that Islam is not more inherently violent than other religions. Any ideology is capable of being utilized to serve one’s power-will. His goal is to combat the anti-Muslim sentiment being pushed by Right Wing politicians and their media arm, FoxNews (no link necessary; just switch on FoxNews, wait a few minutes, and you’ll see it).
But the article from 2005 in Christianity Today tries to make the point that the Christian
crusaders pilgrims were not greedy misanthropes deluded by bloodlusty popes:
Scholars have discovered that crusading knights were generally wealthy men with plenty of their own land in Europe. Nevertheless, they willingly gave up everything to undertake the holy mission. Crusading was not cheap. Even wealthy lords could easily impoverish themselves and their families by joining a Crusade. They did so not because they expected material wealth (which many of them had already) but because they hoped to store up treasure where rust and moth could not corrupt. They were keenly aware of their sinfulness and eager to undertake the hardships of the Crusade as a penitential act of charity and love.
And yet, both the medieval and the modern soldier fight ultimately for their own world and all that makes it up. Both are willing to suffer enormous sacrifice, provided that it is in the service of something they hold dear, something greater than themselves. Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its respect for women and antipathy toward slavery, not only survived but flourished.
I’m not sure which Christianity the author is referring to there (respect for women? antipathy toward slavery?), but the author seems to fail to realize that Christ also commanded those
crusaders pilgrims to not resist evil, to turn the other cheek, and pray for and even love their enemies. He favorably cites popes of that era who admonished their crusaders pilgrims to go to war out of concern for members of their tribe (along with a little divine guilt):
How does a man love according to divine precept his neighbor as himself when, knowing that his Christian brothers in faith and in name are held by the perfidious Muslims in strict confinement and weighed down by the yoke of heaviest servitude, he does not devote himself to the task of freeing them?
Consider most dear sons, consider carefully that if any temporal king was thrown out of his domain and perhaps captured, would he not, when he was restored to his pristine liberty and the time had come for dispensing justice look on his vassals as unfaithful and traitors … unless they had committed not only their property but also their persons to the task of freeing him? … And similarly will not Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords, whose servant you cannot deny being, who joined your soul to your body, who redeemed you with the Precious Blood … condemn you for the vice of ingratitude and the crime of infidelity if you neglect to help Him?
Ultimately, this article speaks to the need to transcend the alleged “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.
So what is the truth about the Crusades? Scholars are still working some of that out. But much can already be said with certainty. For starters, the Crusades to the East were in every way defensive wars. They were a direct response to Muslim aggression—an attempt to turn back or defend against Muslim conquests of Christian lands.
The real history of the Crusades, the real moral of the story, is that we need to transcend the kind of tribalism that gave birth to the Crusades in the first place, and every other religio-political conflict going on in the world today. President Obama is right on that count.
(Image via Wikipedia Commons)