You’re in a conversation and someone says the crusades prove that Christianity is actually a violent religion. What would you say? Even though the crusades happened over 800 years ago, they’re often used as an objection to Christianity. However the people who use the crusades as an argument against Christianity often don’t know what actually happened and therefore they don’t know how to think about them. So the next time the crusades come up in conversation, here are three things to remember.
Number one. The crusades were not an unprovoked invasion. Many people assumed the crusades were perpetuated by a bunch of barbaric Christians bent on either converting or slaughtering peaceful Muslims. But that’s not what happened. When Muslims initially conquered Palestine, they were fairly tolerant of Christians and Jews though they were considered second-class citizens. Christians and Jews could still do things like hold positions in government for example. The situation became increasingly precarious however with waves of severe attacks against Christians such as when the Khalif al-Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem considered by many to be the burial place of Jesus. Things became considerably worse when a warring group of people from central Asia called the Seljuk Turks converted to Islam. The Celtic Turks as new converts to any religion tend to be, were fanatical. Things got nasty. The Seljuk Turks abused and persecuted the Christian populations in the Middle East. They shut down pilgrimages to Jerusalem and desecrated Christian holy sites and they kept expanding in the battle of Manzikert. In 1071the Seljuks took over a good chunk of what is modern day Turkey, which had been part of the Byzantine empire. The Byzantines weren’t happy about that and a little over 20 years later they sent a letter to the Pope asking for help in stopping the Seljuks and retaking the land. This triggered the crusades. The Byzantines and the crusaders were facing an aggressive and increasingly violent expansionist Islam that was persecuting Christians in the very capital of the Christian religion. This leads to the second point.
The crusaders were motivated by a conviction that the holiest city in Christianity should be in Christian hands and should be a place where Christians are safe. The Byzantines hoped to retake Byzantine territory but for the crusaders themselves it was all about Jerusalem, the city where Jesus died and rose from the dead. The city was incredibly important for Christians and pilgrimages to Jerusalem were at the time an important Christian practice. At the hands of the Seljuq Turks, Christian citizens and pilgrims often faced harassment and persecution, sometimes even death. We can reevaluate the situation by setting up a hypothetical. Imagine that in the 1700s the British had actually conquered Saudi Arabia and imagine that they not only occupied Mecca but they also shut down pilgrimages there and desecrated Muslim holy sites. Imagine they destroyed the Kaaba. Would the Muslim world accept that? Would Muslims have been justified in trying to take Mecca back? That scenario is effectively what happened in the crusades. Understanding that key point helps us understand the motives of the crusaders, which leads to the third point.
The crusaders are not the standard of Christianity. No matter whether the motives are justified many things the crusaders did were absolutely wrong. When they engaged in those wrong things they were living inconsistently with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Sympathy for their motives cannot excuse wrong actions even if they were done in the name of Christianity. In other words no Christian should see the evil and violent actions of the crusaders as a standard to aspire to. It’s always important to distinguish between the teachings of a religion and how well or poorly people represented in a particular situation. It’s neither charitable nor fair to judge a religion by people who fail to live consistently with its teaching. If we’re going to judge Christianity by a group of crusaders from over 800 years ago, should we judge Islam solely based on a group of jihadists? To know the standards of Christianity we should look to the bible, not to the crusades history. It’s complicated but we shouldn’t let the actions of a group who lived inconsistently with Christian teachings over 800 years ago dictate our understanding of what Christianity is.
So the next time you are in a conversation about the crusades, here are three things to remember. Number one: the crusades were not an unprovoked invasion. Number two: the crusaders were motivated by a conviction that the holy city in Christianity should be in Christian hands and should be a place where Christians are safe. Number three: the crusaders are not the standard of Christianity for what would you say.