Are the Crusades the Ultimate Black Mark Against Christianity?

by Rob Kranz

“How could anyone defend a religion that would sanction the Crusades?”

Having spent a year living in Jerusalem in the shadow of the city walls built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-1500s, I can say it’s a legitimate question. The general layout of Jerusalem's Old City is virtually unchanged from what the crusaders would have experienced. You can’t walk very far within the Old City without seeing some remnant of the crusader period.

But, are the Crusades the ultimate black mark against Christianity? How could Christians engage in such activities? Have these events permanently damaged the reputation of the Christian religion in the Middle East and with Muslims to make effective witness to the love of Jesus impossible? Should Christians apologize for the Crusades?

As with most things in the Middle East, it's complicated.

A Confluence of Social Structure and Beliefs

One challenge that we face when examining historical events is placing our own beliefs and values onto the actions of others. To fairly evaluate the questions at hand, it's essential to explore the issues that led to the Crusades. What would cause so many people to engage in this action?

The 11th-13th centuries were a time of great religious fervor in Europe. As a whole, people were obsessed with their sinfulness. One driving force of this was their view of temporal and eternal life. The prevailing view was there were three stages: physical life (the here and now), purgatory (a period of refining the soul), and eternity. How one lived their physical life determined the amount of time spent in purgatory.

Purgatory was not a time of torture, but of refinement. As such, it was a temporary state designed to prepare the soul for eternity. Much like the forging of steel, it was considered to be difficult, painful, and necessary. However, the more pious you were in this life, the less time you would need to spend in purgatory. Naturally, one could perform good, charitable deeds (penance) to shorten the time. One such good deed was a pilgrimage to holy sites, like Jerusalem. Many people during this period made pilgrimages to the Holy Land even after the Muslim conquest.

By the 11th century, European society was hierarchical and stratified. Everyone had their place and role in society. As such, a degree of specialization had developed. Society was divided into three general classes:

  • Oratores (Clergy) - Those who prayed
  • Bellatores (Nobility) - Those who fought
  • Laboratores (Peasants) - Those who worked

The clergy were to pray for everyone. The nobility was to protect everyone, and the peasants were to work the land for the good of everyone. There was little room for movement between the various social classes (with the priesthood being a possible exception).

Within the nobility were knights, whose primary purpose (and life skill) was war. Up to this point, battles were internally focused. Various factions around Europe fought each other to control commerce and territory, with knights as the instrument of violence. However, violence—especially among Christians—was considered sinful by the church. This presented a real problem. If one's calling (or lot in life) was to be a knight—an inherently sinful profession, how could you live a pious life? What hope did you have of reducing your time in purgatory? While it may seem strange to us, this was a genuine dilemma for them.

Wars between various noble groups were also a problem for the church. There was nothing to be gained from violence between Christians. The church attempted multiple ways to combat this, including making it against canon law to fight anytime except from Monday morning to Wednesday evening, except on religious holidays.

So starting in the 11th century, there was a confluence of social and religious issues that were at loggerheads with one another. How could a person live a life of piety if one's allotted trade necessitated violence? What hope was there for eternal life? As it turns out, current events of the day would lead to a solution.

Motivations for Crusading

The Arabic/Muslim invasion against the Byzantine empire started in the 7th century. For 300 years, Byzantine/Christian lands were being overrun by the Arabic invaders. By 1095, the Christian world had lost nearly two-thirds of its territory, and the incursions showed no signs of stopping (in fact, they continued until 1683). Constantinople was under real threat. Forays into Spain and eastern Europe meant that the Muslim threat was becoming a real and present danger to the heartland of the Roman Catholic church.

By and large, Christian pilgrims were allowed to travel through Muslim controlled lands without molestation. However, in 1077, the Seljuk Turks invaded Jerusalem, wresting it from the Arabic Fatimids. The Seljuks were new, fanatical converts to Islam that were displacing Arabs throughout the Middle East. With the rise of the Seljuks, there were increasing reports making their way back to Europe of Christian pilgrims being attacked, robbed, and even prevented from visiting holy pilgrim sites—including the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Given the importance of these pilgrimages for Christian penance, this was an unacceptable turn of events.

At the same time, there were problems in church-state relations in Europe. Emperor Henry IV sought greater control over the appointment of clergy (and popes), and Pope Urban II was working to continue the reforms of his predecessor and mentor, Gregory VII. Urban II was seeking ways to regain control of Rome from Henry's antipope Clement III. Having a united army under Papal control would strengthen his political clout against the Emperor.

These events being played out against the social and religious backdrop, led Urban II to give a rousing sermon in Clermont (France) on November 27, 1095. He called for a holy war against the Muslim invaders that had encroached so significantly upon Christian lands and were impeding the pilgrimage routes. We have no record of the speech he gave. By all accounts, it was an inspiring piece of propaganda. As an incentive, he decreed, "all who die by the way, whether by land or by sea or in battle against the pagan, shall have immediate remission of sins." This was the first time that the church had ever granted complete remission of sins, and the opportunity to avoid purgatory altogether. For the knights of Europe, this was more than they could ever have hoped for. The response was greater than anyone could have expected. Roughly 10% of the nobility of Europe heeded the call and went forth to liberate the Holy Land. The First Crusade recaptured Jerusalem three and a half years later. The subsequent crusades never lived up to the success of this first venture.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

There are many misconceptions about the Crusaders and their motivations. Common perceptions paint them as greedy, blood-thirsty warriors that wreaked havoc wherever they went. The real picture is much more nuanced. Again, as with most things in the Middle East, it's complicated.

