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?
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.