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From time to time church leaders have ideas. Some of these ideas are brilliant, and work well. Some of them may appear equally God-given, but may in fact be impractical, irrelevant to the real issues, wrongly motivated, ethically questionable, or destructive. The 12th and 13th century Crusades are a classic example of a Christian idea that seemed wonderful and inspired at the time, but which was deeply flawed in principle, and disastrous in practice.
It may have sounded like a good idea but what a disaster it turned out to be.
The basic idea of the Crusades was to wrest back control of the Holy Lands from Islam. To expel the desecrating infidel from the places where Jesus walked and died was seen as a high spiritual quest. Sure, the Crusades would involve warfare and bloodshed. But the Muslim was seen as a legitimate target, and the whole exercise depicted as holy war.
The fundamental premise was wrong: there is no New Testament support for promoting spiritual ends through military attack. But, at the time, the Crusades seemed a fair extension of Augustine’s doctrine of a just war. They also held promise of restoring access for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, something important to medieval people (who saw pilgrimage to holy places as a form of penance giving reparation for sin).
The fact that a Crusade was being suggested and promoted by the Pope, the spiritual leader of the church, seemed to put it beyond question. A bad assumption! Urban II, who was a great orator, spoke movingly of Muslim atrocities, and explained how those who went and destroyed the enemies of God would be doing the will of God. Those who died in battle would receive a full indulgence for all sin. How blessed it would be, he said, to die for Christ in the city where Christ had died for them.
What had precipitated the first Crusade was the advance of Islam through Asia Minor, under an army of Seljuk Turks. The situation was worrying. Since Islam’s beginnings in the 7th century, Muslim armies had conquered vast areas, including Syria, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, Central Asia, Spain, and Sicily. They had eventually been defeated in the last two, but now the remaining Byzantine Empire was under threat. Even though eastern and western Christianity had been in schism since 1054, a desperate appeal was sent by the Greek emperor to the West to come and help.
The Western response to the appeal for Christian solidarity against Islam was to initiate a military expedition to win back the Holy Land. The underlying motivation of Rome and Byzantium was thus radically at odds. Byzantium simply wanted back its Empire. But the West was bent on running its own campaign, and gave no sign of wanting to give back to the Byzantines what it conquered. As always, it is much easier for Christian leaders to do their own thing, and to pursue their own agendas, rather than work in true partnership with others.
Following Urban’s call in 1095, papal representatives travelled Europe to enlist recruits. Crusader motivation varied. Some felt a call to wear the cross of Christ, and to be a soldier for him. Some wanted to earn spiritual merit.
Many others just wanted to have adventures, to see the world, to get booty, to win glory. Kings were eager to pack off unruly nobles with their private armies, and to let these warlords cause havoc somewhere else. For the merchants and shippers of Venice and Genoa, the Crusades were a bonanza. The high spiritual ideals of the Crusades were not owned by all, and were frequently betrayed by many of those who went.
Before the first official Crusade got under way in 1096, there were a number of chaotic popular crusades, involving thousands of poor people. Some rampaged through Germany, rioting, pillaging, and massacring Jews. Others died of cold or disease in the Balkans, or at the hands of the Byzantines or Turks. A similar phenomenon was the “Children’s Crusade”, over a century later. A rabble of children walked to the Mediterranean, accepted free passage on ships, and were sold into slavery in North Africa.
Norman nobles led the first official Crusade in 1096. It travelled overland to Constantinople, where the Byzantine emperor was uneasy about the presence in his city of a large army of ill-disciplined, half-civilised “barbarians”. He nervously hustled them over to Asia Minor.
The Crusaders defeated the Turks at Nicea and Antioch. In 1099 they took Jerusalem. In the ensuing bloodbath, which lasted three days, people of all races, ages, and creeds were indiscriminately put to the sword.
Such a massacre was common enough practice in those days (among Muslims as well), and we may guess at the pent-up energies suddenly released in an army after an extremely long campaign. But the frenzied slaughter rests very uncomfortably with the overtly ‘Christian’ identity of the Crusader army. It left a legacy of bitterness among Muslims and Jews that has endured into our own time.
Almost no one nowadays would endorse the Crusader view that the slayings were “a just and splendid judgement of God”, and the “justification of all Christianity and the humiliation of paganism”. What added an extra dimension to Muslim and Jewish affront is that the Crusade profaned a city that was holy for them also. It took place in their own part of the world, at the hand of strangers from afar.
For Muslims, the Crusades were a deep and humiliating insult to the dignity of Islam. The Crusades have become associated in the minds of some Muslims with subsequent humiliations to Islam under colonialism, and with contemporary political, economic, cultural, moral and military pressures from the West upon Muslim nations.
The West continued to see the Byzantines as schismatic, and treacherous. They were not allowed to regain their lost territories. Instead, the Crusaders set up their own states (Edessa, Tripoli, Antioch, Jerusalem). The popes renewed their call to the Byzantines to unite Christianity by submitting to papal authority.
Inevitably, further Crusades were necessary to defend the Crusader States. With such long lines of supply, that was going to be a hopeless effort. Damascus was lost, and the second crusade failed to re-take it. Jerusalem fell, and the third crusade failed to regain it.
The fourth crusade (1201-1204) made itself especially odious. Instead of going to Egypt, as planned, it was diverted by plunder-hungry schemers into attacking Constantinople. For three days, the ancient Christian capital was subjected to an appalling onslaught of murder, rape, pillaging, desecration and destruction. A contemporary wrote: “On all sides there was nothing to be heard but cries, groans, laments and screams”.
This was the most shocking betrayal of the Crusader ideal: those who had taken the Cross as their emblem mindlessly turned on their fellow Christians, intoxicated by greed, brutality and drunken fury. In three days, a civilisation built up over nine centuries (including much ancient literature and art) was well nigh destroyed. Much of the city’s wealth was shipped off to Venice. The Byzantines eventually re-took Constantinople, but the Fourth Crusade had seriously weakened it, and helped pave the way for Constantinople’s fall to Islam in 1453. The Crusade also made the healing of the 1054 schism unthinkable. The breach has softened, but remains.
Four more Crusades were to follow. Nothing much was achieved, and the whole enterprise was abandoned. In 1291 the last Crusader fort fell, and thousands of Christians were put to the sword.
The Crusades arose out of a brotherly request for Christian help. At their best, the Crusades were motivated by an inspiring spiritual vision. At their worst, the Crusades were a scandal of human indiscipline, ignorance, opportunism and cruelty, and of betrayed Christian ideals. The Crusades show that even the most spiritual-sounding idea must be examined very closely, to avoid the tragedy of shockingly bad things being done in the name of Christ, bringing not honour but dishonour to his cause. The Crusades remain a warning to over-confident Christian leaders with grand ideas.
Christianity and Islam can happily agree on some things, but at many points their claims remain mutually exclusive. Christians have received the unique truth and grace of God that is in Christ, the only Saviour. Christians must relate to Muslims with kindness, integrity and respect. Coercion, arrogance, insensitivity, the way of the sword, these are simply not options.