Apologies that Defy Belief

President Obama may have been guilty of dabbling in civil religion last week at the National Prayer breakfast, but was he really in error about the Crusades? This was the paragraph that went viral:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. 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.

The backlash has been striking. One blogger claims that Obama is responsible for more deaths than the Crusades:

So Barack Obama has killed at least 2,500 in drone strikes during the six years of his presidency, not including those killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Spanish Inquisition reportedly killed 2,250 over 350 years.

Another notes that the president, as a Christian, is responsible for deaths in ways comparable to the Crusades:

His own war record is no better than the Crusades. Obama stepped up the war in Afghanistan, and our kill team made international headlines (though not many national ones). Obama’s violent, inadequate intervention in Libya created chaos for the people there that cost lives and livelihoods – much as our precipitous departure from Iraq created an opening for ISIS and its abuses. And Obama’s administration shamefully redefined “civilian” to justify his own drone policy.

Were these terrible deeds “done in the name of Christ”? Certainly not. But a Christian did them, and that will be enough for critics.

Meanwhile, a number of critics of the president argue that his paragraph missed the real intention of the Crusades. Christianity Today retreaded a piece it ran almost a decade ago from Thomas Madden:

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.

At the same time, various writers conceded that bad things happened but add that the president and others who employ the mythology of the bad Crusades forget their larger and nobler purpose.

Were there abuses in the Crusades? Yes. The sacking of Constantinople has left a permanent stain on Christendom. But were those terrible deeds done “in the name of Christ”? Certainly not; no Church teaching condones them.

The odd part of this defense of the Crusades is that even the revisionist accounts make them hard to defend. For instance, Madden writes:

It is often assumed that the central goal of the Crusades was forced conversion of the Muslim world. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the perspective of medieval Christians, Muslims were the enemies of Christ and his Church. It was the Crusaders’ task to defeat and defend against them. That was all. Muslims who lived in Crusader-won territories were generally allowed to retain their property and livelihood, and always their religion. Indeed, throughout the history of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Muslim inhabitants far outnumbered the Catholics. It was not until the 13th century that the Franciscans began conversion efforts among Muslims. But these were mostly unsuccessful and finally abandoned. In any case, such efforts were by peaceful persuasion, not the threat of violence.

The Crusades were wars, so it would be a mistake to characterize them as nothing but piety and good intentions. Like all warfare, the violence was brutal (although not as brutal as modern wars). There were mishaps, blunders, and crimes. These are usually well-remembered today. During the early days of the First Crusade in 1095, a ragtag band of Crusaders led by Count Emicho of Leiningen made its way down the Rhine, robbing and murdering all the Jews they could find. Without success, the local bishops attempted to stop the carnage. In the eyes of these warriors, the Jews, like the Muslims, were the enemies of Christ. Plundering and killing them, then, was no vice. Indeed, they believed it was a righteous deed, since the Jews’ money could be used to fund the Crusade to Jerusalem. But they were wrong, and the Church strongly condemned the anti-Jewish attacks.

If the Crusaders — no wonder Campus Crusade became Cru — had no other task but to defeat and defend against aggressive Muslims, what’s up with their treatment of Jews?

And by the way, I have yet to see a defense of the Crusades that acknowledges the Schism of 1054 that did not exactly endear either the Christians in Jerusalem to the Pope or vice versa. The notion that Western Christians were simply trying to help out their brothers in Christ is a little rich after 1054.

Either way, why don’t the apologists wonder first why Christians would take up the sword in the name of Christ? You might do so in order to punish evil and reward good (think Rom 13), but do you really use physical force to beat back God’s enemies. Some of the critics of Obama have ridiculed wars fought in the name of political ideology. But I would gladly have wars fought to pursue some sort of civil good than a war fought for the sake of true faith. In fact, if you are going to recommend wars in the name of Christ over wars for “merely” political ends, are you any different from the killers who took the lives of Charlie Hebdo’s staff? Both are killing in the name of faith.

What also does a defense of the Crusades say about the kind of foreign policy Christians advocate? Do we really want wars fought on foreign soil to push back aggressive rulers? If you are some sort of neo-conservative, you may. But do the Crusades really function as a model for thinking about stability in the Middle East? Apparently they have.

Finally, if the Crusades were wars to restore Christian rule to a certain part of the world, do modern-day Christians really want to defend Christian rule? What is that? I understand that medieval Christians believed in such an entity, as did Reformation Christians. But do folks who live in the West and trust Jesus still think that wars to defend or restore Christian rule is something that needs defense? Yes, understand the Crusaders on their own terms. No, don’t embrace (or do you?) Christian rule?

