The Crusades, Again!

Since my last post in the aftermath of the Parish shootings a new atrocity has been committed by Muslim radicals, and this time in America. The married couple who massacred fourteen people in San Bernardino, California, did so in the name of ISIS, at least according to this morning’s news. gettyimages-499859786_custom-c3e7f667bc8b56d4b2030f0f78810b27dd59f994-s900-c85Regardless of their motivation (which may never be fully known), reports further reveal a “gleeful” response on the global internet in recent days by ISIS supporters, some of whom, once again, identify the victims of this attack (and who were doing nothing more threatening to Islam than attending a holiday party) as “crusaders.”

As I’ve said in earlier posts, there is no point in taking the ravings of fanatics too seriously. But the readiness of terrorist sympathizers to affiliate the San Bernardino victims with the crusades, those Christian wars against Muslims nearly a thousand years ago on the other side of the planet, reminds us of the need to keep our historical memory clear of errors.

So, let me say three things about the crusades that will clarify their significance for the identity of the west and Christendom generally.

  1. First, The crusades were fought during the course of only two centuries, from the First Crusade of 1096 to the fall of the last crusader outpost of Acre in 1291. This chronology alone demonstrates how secondary and even accidental they were to the character of Christian civilization, which had flourished for a millennium before they occurred. During those first thousand years wars were not waged by Christians in the name of their faith. The only possible exception–the one that “proves the rule”–was the defensive war against Persia fought during the seventh century by Byzantine Emperor Heraclius to push back a pagan aggressor and recover from it a sacred object for Christians, the True Cross (on which Jesus was reputed to have been crucified). And, of course, during the first three centuries of Christendom Christians altogether lacked the military and political resources to wage war. The crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, therefore, are not necessarily characteristic of Christian civilization, and as I will argue more directly in point three below are even an aberration within it.
  2. Second, the crusades were a re-conquest of lands earlier conquered by Muslim Arabs fighting a jihad, or religious war, against Christians. The lands that today make up much of the Arab world were once populated by Christians. This detail is often lost on modern evaluations of the wars. Those lands had “originally” been conquered by the pagan Roman Empire, and when that empire converted peacefully to Christianity beginning in the fourth century the populations there became Christian ones. Known to historians as Byzantium, the Christianized eastern Roman Empire of Constantine and his successors was the main target of the Muslims who, following Muhammad’s example of violent religious expansion, exploded out of Arabia during the seventh century and rapidly overran Christian Palestine (Jerusalem fell in 637), Christian Syria (Damascus fell in 634), and Christian Egypt (Alexandria fell in 642). Arab Muslim assaults on the citadel of Constantinople itself in 674 failed, saving Byzantium and the rest of eastern Christendom from Islamification. In 732, Frankish ruler Charles Martel defeated the invading Arabs at the Battle of Tours (located in modern day France), saving western Christendom from the same fate.
  3. Finally, the crusades were an aberration of traditional Christianity, which, as everyone knows, contains in its New Testament scriptures (again in dramatic contrast with the Muslim Koran) not only no calls to arms, but commandments to love one’s enemies and turn the other cheek. This aberration is revealed historically by the fact that religious wars did not only not occur for the first thousand years of Christendom (unlike Islam, which launched religious wars from its inception), but that they never occurred in the history of eastern Christendom at all. Their occurrence in the west coincided almost directly with the event known as the Great Schism, which separated western Christendom from eastern Christendom. This event, occurring formally in 1054 (that is, only about one generation prior to the opening of the First Crusade), consolidated two distinct cultural units. Western Christendom was thereafter shaped by Roman Catholicism (at least until the Protestant Reformation shattered its unity five hundred years later) and eastern Christendom was shaped, as it always had been, by Orthodox Christianity. The Great Schism was an event of huge significance in understanding the history of Christendom and the formation of modern western civilization, though, strangely, it is usually ignored when making assessments of the place of the crusades in that history. And if people in the west ignore its significance, we should perhaps not be too surprised when the jihadists of our time do so as well!

The fact is, Orthodox Christendom has never supported the concept of holy warfare, or killing in the name of God. There have been plenty of atrocities and abominations committed by Orthodox Christians over the centuries. But the Orthodox Church has never formally launched a crusade. As a matter of fact, her faithful were more than once victims of them. (To learn about the Roman Catholic crusades against Orthodox Christians, readers can listen to my podcast episode here). Nor, it bears emphasizing, has she ever instituted an inquisition to persecute and punish heretics. Nor has she fought religious wars against schismatics such as occurred in the horrible “wars of religion” between Roman Catholics and Protestants for two centuries in western Christendom on the eve of the Enlightenment, and which contributed significantly to the loss of confidence in Christendom and the rise of a modern effort to secularize it.

But that is another story, to be discussed in another post.

Image credit: National Public Radio

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