Enough with the Crusades

Can We Put a Tired Argument to Rest?

crusadesI’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, and thanks to the president’s comments last week, now is good. Not that what I say about the Crusades is perfect timing—we’ve already had a week’s worth of the right’s outrage over Obama’s comments and the left’s outrage over the right’s outrage. Still, since I’ve planned this column for weeks now, I’m taking the opportunity to throw in my two cents—not to address what the president said (which probably seemed more relevant in context than most are making it out to be), but to address a larger misperception that has bothered me for a really long time.

My gripe, much more cultural than political, is basically over the far-too-often used, “What about the Crusades?” whenever any discussion of Christianity comes up. I’m not particularly interested in defending the Crusades, but I am interested in defending history—and Christianity—against broad brush strokes and illogical arguments. The way the Crusades are usually used in modern conversation is tired, shallow, and actually pretty irrelevant. Here’s why:

The popular narrative of Christian Crusaders descending upon the Holy Land and pillaging innocent and unsuspecting Muslims is simply naïve and inaccurate. History is almost always more nuanced and layered than we think, and this is clearly a case when it is. Yes, some atrocities were committed, even against the clear instructions of political and religious leaders. (Any Christian pretext for such atrocities clearly were not Christian, but more on that later.) But those atrocities were generally outside the stated mission, not part of it.

According to eminent Crusade historians, these campaigns were originally defensive, not offensive—a delayed response to several centuries of aggressive Muslim expansion. (I would strongly encourage you to read Cambridge scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith’s take on it here and Thomas F. Madden’s here and here—as well as a Madden review of Riley-Smith’s definitive book here. Both are extremely insightful, though they find their views “extraordinarily difficult to be heard across a chasm of entrenched preconceptions.”) Experts on the Crusade era insist that the popular view of the Crusades is dead wrong.

A quote from Madden: “All the Crusades met the criteria of just wars. They came about in reaction to attacks against Christians or their Church.” Again, horrible things were done in the midst of those campaigns—no argument there—by very misguided people. But the purpose of the campaigns was not what most people assume.

I have no interest in defending the Crusades as good policy, nor do I have the expertise to understand the complexities behind them. But I am convinced that the popular understanding of them reflects dreadful ignorance of actual history. And that people who use “What about the Crusades?” as a careless rebuttal to Christianity have little idea what they’re talking about.

Beyond the historical distortions, however, is an even greater issue closer to my heart. Some people today tend to judge Christianity by the actions of people who were not being Christian at all—whether that’s rogue Crusaders, Inquisitors, the KKK, or anyone else. Those offenders may have identified themselves as Christian, but what they did was not actually Christianity. And as a Christian, I’d prefer to assume responsibility for my own shortcomings, which are substantial enough already, than be judged for the misguided policies of people centuries ago who didn’t believe what I believe or practice what Jesus taught.

As an illustration of how ludicrous this argument is, imagine trying to have a conversation about evolutionary theory with someone constantly chiming in, “But what about Hitler?” Sure, one might argue that Nazism is a possible outcome of “survival of the fittest,” but it certainly isn’t a necessary or inevitable one. Doesn’t that objection come across as shallow and irrelevant?

So why is “What about the Crusades?” deemed so relevant in conversations about modern Christianity?

Now, can any religion or ideology be used for selfish, evil purposes? Of course. No one, absolutely no one, disputes that. We’ve seen it in both Christianity and Islam, as well as many other religious, political, and cultural traditions. Christians are not “historically illiterate” about these things, as some charge. We just know that there’s a whopping difference between saying, “Christianity has been falsely used as a pretext for violence,” and saying, “See, Christianity is violent too!” Yet many seemingly intelligent people we talk to don’t make that distinction at all.

As I’ve mentioned, my point is not to address any political comments or rebuttals made last week. I decided a long time ago my mission in life is to address people’s hearts, not their politics. (To the president, I would simply say, “At this point in history, you won’t have any opportunities to affect 12th-century policies. But you do have the opportunity to affect policy today. Let’s focus, okay?”) This goes way beyond anything said last week.

No, my point is to address the logical laziness of a culture critical of Christianity in continuing to throw around, “What about the Crusades?”—as though that has any relevance to a current discussion. It rarely, if ever, does.

So my suggestion next time you hear someone say, “What about the Crusades?” is to look them in the eye and say, “Yes, please tell me about the Crusades.” And with 99 percent of people, what happens next will either be a blank stare or some embarrassingly inaccurate information. In which case you can offer much-needed correction and steer the conversation back to something actually relevant.

Click to tweet: Why is “What about the Crusades?” deemed so relevant in conversations about modern Christianity? 

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