Considering the Crusades

In thinking about Islam as we did last week, questions arise regarding the Crusades. Weren’t the Crusades simply an example of Christian imperialism, a more modern conquest of Canaan? If so, does this not negate Christianity itself?

Topics: History

In thinking about Islam as we did last week, questions arise regarding the Crusades. Weren’t the Crusades simply an example of Christian imperialism, a more modern conquest of Canaan? If so, does this not negate Christianity itself? Skeptics asking these questions assume at least three distinct propositions which must each be proven to lend any weight to the objection. They must demonstrate that:

  1. The Crusaders were Christians.
  2. The Christian Crusaders were carrying out the Crusades for the sake of Christian expansion.
  3. The Christians carrying out the Crusades for Christian expansion did so in accordance with Christian principles.

The Crusaders were Christians

Christians have committed terrible crimes against humanity. When reflecting upon an issue like western slavery, we quickly realize that many professed believers have misinterpreted and perverted the Scriptures to defend that which is biblically indefensible.

However, we must also consider that many unbelievers have perverted Christian principles for their own purposes. Take Hitler’s Holocaust and the abuse of Christian rhetoric to achieve his atheistic purposes for example (see Hitler’s Cross by Erwin Lutzer for a good resource on Nazi propaganda and the German church’s failures during this period). A person is a Christian not because he or she professes to be but because he or she has been born again.

I imagine that the Crusades (like modern churches) contained a mixture of genuine believers and unbelievers. Granted that some Crusaders were Christians, we must consider the second proposition. Were those Christian crusaders motivated by religious desire for imperialistic religious expansion?

The Crusades were attempts at expanding the Christian empire

The Crusades were much less about religion than is popularly assumed. Ephraim Karsh, a Jewish historian, writes in his Islamic Imperialism:

There was no total war on either side, let alone an ideological one. Both were, of course, utterly convinced of the superiority of their respective religions but their actions were guided by a far more earthly combination of territorial and material ambition, military strategy, and political expedience, not dissimilar from that which characterized the feudal wars in Europe and the incessant infighting among Muslim rulers. Fighting was in accordance with the conventions of the day, conceived as an armed duel between rival princes and warlords, whether Christian or Muslim. Those caught in the crossfire often paid the ultimate price: massacres, plundering, and enslavement.

The Crusades were motivated by a number of causes, and most of which were not truly religious in nature. If we dig deeply enough into the historical context, we find that Islamic expansion and persecution of conquered lands were a motivating factor. Additionally, we perceive an underlying and festering Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic struggle for supremacy in Christendom. From my studies at least, it seems as if the Crusades were primarily political or geopolitical gilded with a religious veneer.

For those desiring a better understanding of the factors and context leading up to the Crusades, Rodney Starks’ unfortunately subtitled God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades is an excellent resource.

The Crusades were in accordance with Christian principles

This final proposition stands at the heart of the matter. We can argue about whether or not the Crusaders were Christian and whether the expansion was a just response to Islamic aggression, an example of Christian imperialism or some mixture of the two. What cannot be argued is the fact that Christianity itself does not advocate expansion by the sword.

Christ’s kingdom is not of this earth (John 18:33-38). Misinterpretation of Christ’s mission by His followers has historic roots. His disciples didn’t get it as He walked with and taught them (Luke 9:51-56). They didn’t get it as He was being handed over to be crucified (Matthew 27:47-56). They didn’t get it even after His resurrection (Acts 1:6-8). Even if Christians crusaded in an attempt to advance Christ’s kingdom, they did it from a mistaken view of the kingdom.

The true enemies of the Church are not of flesh and blood but rather spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:10-20). The truly Christian response to militant aggression is blessing and prayer (Matthew 5:43-48). Christians advance the gospel by serving and sacrificing for the sake of the lost, not by slaughtering the lost.

Conclusion

The Crusades, Western slavery and the Holocaust -- each represents a tragic and horrific display of human brutality. History has surely taught us that fallen man is universally brutal and brutish. But does this disprove Christianity? Does the fact that man has committed unspeakable atrocities somehow contradict the Christian claim that man is sinful and in need of a Savior? Is it logically consistent to deduce from these events that Jesus Christ has not risen from the dead?