Greed was not the primary motivation for Crusaders. The cost of funding this effort for an individual knight was 2-5x their annual income. Most of the Crusaders came back poorer than when they left—if they came back at all. While they did seek to bring back holy relics from the Crusades, they were forbidden by canon law from selling them, so no profit could be realized.

Christian devotion was at the heart of the Crusades. These were pious people desperately seeking forgiveness for their sins. Their objective was to do something righteous and noble for the Kingdom of God. Mark Galli says, "their devotion and courage makes our look juvenile."

As often happens in war, there were scientific advancements that benefited society as a whole. Medical technology advanced significantly as a result of the Crusades. New procedures for keeping patients warm, clean, and quiet were adopted by the Hospitaliers of St. John that spread to Western Europe, benefiting others besides the Crusaders. Hospices to serve the sick and poor flourished as a result of the Crusades.

Were the Crusaders any more violent than their Turkish and Arabic foes? Some have contrasted the violence of the Crusaders when they captured Jerusalem in the Summer of 1099 with the relative compassion shown by Saladin in October 1187 when he retook the city. The Crusader accounts detail the killing of everyone—men, women, and children. The killing extended to Muslims and Jews. Saladin, by contrast, allowed captives to go free. However, this is not the full story. Both the Crusaders and Saladin were following the accepted rules of warfare. Jerusalem did not surrender to the Crusaders. As such, it was sacked. The city surrendered to Saladin in 1187. Custom dictated that he allow the captives to leave the city in peace. No doubt, the world they lived in was brutal by our standards. But Christian Crusaders and Muslims were equally brutal.

The greatest atrocities committed during the Crusades were probably done to the Jews of Europe. Some Crusaders made the connection that if Muslims could be killed for taking the Holy City, then how much more should those be killed that were responsible for murdering the "holy body." While there is no evidence that Crusaders targeted Jews in Jerusalem, there is strong evidence that Crusaders massacred Jews in Germany, France, and England “in preparation” for fighting in the Middle East.

While Muslim sources do view the Crusades in a negative light, the fact remains that ultimately, the Crusaders lost to the Muslims. So, it is difficult to argue that the Crusades were a permanent black mark against Christianity. In the Crusader's view, this was a mostly defensive struggle against invaders that had taken their lands. Crusader efforts to regain those lands were generally not successful.

Does God Promote Violence?

From the earliest days of the movement, Christians have struggled with war and violence. There is ample violence in the Old Testament. In the early church, Christians were forbidden from even being part of the military. After Constantine, the views of war within a Christian empire began to change. Several centuries later, Augustine formulated the idea of a “just war” whose ultimate aim was peace. Yet, Augustine still believed a “just war” was evil. Due primarily to the increase in Germanic influences, during the time of the Crusades, Christians thought that violence was acceptable if used in defense of Christianity. Even in modern western civilization, there are a variety of opinions regarding Christian support for war and its divine sanction.

While one can find passages in the New Testament that might be used to justify war, the primary message of the New Testament is one of peace and endurance. Even in Revelation—the most violent book of the New Testament—the violence is not carried out by Christians. Any acts of judgment in Revelation are undertaken by God. God's people are told to persevere and endure. The Christian mandate is "Love the LORD your God...and love your neighbor as yourself."

Does the Crusader Mindset Persist?

Crusades continued for close to 500 years. They were not solely against Muslims in the Middle East. They were also waged against “heretics” in Eastern Europe and other places. The holy war was a means of protecting the orthodox faith from those who would seek to alter or destroy it. Unfortunately, they also became xenophobic. Targeting foreigners and Jews—a far cry from the penitential wars of the 11th century.

Does the Crusader mindset persist today? Some could reasonably argue that our continued military presence in the Middle East is a continuation of the Crusades. I suspect that view is also held by extremist groups like Isis to enhance recruitment. Violence against Muslim immigrants in Europe bears some likeness to the late Crusader-mentality as well. However, these actions are very different from the Crusades in one crucial way: there is no penitential component. These wars (and violence) are not made to protect oneself from purgatory.

I recently saw a post on social media where someone stated that it was “Time for Christians to take our country back!” In one sense, this person was correct. We live in a post-Christian USA (and much of the western world). I agree with their sense of loss. I, too, wish that our world exhibited more Christian characteristics.

But while I understand the sentiment, I don't necessarily agree with its message. Yes, Christians should exercise their right to vote following their conscience and beliefs. However, what should be the Christian response when the majority of the nation goes in a different direction? What about when Christians are persecuted in other parts of the world? I don't believe the Bible condones armed revolution—especially not to restore Christian principles or ways of life. Instead, Christians are supposed to live by example in spite of the culture.

Paul instructed the church in Corinth about how they should interact with those outside the church that did not live according to Christian principles. I think his message is equally relevant for the church today:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world...For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you." 1 Cor 5:9-13 (NRSV)

Paul made it clear to the Corinthians, the church has no right to judge those outside the church. Our focus should be to ensure that we live holy and pure lives. The witness of Scripture is that this happens through perseverance rather than religious warfare.

Additional Resources:

If you would like to read more on this topic, here are some excellent online resources:

Loren Rossen's Blog Post on The Crusades

Jonathan Riley-Smith, "Rethinking the Crusades"

Christian History Magazine: Issue 40