The Truth About the Crusades

Of all the kinds of historical hypocrisy that is attributed to the Christian, none looms as large as the crusades. Thomas Madden, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University, sums up the popular conception:

The crusades are generally portrayed as a series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics. They are supposed to have been the epitome of self-righteousness and intolerance, a black stain on the history of the Catholic Church in particular and Western civilization in general. A breed of proto-imperialists, the Crusaders introduced Western aggression to the peaceful Middle East and then deformed the enlightened Muslim culture, leaving it in ruins.1

Whether this is correct or not, we’ll get to shortly, but first some background.

What Is a Crusade?

The most respected crusading professor today is Jonathan Riley-Smith, the former Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge, and he defines crusades as “war-pilgrimages proclaimed by the Popes on Christ’s behalf and waged for the recovery of Christian territory or people, or in their defense.”2

What Motivated the Crusades?

The First Crusade was called in 1095 by Pope Urban II who proclaimed that the Muslims had,

invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it can not be traversed in a march of two months. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you.3

With ISIL recently beheading and crucifying Christians and with Boko Haram abducting and raping hundreds of school girls this probably doesn’t sound impossible to you. 4

Were the Crusades a Just War?

Although a minority of Christians throughout the ages have argued that Christians should be pacifists, for the purpose of this blog I’m going to presuppose that there is such a thing as a just war–I certainly consider fighting against Nazism was a just war–but I’ll blog on whether there is such a thing as a just war another time.  And that brings us to the question, could crusades against the East be considered just wars? Today much of the world still relies on the Just War doctrine formulated by St. Augustine. An abridged version of his Just War doctrine comes down to three things.

Just Wars Require a Just Cause

First, a just war required a just cause and a just cause was to “recover property or to repel attack.” Did the crusades against the East have a just cause? Check. If we take what the popes actually preached when they were calling the people to fight, then they were trying to recover lands that had been taken by force and were trying to repel the Muslims from further assault upon cities and their inhabitants. Crusading professor Thomas L. Madden:

Now put this down in your notebook, because it will be on the test: The crusades were in every way a defensive war. They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world. While the Arabs were busy in the seventh through the tenth centuries winning an opulent and sophisticated empire, Europe was defending itself against outside invaders and then digging out from the mess they left behind. Only in the eleventh century were Europeans able to take much notice of the East. The event that led to the crusades was the Turkish conquest of most of Christian Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The Christian emperor in Constantinople, faced with the loss of half of his empire, appealed for help to the rude but energetic Europeans. He got it.5

After September 11, Americans unified in a way they hadn’t been since Pearl Harbor. They wanted tooth and nail retaliation. Even Time magazine (not known for being the voice of conservatism) issued a special edition which ended with this call to action:

A day cannot live in infamy without the nourishment of rage. Let’s have rage.

What’s needed is a unified, unifying Pearl Harbor sort of purple American fury—a ruthless indignation that doesn’t leak away in a week or two…. In war, enemies are enemies. You find them and put them out of business, on the sound principle that that’s what they are trying to do to you…. The worst times, as we see, separate the civilized from the uncivilized. This is the moment of clarity. Let the civilized toughen up, and let the uncivilized take their chances in the game they started.6

How similar this is to the call for crusades. And this was after the death of a comparatively small number of people and the destruction of a comparatively tiny amount or real estate! By the time the crusades had begun the Muslims had taken over half of the Christian world by force. Now I realize that America often responded poorly to the 9-11 attack. Many mistakes were made and, in fact, many evils were committed. But that doesn’t tell us about the worthiness of the original call.

Just Wars Require Proper Authority

Second, a just war could only be called by the authority of a prince. In other words, families or neighborhoods couldn’t call a just war. Check. The crusades were called by the popes and almost always supported by secular authorities. For example, King Richard the Lionheart personally went off to war.

