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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Camouflage

Holy Struggles

Reconciling Christianity & the Crusades

by Terrell Clemmons

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 27

On Easter Sunday, April 7, 1996, 125 Christians led by Lynn Green of Youth with a Mission (YWAM) entered a Turkish mosque in Cologne, Germany, and read a formal apology to about 200 Muslim men and boys gathered in a prayer room.

"Nine hundred years ago," it began, "our forefathers . . . [f]uelled by fear, greed, and hatred, . . . betrayed the name of Christ [and] corrupted [the Cross's] true meaning of reconciliation, forgiveness and selfless love. . . . Where they were motivated by hatred and prejudice, we offer love and brotherhood." According to CBN, the Muslims, after hearing the apology, "broke into spontaneous applause for a long time."

And so, with fanfare, at the very site from which the first crusaders set out, a formal "Reconciliation Walk" commenced. Over the ensuing three-plus years, approximately 2,500 Western Christians retraced what Christianity Today called "the massacre trail" through Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, "turning it into a repentance route."

It culminated on July 15, 1999, when about 500 walkers, "as descendants of the crusaders," entered Jerusalem and delivered the apology to Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Diodoros, and Muslim Mufti Ekrem Sabri, asking forgiveness for historical bloodshed and for a lingering "Crusader mentality" in the Church. Afterward, Green said the walk had succeeded beyond his dream. "An overwhelming majority of the thousands of people we met . . . received the apology with heartfelt appreciation," he said.

But while acknowledging sin and asking for forgiveness are unquestionably laudable acts—we'll return to that shortly—the Reconciliation Walk and its publicity team perpetuated a plethora of falsehoods about what we have come to call the Crusades, prompting Mark Galli of Christian History to "apologize for their apology."

It's too easy, he says, to repudiate the actions of Christians of other times and places. Though wrongs certainly transpired, "there's little point in becoming judgmental. Better to try to understand the crusaders in the context of their times." And to do that, a little history is in order.

Prologue: The 500-Year Advance

Islam originated with Muhammad, who was born in a.d. 570 in Mecca, in current-day Saudi Arabia. Jerusalem at the time was part of Byzantine (Eastern) Christendom. In 630, Muhammad led an army of 30,000 in conquering Mecca, and a cascade of military conquests followed. Muslim armies proceeded to take Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and, by 638, Jerusalem. By 711, Muslims controlled all of northern Africa and had invaded Spain. Five years later, they besieged, but failed to capture, Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. In 846, outlying areas of Rome were attacked, and by the end of the ninth century, Muslim pirates had established havens all along the Mediterranean coast, threatening commerce, communication, and pilgrim traffic for the next century.

Crusade Lore Reexamined

Have you detected the trend here? At this juncture, Muslims had conquered a full two-thirds of the Christian world. Much of the population of the Holy Land was still Christian, and area Christians and Jews endured persecution in varying degrees, depending on the whim of the ruler du jour. In 1071, they began sending appeals to the West for aid. In 1095, the West finally responded when Pope Urban II called upon the knights of Christendom to come to the aid of their Eastern brethren. The objectives were to liberate the captives from their oppressors and to restore Christian access to the holy sites in and around Jerusalem.

Even a cursory reading of this chronology is enough to call into question the Reconciliation Walk narrative. Thomas F. Madden, Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University and author of The New Concise History of the Crusades, sheds more much-needed light on several pervasive myths.

Myth #1: The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression against a peaceful Muslim world minding its own business.
Whatever unsavory acts transpired within it, the movement itself was not a campaign of aggression. It was, as we have seen, a defensive response to Muslim aggression. It represented a great struggle, yes, but the Crusades proceeded from attitudes and values that were uniquely medieval, so medieval, in fact, that the whole movement is grossly misunderstood today, in both the East and the West.

"[T]he crusaders were real Christians," writes Galli in "The Crusades: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," a Christian History editorial. "They deplored their sins. They longed for forgiveness. They loved fellow Christians in the East. They yearned to do something noble and lasting for their Lord. They prayed and fasted before battles and praised God after victories." The Crusades were supported by such revered saints as Bernard of Clairvaux, Catherine of Siena, and Thomas Aquinas. Even peace-loving Francis of Assisi joined the fifth crusade in Egypt. He didn't fight, but risked his life to cross enemy lines and preach to Muslim sultan Malik-al-Kamil.

"During the Middle Ages you could not find a Christian in Europe who did not believe that the Crusades were an act of highest good. Even the Muslims respected the ideals of the Crusades and the piety of the men who fought them," says Madden. "Their devotion and courage make ours look juvenile," concludes Galli. The point is worth pondering.

