The Crusades: A Disconnection from the Word
In 1095, messengers sent by Alexius I arrived at the Council of Piacenza to request military aid from Pope Urban to defend against the frequent raids and attacks of the Turks. Pope Urban obliged, and at the Council of Clermont month later delivered a sermon admonishing the people to take up arms in the name of Christ and to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control. He is known to have said, ‘Deus le volt! (God Wills It!)’ The response to this call was overwhelming, with a multitude joining the pilgrimage desirous of spiritual gain, as they had been promised full penance for their participation by the papacy. By 1099, after incredible bloodshed, indiscriminate among Muslims, Jews and alleged heretics, Jerusalem fell to the Christian pilgrims, and the Crusader state of Jerusalem was established. It should be noted that the context of Alexius’ request was a precedent set by the previous Pope, Gregory VII, who called for the ‘milites Christi (Knights of Christ)’ to come to the aid of the Byzantine Empire, which had been subject to unrelenting persecution and brutality at the hands of the Muslim armies. Setting aside the anachronistic norms of warfare in everyday society, and the predominance of papal theology in cultural operation, the Crusades have truly tarnished the witness of the Church of Christ to the entire world. The fact that heretical promises of penance and indulgences made by the church clearly contradict the doctrine of salvation by grace points to the distortion of the faith in its advocacy of this military campaign.
However, many a debate over the validity of Christianity in general begins with the accusation that the fact of the Crusades proves the essential hypocrisy of the faith. This is easily debunked when shown that the philosophical foundation of the Crusades was not consistent with the message of Christ. In fact, it is clear from the scriptures that the aggression of religious theology by means of warfare is in direct conflict with essential Christian doctrine. Prior to the Crusades, Augustine of Hippo is known to have said ‘One must not judge a philosophy by its abuse.’ In contrast, one can easily point out that the outrageous violations of human rights that are contemporaneous with our modern discourse were not only birthed in the atheistic mind, but were logically consistent with such a worldview. Now these arguments are simply to set aside the typical assumptions and the straw man set in front of what the discussion should involve. The question here should be why did the Crusades occur under the auspices of Christendom at the time that they did? The answer is complex but begins by understanding the cultural context of religion at the time.
It is important to remember that at this period of history, the common man had never read the Word of God for himself. The common man probably had not read anything at all, as literacy was not a cultural norm, but reserved for within the cloistered walls of the church community. Even then, however, the comprehensive understanding of and even lingual access to the scriptures was not held even by most clergy. Bible historian and scholar Daniel Wallace elaborates on this reality in his description of a typical medieval clergyman: ‘He only read the Bible in Latin, and only those portions that were important for the liturgy. He had never read the whole Bible himself—ever. And besides, his Latin skills were not very good—just enough to mutter a few prayers in church from memory (The History of the English Bible).’ The point here is that the culture, though identified and structured around the Christian church, was fundamentally disconnected with the Word. In fact, an investigation into the monarchial political structures of the time reveals that the Crusades themselves were motivated by power and sold by religion. Religion was only one element of the Crusades, yet became its label for its means of recruiting those who would ultimately carry out the bloody effort and restore power to the papacy. The people desired purpose and looked to the papal authority to point them in the right direction. Christ called His followers to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you (Matthew 6:33).’ Time and time again, God warns against the elevation of worldly kingdoms and calls His people to humble themselves before Him and seek His will rather than their own. Yet, in the Crusades, we have an inherent lack of humility in leadership and a clear lust for power motivating the existing worldly kingdom, and a distortion of the Word specifically to engender consent and participation. Had only the leaders of the day heeded the warnings of Augustine, who wrote, ‘Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.’ That foundation is in an intimacy with the Word of God.
The monarchs of the time claimed divine privilege, as it was understood that God ordained the place of kings and placed the stewardship of the land and its people in their hands. While it is true that Christ himself encouraged His people to respect the worldly authority over them, implicit in this was not an allowance for authority to reap the harvest of their immorality unchecked. In fact, Jesus challenged even the authority of Pilate, the man whom would authorize his crucifixion: ‘Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?" Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’ The authority of God is elevated above all human authority; His Word must be the plumb line for those to whom authority is given. The sad truth is that the authority which bolstered thousands to take up the sword did so without a Biblical basis, and had no means of checking their passions by measure of the Word. It was not Christianity which caused the violence of the Crusades, but a lack of its authenticity.