Just Wars Require Right Intentions

Third, a just war required a right intention. In other words, a war must be the only means of achieving the justifiable purpose. Obviously if a war could be averted through negotiation then the war wasn’t just. Check. The Muslims weren’t going to give back land that they’d taken by force even if they were asked nicely. Europeans of the time, regardless how dark and backward modern skeptics try to color them, were aware of Augustine’s Just War principles and believed that the crusades met the just war criteria. I was asked recently for the origin of the notion that the Crusades were only evil deeds perpetrated by evil men in the name of Christ. The answer is not surprising. As Rodney Stark put it, “Western condemnation of the Crusades were widespread during the ‘Enlightenment,’ that utterly misnamed era during which French and British intellectuals invented the ‘Dark Ages’ in order to glorify themselves and vilify the Catholic Church.”7 Thankfully, today the top experts on the crusades, who are professors at the best universities, uniformly reveal this notion for what it is: anti-Christian propaganda.

But Didn’t the Crusaders do Many Evil Things?

Indeed crusaders did many evil things! Many Crusaders plundered, raped, and murdered. Sometimes they even did this to Jews and other Christians! But, sadly, that’s what people do. Again, however, this is absolutely contrary to the teaching of Christ. As for killing Jews, Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and Co-director for the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University, wrote in God’s Battalions, “It is important to note that almost everywhere … bishops attempted, sometimes even at the peril of their own lives, to protect the Jews.”8 Likewise Thomas Madden wrote:

Jews perished during the Crusades, but the purpose of the Crusades was not to kill Jews. Quite the contrary: Popes, bishops, and preachers made it clear that the Jews of Europe were to be left unmolested. In a modern war, we call tragic deaths like these “collateral damage.” Even with smart technologies, the United States has killed far more innocents in our wars than the Crusaders ever could. But no one would seriously argue that the purpose of American wars is to kill women and children.9

Consider that no one argues that the Russians shouldn’t have fought against the Nazi invasion of their country because Russian men later raped hundreds of thousands of German women.10 Sometimes soldiers do evil. We all know that. As I noted in my first post on “Crusades, etc.,” most crusaders weren’t Christians. Regarding the crusader army, Martin Luther wrote that “there are scarcely five Christians in such an army, and perhaps there are worse people in the eyes of God in that army than are the Turks; and yet they all want to bear the name of Christ.”11 Just because crusaders were bearing the name of Christ doesn’t mean they were Christians, and we should rightly suspect that the rapes and murders were committed by non-Christians (read my prior post). But what really upset Luther was that “They undertook to fight against the Turk in the name of Christ, and taught and incited men to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ. This is absolutely contrary to Christ’s doctrine and name.”12 Of course Luther was right: Christians can fight in wars but Christians have no business fighting in the name of Christ. I could give many, many examples of the fact that many, even though they bore the name of Christ, weren’t Christians but I’ll just give one more. Consider St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s preaching of the Second Crusade:

For how long will your men continue to shed Christian blood; for how long will they continue to fight amongst themselves? You attack one another, you slay one another and by one another you are slain. What is this savage craving of yours? Put a stop to it now, for it is not fighting but foolery. So to risk both soul and body is not brave but shocking, it not strength but folly. But now O mighty soldiers, O men of war, you have a cause for which you can fight without danger to your souls; a cause in which to conquer is glorious and for which to die is gain.13

Here Bernard preaches to a crowd that he says is guilty of Christian upon Christian bloodshed—he calls it savage, foolish, shocking—but then he promises glorious life (aka eternal life) if these savages would go out and war against Muslims. The indulgence which promised eternal life to the crusaders for their act of crusading is a complete confusion of salvation through grace alone. And, by the way, it was these Crusade indulgences that began the wider practice of indulgences for sin that set the stage for Martin Luther’s proclamation posted to the Wittenberg door.

But Were the Crusades Worth It?

When I hear Westerners unequivocally condemn the crusades, I immediately ask, “But aren’t you glad that Spain, southern Italy, and, for that matter, all of Europe aren’t today under Muslim control?” Make no mistake: that was the alternative. I have yet to hear anyone say that Muslim control of Europe would have been preferable to the crusades.14