But at least some folks out there are not as offended as the people who generally take any opportunity to mock the president. The folks at Crux summarize the Crusades this way:

The Crusades lasted almost 200 years, from 1095 to 1291. The initial spark came from Pope Urban II, who urged Christians to recapture the Holy Land (and especially the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) from Muslim rule. Like the promise of eternal life given to Muslim martyrs, Crusaders were promised absolution from sin and eternal glory.

Militarily, the Crusades were at first successful, capturing Jerusalem in 1099, but eventually a disaster; Jerusalem fell in 1187. Successive Crusades set far more modest goals, but eventually failed to achieve even them. The last Crusader-ruled city in the Holy Land, Acre, fell in 1291.

Along the way, the Crusaders massacred. To take but one example, the Rhineland Massacres of 1096 are remembered to this day as some of the most horrific examples of anti-Semitic violence prior to the Holocaust. (Why go to the Holy Land to fight nonbelievers, many wondered, when they live right among us?) The Jewish communities of Cologne, Speyer, Worms, and Mainz were decimated. There were more than 5,000 victims.

And that was only one example. Tens of thousands of people (both soldiers and civilians) were killed in the conquest of Jerusalem. The Crusaders themselves suffered; historians estimate that only one in 20 survived to even reach the Holy Land. It is estimated that 1.7 million people died in total.

And this is all at a time in which the world population was approximately 300 million — less than 5 percent its current total. Muslim extremists would have to kill 34 million people (Muslim and non-Muslim alike) to equal that death toll today. As horrific as the Islamic State’s brutal reign of terror has been, its death toll is estimated at around 20,000.

These unsettling aspects of the Crusades explain why Michael Sean Winters may join me in giving two more cheers for the Enlightenment (I just wish he could see the value of libertarianism properly understood):

It is good for Christians, perhaps especially Catholics, to recognize that we did not come of our own volition to the cause of religious tolerance. There are historical and theological reasons for this, to be sure. And, the track record of our Protestant brothers and sisters is not exactly sterling: Long after the Act of Toleration in 1689, parliament continued to debate variations on the Occasional Conformity Bill as a way of using religion to deprive Whigs of political office. And, of course, the 1689 Act did not apply to Catholics at all. Still, we Roman Catholics were late to the idea that it was not the task of the state to enforce religious observance and conformity. How late? I was born in 1962 into a Church that still held the political doctrine of religious freedom was wrong.

To see what a discussion of the Crusades might look like from someone with no dog in the fight, go here.


21 thoughts on “Apologies that Defy Belief

  1. I love this quote:

    I was born in 1962 into a Church that still held the political doctrine of religious freedom was wrong.

    So much for infallibility.


  2. In fact, if you are going to recommend wars in the name of Christ over wars for “merely” political ends, are you any different from the killers who took the lives of Charlie Hebdo’s staff? Both are killing in the name of faith.

    But…but…but Islam is a faith based on violence. The Crusaders just happened to be wearing crosses, using crucifixes as their war-standards, and yelling “Deus vult!” I mean, just because one wears a Pittsburgh tee-shirt doesn’t mean you’re endorsing the harassment of Spanish vessels and burying treasure on remote islands.


  3. Luther—“How shamefully the pope has this long time baited us with the war against the Turks, gotten our money, and destroyed so many Christians and made so much mischief! When will we learn that the pope is the devil’s most dangerous cat’s paw?” (The Concise History of the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden, page 192-193)

    Later on, of course, Luther “just happened” to change his mind and became a Niebuhrian partisan, an enemy of all “pacifism”. Why take seriously the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount after you have discovered that there is evil in the world, and that whatever you do to overcome evil is not evil but approved by the Creator God, who gave Noah “natural law” and left out any stuff about idolatry and worship?


  4. it doesn’t matter which side you are on, Muslim or Christian, if you sincerely move to the light which is in your own heart, then we can agree that the lands are holy, even if we don’t know with preciseness about which skin is whose……let’s just get along


  5. Darryl, lots to ponder here. I’m doing just that..

    Thanks as always. Was delighted to hear about Kabbigail.

    See, no cliche, no biggee. Just chit chat, about pets, movies, and whatever else.



