In a speech last week regarding the ongoing situation in the Middle East, President Obama drew a comparison between the current atrocities committed by ISIS to those of Christian Crusaders in the Middle Ages. His statement has created quite the uproar.
As a Christian, the President’s comparison is personally poignant, to say the least. Seeing reports of ISIS’ beheadings, stoning and burning of prisoners alive in the name of God is not the kind of behavior I want connected with my religious beliefs. Thus, I want to provide a thorough and complete defense of the Crusade,s one which should serve as an explanation for why the Christian Crusades were justified.
Here it is:
Okay, let’s try this: the only Christian response to the Crusades is an apology. We’re sorry. We’re sorry for the brutality, sorry for the atrocities, sorry for the bloody stain on the gowns of Christ’s bride, the Church. We’re sorry that so many wars have been waged in the name of Christ, from Constantinople to Hitler beckoning the blessing of Gott, der Allmachtige– Almighty God- upon his troops.
That said, if we are to read Christian history as judge and jury, we’ll never see the glimmers of hope that lie within. We will overlook the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s of the faith, a man who returned to Germany at the height of Hitler’s power and preached against the Nazi regime. His commitment to the truth resulted in his execution. We’ll miss the testimony of the early Christians, a community that was known for putting down their swords, for refusing to act in violence towards anyone. In the world of Roman Imperialism, such commitment to Christian peace was viewed as treason. And Christians were slaughtered by the thousands for their refusal to kill for the emperor.
Most importantly, if we adopt a historical paradigm only capable of seeing the misdeeds of our faith, then we ignore the grace found in the person of Jesus Christ. It was Christ who told Peter to put down his sword. And it was Christ that then healed the victim of Peter’s violence. The same Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies. He did not command a passive love, but living, breathing, dedicated and real love. Ultimately Christ who showed us what that love really looks like by going to the cross.
And if we’re going to talk about the Crusades, then our discussion requires some necessary notes. Not everything we know about the Crusades is actually true. In an article for Christianity Today, historian Thomas F. Madden points out some of the tainted perspectives circulating regarding the Crusades. Madden argues how historic evidence dictates that the Crusades “were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights” as they are often depicted. Rather, these wars were a politically pertinent “response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world.” Most Crusaders were not merciless thugs- at least by nature. Rather they sincerely-and at great personal cost- believed that joining the fight was an act of “open declaration for their love for God.” Crusading, argues another historian, was considered and act of love to one’s neighbor, in this case Christians suffering under Muslim rule.
Madden concludes that:
“…it is easy enough to scowl in disgust at the Crusades. Religion, after all, is nothing to fight wars over. But we should be mindful that our medieval ancestors would have been equally disgusted by our infinitely more destructive wars fought in the name of political ideologies.”
I say this- and I hope it is clear- not as justification and certainly not in defense for actual events that really did happen. If we heard a German defending the Holocaust today, we’d find it terribly inappropriate. As Christians, attempting to justify the Crusades is just as ludicrous. Even a lenient reading of history shows blood on our hands. If a bank robber is on trial for stealing five million dollars and his lawyer proves he actually only stole three million, no judge would say: “Oh, only three? Well, okay then. No foul.”
As such, I wish that we- Christians, I’m talking about- would learn to apologize. The Crusades happened. And I wish the Church would develop a propensity for healing rather than defending. We are just as screwed up as the rest of the world. And if we accept responsibility for our sins then we are able to accept the grace of God which can cover even the most heinous and despicable acts. But when we live in denial of our own sin, we live in denial of grace.
The atrocities committed by ISIS are horrible. My heart breaks for the all those who have been subjected to their cruelty. And I know it breaks the heart of Jesus as well.
For it was Jesus and only Jesus who could pray the prayer of forgiveness on the world: “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” None of us can repeat this prayer without adapting the pronouns. For none of us are innocent, none of us are capable of asking forgiveness for the sins of others without first acknowledging the log in our own eyes.
As Christians, we should weep over the cruelty of ISIS. But as we lift our cries to heaven, let us join with the wounded, the terrorized and the innocent. Let us join together and with one voice pray:
“Forgive us Lord. For we know not what we do.”