  1. Thomas F. Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades” Crisis Magazine, Available at: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2002/the-real-history-of-the-crusades-2. Accessed 7 April 2014. I highly recommend this article. []
  2. Jonathan Riley Smith, “Rethinking the Crusades” First Things 101 (7 January 2007): 20-23. Available at http://www.firstthings.com/article/2007/01/rethinking-the-crusades. Accessed 4-7-2014. I highly recommended this article. []
  3. Urban II, Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095. Available from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/urban2-5vers.html. Accessed 4-3-14. []
  4. See http://www.persecution.org/2011/04/14/pakistan-christian-girls-forced-to-convert-to-islam-rapes-coersion-abuse/, and: http://www.theblaze.com/contributions/islamic-forced-conversions-past-and-present/, or: http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/video-shows-angry-mob-stripping-christian-women, or http://www.raymondibrahim.com/from-the-arab-world/new-fatwa-permits-rape-of-non-sunni-women-in-syria/. For an example of Hindu women being raped and forced to convert to Islam see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaRD-H8Q7VE. []
  5. Thomas F. Madden, “Crusade Propaganda” National Review Online, available through” http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/220747/crusade-propaganda/thomas-f-madden. Accessed 7 April 2014. []
  6. Lance Morrow, “The Case for Rage and Retribution” Time, 15 September 2001. []
  7. Stark, God’s Battalions, 6. []
  8. Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 126. I highly recommended this book. []
  9. Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades.” []
  10. See: Antony Beevor, “They raped every German female from eight to 80” The Guardian, April 30, 2002. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/may/01/news.features11. Thanks to my friend Sue Pearl for this analogy. []
  11. Martin Luther, On War Against the Turk, available from http://www.lutherdansk.dk/On%20war%20against%20Islamic%20reign%20of%20terror/On%20war%20against%20Islamic%20reign%20of%20terror1.htm. Accessed 3.31.2014. []
  12. Ibid. []
  13. Bernard of Clairvaux, Letter to Eastern France and Bavaria Promoting the Second Crusade, 1146. Available at http://www.ccjr.us/dialogika-resources/primary-texts-from-the-history-of-the-relationship/258-bernard-of-clairvaux. Accessed 7 April 2014. []
  14. Of course I don’t ask Muslims this question. Thomas Madden sums up the extent of Muslim success: “Muslim conquerors who swept through all of Christian North Africa also crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and established their rule over Spain. By the eight century, Muslim expeditionary forces were crossing the Pyrenees and marching into the heart of Catholic Europe….” Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades (Critical Issues in World and International History) (UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 4. []
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10 Responses to The Truth About the Crusades

  1. Paul Copan says:

    Clay, I’m glad you’ve posted on this. Matt Flannagan and I have a chapter on this in a forthcoming book, *Did God Really Command Genocide?* (Baker, October 2013). I happened to be going through the copyedited version of the book when you posted! Glad you’re getting the word out too!

  2. clayjones says:

    I’m thankful that we’re on the same page, Paul!

  3. Don Ruhl says:

    Thanks for your insight. Now, how do we get the rest of the world to know the truth of these things? Your question in your last paragraph was good!

  4. Keanan Brand says:

    Excellent post. Informative, and a good refresher course for anyone who — like me — hasn’t studied the Crusades since college (likely via an anti-Christian bias).

    That last paragraph is the clicher.

  5. Well argumented entry. Thank you!

    You might be interested in my blog dedicated to the history of the crusades and the remarkable states established by the crusaders, the most successful of which (Cyprus) survived over 300 years. These states were a melting-pot of cultures that fostered economic growth, scientific and artistic development. And contrary to popular wisdom not all the development was East to West! Hope you’ll take a look and even subscribe.

    Helena

  6. Oops. Although I left the blog address, it doesn’t show. Here it is again: http://defendingcrusaderkingdoms.blogspot.com.

  7. Sam Kean says:

    Jesus condemned violence in his name when he scolded Peter to “put up your sword in its place. All who take up the sword will die by the sword.” Wars in God’s name are the worst kind of blaspemy, and no amount of rationalizing can remove Matthew 5:11 or 1 Peter 4:12-19 from Holy Writ.

    Please don’t confuse the issue.

    • clayjones says:

      Hi Sam, If you read my blog closely (perhaps you did) you’ll find that I agree with you that a war should never be fought in God’s name.

  8. Scott Kelley says:

    Well balanced and executed defense of the truth! Clay, you have touched upon a nerve which should be shouted from the housetops. Thanks for bringing to light what a few of us know to be true but what the “world which hates us” has distorted into “enlightened fabrication.” Blessings be yours my brother!

  9. Pingback: What You Believe About the Crusades is anti-Christian Propaganda | City of Vision

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