  6. I’m not a pacifist but I have no idea if any war I’ve supported was a just war and supported by God. As Lewis pointed out to his pastor who spoke of God being on the same side as England (because Lewis thought it was dangerous) “you never know with Him.” Lincoln pretty much said the same thing.

    I can’t see the Sermon on the Mount as Christ’s foreign policy platform. It teaches the individual, across all of life’s disciplines, to eschew escalation. What leads to war is just the opposite. Up the ante, person to person, all the time.

    Christ’s praise of the Centurion’s faith didn’t come with a “go and sin no more” provision. In all probability, He was glad for the presence of an occupying force because it kept a peace the warring factions of Zealots would have outlawed.

    I think that Christ’s approval of the Centurion as he was, in his capacity, is similar to Sts. Peter and Paul telling us to obey and respect our rulers.

    An apology for the slaughter of the Crusades or explanation of causes and motivation shouldn’t have to recommend an opposite and unlearned alliance with half-assed scholarship but it does have to convince those willing to listen that we’re actually capable of remorse and not just badly making excuses. Even Douthat’s piece has the quality of a wrested admission. No imagination at all.

    Intelligent Christians who still want to be part of the conversation a Nation has with its people must fear a shut-out. They’ll only have themselves to talk to and the scholarship is bound to get worse and worse. The Old Testament shows a society with strangers and aliens charged with respecting one another within the confines of laws and manners. And what will become of the best of our Christian minds if we only have each other to talk to? Inbreeding. We’ll even start to look queer.


  7. I don’t understand why Christians can’t simply say “we were wrong” about the Crusades. Saying that doesn’t give those who use the Crusades a justification for acts of violence. What they’re doing is wrong as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But it seems that such is what we implicitly believe in bending over backwards to say “the Crusades were bad BUT…” Isn’t it a lot more humble simply to say “we were wrong, and they shouldn’t have done what they did”? IOW, how much of the justifying of the Crusades is done in order that we don’t come across as saying that what ISIS is doing is justified?


  8. Robert, what about when it comes to the historical moment with slavery in America and Christian justification for it? Seems like many of those who want to take umbrage with Obama’s words on the Crusades and offer defense tend also to be the ones quick to pile on slavery without much nuance. That’s not to suggest either moment somehow deserves intrinsic defense (as you say, they were mainly bad things, just admit it already), rather to wonder if maybe the lesson is less to clobber for historical moments and more that history is way more complicated than the impulse implies.


  9. Robert: IOW, how much of the justifying of the Crusades is done in order that we don’t come across as saying that what ISIS is doing is justified?

    Well, yes. And this matters. At this moment, brothers and sisters are being killed, with the Crusades as an excuse. It matters to be able to say to ISIS, “The Crusades are not a valid excuse.”

    You can get there by saying that there *is* no valid excuse for their behavior, or you can get there by saying that the Crusades were not a uniquely bad episode in medieval warfare. Both lines are valid.


  10. So how does this mesh with supreme popes who were intent on recovering the Holy Land with the — you guessed it — Crusades?

    The Catholic Church is Israel. There is no other. The Catholic Church is Zion. There is no other. The Catholic Church is Jerusalem. There is no other.

    And what about that piece of land in the Middle East? What about the State of Israel? It is another country, no more, no less. There are abundant national security reasons to support the State of Israel. It is a beacon of democracy in a horrible part of the world. It is one of America’s most important allies. It is the physical and spiritual home to the Jewish people, children of the One True God and so our spiritual brothers, and our forefathers in faith.

    But as to theological reasons to support the State of Israel, I find the stark answer persuasive: there are none.


  11. mld—Christ’s praise of the Centurion’s faith did not come with a “go and sin no more” provision.

    mark—well, that sure covers it for me—1. from the silence we can infer that Christ simply did not care if the centurian sinned or not, and/or 2. also from silence elsewhere we infer that now soldiers can do what they do without any violence, and that prostitutes can do what they do without any sin…

    mld—He was glad for the presence of an occupying force because it kept a peace the warring factions of Zealots would have outlawed

    mark: is this what those loyal to King George said about the British military invasion? At least it “keeps the peace” (the status quo) against Patrick Henry and John Witherspoon?

    mld—I think that Christ’s approval of the Centurion as he was, in his capacity, is similar to Peter and Paul telling us to obey and respect our rulers.