Myth #2: The crusaders were colonialist imperialists after booty and land.
The truth is, crusading was exorbitantly expensive. Contrary to latter-day lore, it was frequently the "first sons" of Europe—those who stood to inherit property, not their younger brothers who didn't—who answered Pope Urban's call and went on the dangerous 2,000-mile trek. Many sold or mortgaged their own land to finance the endeavor. Much like American soldiers today, many went out of a sense of duty or in the (misguided) belief that they could win salvation by doing this good work. After the success of the first crusade, virtually all the survivors went home. Most never recouped their expenses.

Myth #3: When the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they massacred ruthlessly.
Yes, people were killed, but despite the legitimate recoil with which a modern may react to it, this must be seen in light of the norm of the times. According to Madden, "The accepted moral standard in all pre-modern European and Asian civilizations was that a city that resisted capture and was taken by force belonged to the victorious forces. That included not just the buildings and goods, but the people as well."

City leaders knew, therefore, that they had to weigh carefully whether they could hold out against a siege, and if not, negotiate terms of surrender. Muslim armies followed this same code. It should be noted that in those Muslim cities that surrendered, the inhabitants were not killed, and they retained their property and were allowed to worship freely—all practices consistent with the stated objectives of the Crusades.

Biased Revision

So why is this historical background information routinely excluded from the modern narrative? According to Madden, the modern view of the Crusades grew out of the Enlightenment. Most of the philosophes, like Voltaire, abhorred Christianity. They looked upon the Church with distaste and regarded any war connected with religion as superstitious barbarism. Today's narrative was accordingly set by Sir Steven Runciman, who took this perspective in his well-written but historically flawed three-volume work, A History of the Crusades (1951–1954).

"For Runciman," writes Madden, "the Crusades were morally repugnant acts of intolerance in the name of God. The medieval men who took the cross and marched to the Middle East were either cynically evil, rapaciously greedy, or naively gullible." This bias was further exacerbated by the 1995 four-part documentary The Crusades, produced by BBC/A&E, a production so skewed that history professor Dr. Paul Crawford referred to it as "Monty Python Goes on Crusade."

Reconciling by Rehumanizing

But, Crawford continues, in thoughtlessly accepting the narrow-minded script, "we trivialize [the crusaders'] humanity, and deny our students the opportunity to acquaint themselves with a diversity of opinion and experience far more profound than any they might encounter in the modern world." That actually goes for all of us. A better reconciliation in the present would start by respecting the people of the past enough to get the facts before leaping to judgment.

Furthermore, moderns would do well to guard against imperiously laying claim to the moral high ground. For all of today's celebration of moral relativism, the Reconciliation apology contains some whopping presumptions concerning other people's condemnable motives. By exactly what reasoning or historical evidence did the apologizers ascertain that virtually all the crusaders were "fuelled by fear, greed, and hatred"? And by what criteria do they diagnose a lingering "Crusader mentality" in the Church? The whole thing smacks of a smug, far be it from us to be so wickedly disposed attitude—the essence of the condescending holier-than-thou-ism that secularists love to hate.

Reconciling Through Repentance

Leaving that aside, though, we can still glean something from the nobler aspirations the Reconciliation Walk calls to mind. The Cologne imam was clearly moved. "When I heard the nature of your message, I was astonished and filled with hope," he said. "I thought to myself, 'whoever had this idea must have had an epiphany, a visit from God himself.' It is my wish that this project should become a very great success." He said that many Muslims were starting to examine their sins against Christians and Jews, but hadn't known what to do. The Christians' apology, he said, was a good example for them to follow. And to the extent that anyone turns to God in repentance for his own (not someone else's) sin, seeking forgiveness and restored brotherhood, it will indeed bear enduring fruit.

Thinking more largely, if there's going to be any judgment of the two religious systems, let us evaluate them by their respective central figures. Pastor Mateen A. Elass, of Warrenville, Illinois, the son of a Syrian Muslim father and an American mother, and an adult convert to Christianity, offers two vignettes, one from each tradition's holy text, for consideration toward that end.

Jesus, while hanging on the cross, prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Iron-willed love and mercy defined his way. Muhammad, by contrast, often responded to supplicants as recorded in Sahih al-Bukhari, one of the canonical hadith collections: "Anas bin Malik said, 'Allah's Apostle entered (Mecca) in the year of the conquest (of Mecca) wearing a helmet over his head. After he took it off, a man came and said, 'Ibn Khatal [a pagan opponent] is clinging to the curtains of the ka'ba [a recognized behavior for seeking mercy]. The Prophet said, 'Kill him.'" Neither love nor mercy, just iron will.

Whatever misdeeds individual Christians or Muslims have perpetrated, there is no doubt about the contrasting examples set for how God's kingdom should be advanced. We moderns have the privileged opportunity to learn from them and choose the more excellent way. 


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