“And lest we get on our high horse… remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” —Barack Obama
The sentiments expressed by President Obama are often heard. When speaking with friends, you’ve probably heard the refrain, “What about the Crusades?” How do you react? With uncertainty? Apologies? It seems that Christians are all supposed to nod along and agree that every religion has its extremists, and that Christianity is just as capable of excess and violence as Islam.
Well, what about the Crusades?
Critics claim that Crusaders waged a war of aggression and invaded Muslim territory. In reality, the territories in which the Crusades were fought were cradles of Christianity. They had large Christian populations, and had been part of the Roman Empire, and then the Byzantine Empire, from the time of Christ until their conquest by the Muslims in the 7th century.
Moreover, from the time of its founding until the 16th century, Islam waged a 900-year-long military offensive against Christian nations, conquering the Holy Land, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, and Sicily. The Crusades were a rare counter-offensive against that Islamic tide. By the late 11th century, the Muslim onslaught posed a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. Muslim armies crushed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert, taking the Byzantine Emperor off the battlefield in chains. Seeing that they could no longer defend Christians in the East, the Byzantines called upon the West for aid. Pope Urban II responded in 1095 with a call to arms to aid the Eastern Christians:
“For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of [the Greek empire]. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present; it is meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it.”
Critics also claim that greed motivated the Crusaders. However, the truth is that the Crusading knights financed their own costly travel to the Holy Land. Most Crusaders returned much poorer than they left. Some thirty percent or more of Crusaders never returned at all, but rather died in combat or from disease. Their motives may be difficult for the modern, secular mind to understand. Most saw their fight as a religious obligation, and their suffering as an act of penance.
The final common criticism focuses on some of the violent excesses of the Crusades. To be sure, there were many ugly episodes. However, warfare, especially in the Middle Ages, often involves acts of mindless violence. Most important, these episodes brought condemnation and were viewed as being fundamentally inconsistent with the purpose of the Crusades. When bands of knights traveling to the Holy Land attacked Jews in Germany, the Church consistently condemned their acts. When the leaders of the Fourth Crusade began their campaign by attacking fellow Christians, they were excommunicated. The fact that these violent, misguided episodes occurred says more about human nature than it does about the nature of the Crusades.
Why then, do so many insist on misrepresenting the Crusades? Critics suggest that Christians should not defend themselves and their culture even when it is under violent attack. In their view, a Christian’s highest calling is to passively permit the destruction of Christian civilization. Such a view would have been unthinkable not long ago, but now it is common. Western civilization exists today only because Christians have been willing to live by Christ’s words that “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” If we forget the true lesson of the Crusades, it is fair to ask how much longer Western civilization can stand.