History helps define us. Whether a person knows a lot of history or a little, what they do know shapes their understanding of themselves and their world. Blacks in America are shaped by segregation and slavery; Jews by Israel and the Holocaust. America’s view of government is shaped by both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Kentucky Basketball and Alabama Football are shaped by their histories of coaches, players, and victories.
Since God reveals himself in historical events and even entered history Himself, Christians – more than most – are shaped by history. Whether it is Roman Catholics standing on centuries of accumulated tradition, Protestants extolling the courage of pioneer missionaries, or a twenty-something looking back on his fundamentalist upbringing with angst, Christians look to the past to define their future.
The problem with history is it can be adjusted. By including some pieces and ignoring others, we can create a history that fits our liking. That might mean tweaking a story so the church looks ignorant and dangerous, collecting all incidents of religious violence and presenting them without context to encourage secularism, or labeling certain periods to make us think more highly of them (the Enlightenment) or think less highly of them (the Dark Ages).
The Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries are one example. Few historical events stir the consciences of Christians and ignite their opponents more than the Crusades. Nearly 2,000 Christians have participated in the Reconciliation Walk, a journey retracing the route of the first crusade during which apologies are offered to Jews and Muslims. In the year 2000 Pope John Paul II offered an apology for the church’s history of violence, most notably the Crusades. A brief search of atheist websites finds the Crusades invoked repeatedly as evidence of the inherent violence of religion. After Anders Breivik – a terrorist in Oslo, Norway – linked his crimes to the Crusades, Bill Maher couldn’t help but opine, “Christianity is perfectly capable of coming out of its dormant phase and once again becoming the violent, bloodlusty religion it was under the crusades.”
Are the Crusades the darkest sin of the church, requiring an apology from Christians and excusing hatred directed toward the West? Do they reveal the true end of all religious devotion and unmask what lies in the hearts of fundamentalists? In a word, no. History is far more complex than popular portrayals of the Crusades reveal. Let us look at three myths about the Crusades that fuel both apologies and animosity.
Myth 1: The Crusades were an unprovoked attack on a peaceful and enlightened Muslim world. Ancient Christianity flourished in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Minor. The cities of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Damascus, and Carthage were centers of church life and leadership. However, by the 8th century, Christianity was on its way to extinction in all of these places because of an upstart new faith – Islam. Islam did not win converts by persuasion; it won them by conquest. All non-Muslims were expelled from the Arabian Peninsula. Then Syria fell to the advancing armies, followed by Persia, much of India, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily, southern Italy, and Spain. The Christian populations often faced the choice of conversion, slavery, or death. Others were taxed severely and prevented from building churches, praying or reading Scripture aloud, riding horses, or being armed. Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were seized, sold into slavery, and tortured. Muslims were poised to overthrow the Byzantines leaving the door wide open to Europe. As Rodney Stark points out, “…by the time of the First Crusade, Christendom had been fighting a defensive war with Islam for more than 450 years.”
Myth 2: The Crusaders went because they wanted land, wealth, and blood. If they had wanted wealth and land, the Crusades were a poor way to pursue those ends. If profit was their goal they would have responded to Pope Alexander II’s call to drive the Muslims out of wealthy Spain. Instead, they sold their holdings, borrowed funds, and impoverished themselves to make the journey. The Crusader kingdoms themselves were kept afloat only by support from Europe. So why go? Europe’s knights and nobles, in the words of Stark, “were both very violent and very religious.” The promise of the Pope that their sins would be washed away and that they could rescue the very place where Christ had walked was powerful. Most would lose their lives and gain nothing in return. Of the 130,000 who left in the first Crusade, only 15,000 would survive to Jerusalem.
Myth 3: The Crusaders’ crimes were excessive in the era in which they lived. The Crusaders had been taught since childhood to make war. They were violent, they looted, and they plundered – and this was normal for war in the 11th century. It is easy to pass judgment standing on nearly a thousand years of moral progress but much harder to imagine the world in which these men lived. They didn’t get a nice paycheck and pension for their service. They were not well-supplied and well-disciplined. And the Muslims they fought against were just as cruel if not more so. Baybars, Sultan of Egypt, after taking the city of Antioch ordered all the inhabitants enslaved or killed. 17,000 men were murdered and tens of thousands of women and children were made slaves. Much of the conduct of the Crusaders was barbaric by today’s standards, but normal for the time in which they lived and often exceeded by the armies they fought.
Does this mean the Crusades were good and the Crusaders right? No. It simply means history is complex and its events must be understood within their context. It means both apologizers and criticizers need to proceed with more caution. It means popular views must be overthrown in favor of accurate views. The Crusades shape many Christians’ and non-Christians’ views of the faith. Let us be sure it shapes us and them correctly. Stark summarizes it well when he says:
The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. The Crusades are not a blot on the history of Christianity.
Many of the insights for this article came from this excellent book:
The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion by Rodney Stark, published by HarperOne, 2012.