    mark: and when one set of rulers takes arms against another set of rulers, it’s important that citizens of heaven take sides with one set of the rulers because it’s important that somebody get killed and how is that going to happen if we don’t take sides, not as Christians of course but as common folks who also agree that Jesus may be redeemer but certainly is no lawgiver—would not be prudent to obey literally what Jesus says, because that was only to show us our need of the gospel…

    mld: Intelligent Christians who still want to be part of the conversation a Nation has with its people must fear a shut-out.

    mark: why this lust to be “part of the conversation”? after so many years of eliminating abortion from the earth, have we learned nothing about co-option? Let those EFFECTUALLY CALLED by God worry less about coming off smart or normal and reject “realist” appeals to “the way thing are” in a way that ignores what Jesus said about the power for His kingdom on earth coming from heaven so that Christians should not kill Muslims (John 18)

    “A striking example of how hard it is to draw a line between lawful and unlawful war is to be found in Calvin’s thoughts on whether French Protestants might defend themselves by arms against their enemies, the Dukes of Guise. The day after the massacre of Vassy, he frankly encouraged and helped the Huguenots to organise their army, finding many fine pretexts, resting on great principles, to authorise such action. But quite soon afterwards, in April 1563, he wrote: “I shall always recommend that arms be abandoned and that we should all perish rather than return to the confusions that have been experienced.”



  12. Dick Gaffin —The imprecations in Psalm 137, among others, have in view the Old Testament situation, when God’s covenant people were one nation, a single geopolitical entity (Israel), and their enemies were likewise ethnically and geopolitically defined (Babylon and Edom here). But now, after Christ’s finished work, that spiritual enmity, inseparably national, has ceased. Now the realization of God’s eternal saving purpose, anticipated throughout the Old Testament, is universal. His elect are no longer found only within Israel, but within every nation. Under the new covenant, the church is “in Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13) in a way it was not under the old: no longer are Jews in holy hostility towards non-Jews; now, in Christ, they are reconciled to each other (Eph. 2:11–22).
    I recognize that the ethnic references like those in Psalm 137 are not only literal but also typological. Akin to the symbolic references to Babylon in Revelation, they point forward to the final destruction of the enemies of God’s people. Still, singing explicitly genocidal curses in public worship, without a whole lot of preparatory explanation (and perhaps even with that), risks leaving the impression that the congregation is calling on God for the large-scale destruction of people with Gentile ethnicity like most of us in the New Testament church. (20-21)


  13. Duh.

    History isn’t simple. While the Crusades weren’t the vehicles of white, male brutality against Muslims of the Levant, neither were they simply heroic expeditions carried out for religious reasons. Many Crusaders were faithful, loving people motivated by a desire to defend Eastern Christians. Others were probably adventure seekers. How else can we explain entirely un-Christian massacres of Jews and Muslims alongside reports of cannibalism? Even if we recognize that “Just War Theory” validates the European decision to reclaim Jerusalem, isn’t it still regrettable? Violence is rarely, if ever, a cause for celebration, even when carried out for noble ends. Even as we rehabilitate the Crusades, we risk erecting visions of pure and godly men incapable of atrocity, representing the best of the Christian spirit, when the reality, like most historical realities, is far more complex.


  14. Since members of Congress help organize and host the event, it would be constitutionally questionable if it was officially focused on Christian prayer. So, in the spirit of inclusion and diversity, the event features a few members of other religious traditions. For instance, Dalai Lama attended this year’s breakfast as a special guest.

    (As an aside, Sudanese foreign minister Ali Ahmed Karti and Dr. Ibrahim Ghandur, a member of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, were also at this year’s event. While Karti and Ghandur’s Muslim faith isn’t of particular interest, their attendance stands out because they arguably shouldn’t have even been allowed in the United States. As high-ranking officials in a government designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, making the guest list at a quasi-official event in the United States is particularly eyebrow-raising.)

    In any case, despite the event’s nominal ecumenicism, the conservative, Christian explosion in response to the relatively modest claim that religions other than Islam have the potential to harbor violent sub-denominations shows that the National Prayer Breakfast doesn’t come close to putting all faiths on an equal, elevated playing field. Instead, it is a demonstrably Christian event, organized to further the idea that America is a Christian nation, with a few non-Christians scattered throughout the audience to give the event legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.



  15. Now Abraham had two children and they were both born in the covenant of grace, and both circumcised on the basis of Abraham’s faith in the gospel. If both Abraham’s children were not Abraham’s children, then Abraham should not have circumcised them both.


    Since our citizenship is from heaven, obviously Jerusalem will always be up in heaven, and we don’t need to wait for the Lord Jesus to come to earth.


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