The Bible can be a dangerous book if misused and abused. In the history of the church, the misunderstanding of the Bible has led to many serious problems, ranging from false doctrine to legalistic customs and misdirected lives. One of the most blatant examples of this is the Crusades: a series of wars led by Europeans in the name of Christ against Islamic states in the Near East during the Middle Ages.
The idea that Christians can use the sword to advance their cause might seem to be justified by passages like the following: “May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (Ps. 72:11); “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Ps. 2:8–9); and “The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth” (Ps. 110:5–6).
To use these verses to justify violence in behalf of Christianity, however, misses the true meaning of these passages, since in reality they point to a spiritual extension of Christ’s kingdom in history and to the final judgment at the end of history. The non-violent message of Christ is clear from many passages:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… . Repay no one evil for evil… If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. (Rom. 12:14, 17–19)
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:11–12)
For though we walk in the f lesh, we are not waging war according to the f lesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the f lesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor. 10:3–5)
The spirit of the Crusades arose in Europe in the eleventh century and continued as an ideal at least until the sixteenth century. Between 1096 and 1229, five major crusades were mounted in the name of recapturing Jerusalem from the infidels. Those who preached the Crusades remembered that the Middle East and North Africa had been lands with a predominantly Christian population until the Islamic conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries. Mohammed died in 632, and Islamic forces had captured Jerusalem by 638. Indeed, Islamic armies had pushed into Italy, Spain, and France from the south. Their farthest push north was stopped at Poitiers in France in 732. In 841, Islamic forces sacked St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, a revitalized Islam threatened Europe from the east, conquering Constantinople (in 1453) and advancing as far as the gates of Vienna.
As there is some mystery that surrounds the sudden energy and success of the early expansion of Islam, so there is some mystery as to what so motivated Western Europe to undertake war against the Islamic nations of the Middle East. Jerusalem had been held by Islam for more than four hundred years. In the late eleventh century, reports (of limited veracity) circulated that Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem were being persecuted. Peter the Hermit claimed that he had seen a vision of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher calling for Christians to purge the Holy City of infidels. The Byzantine emperor in Constantinople also appealed for help from the West against Islam.
The idea of a crusade against the Muslims holding Jerusalem and subjugating Christians was preached by Pope Urban II to his clergy at a council in 1095. Urban declared:
Concerning this affair, I, with suppliant prayer — not I, but the Lord — exhort you, heralds of Christ, to persuade all of whatever class, both knights and footmen, both rich and poor, in numerous edicts, to strive to help expel that wicked race from our Christian lands before it is too late. I speak to those present, I send word to those not here; moreover, Christ commands it. Remission of sins will be granted for those going thither, if they end a shackled life either on land or in crossing the sea, or in struggling against the heathen. I, being vested with that gift from God, grant this to those who go.
O what a shame, if a people, so despised, degenerate, and enslaved by demons would thus overcome a people endowed with the trust of Almighty God, and shining in the name of Christ! O how many evils will be imputed to you by the Lord Himself, if you do not help those who, like you, profess Christianity!
Let those who are accustomed to wage private wars wastefully even against Believers, go forth against the Infidels in a battle worthy to be undertaken now and to be finished in victory. Now, let those, who until recently existed as plunderers, be soldiers of Christ … now, let those, who recently were hired for a few pieces of silver, win their eternal reward.
Urban asked Christians, as a spiritual duty and for spiritual rewards, to take up the sword to kill the enemies of Christ. This sermon may well have been the first time in the history of the church that war was proclaimed as an instrument for advancing the interests of Christ’s church. While Urban seems to have promised full forgiveness of sins only to those dying in the Crusades, later popes would promise full forgiveness for all who participated. Christianity was militarized in a whole new way.
The first crusade was in some ways remarkably successful. European forces set out in 1096 and by 1099 had captured Jerusalem. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was established in that year and survived until 1187. Other Latin states were also established. The cost of this success was great, however. Hundreds of thousands died, and the terrible massacre in Jerusalem by the crusaders has seriously damaged the reputation of Christianity among Muslims ever since.
The third crusade (1189– 1192) again focused on capturing Jerusalem and was led by the most notable European rulers: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Philip Augustus of France, and King Richard (the Lion- Hearted) of England. They were opposed by the Islamic leader Saladin. Many romantic tales f lowed from this crusade (including those about Robin Hood and the wicked Prince John), but the crusade failed to take Jerusalem.
The fourth crusade (1200–1204) was singularly unsuccessful. The crusaders were diverted to Constantinople, where a struggle between rival claimants for the Byzantine throne was taking place. In 1204, the crusaders attacked Constantinople (a Christian city) and again great violence and destruction followed. Great works of art and literature were destroyed, and many other artifacts were stolen and shipped to the West, especially to Venice, where they can still be found today. The West established the Latin Empire of Constantinople there (1204–1261) and the pope created a Latin patriarchate that submitted to Rome. Both of these actions infuriated the Byzantine Orthodox, and although the Byzantine Empire was restored in 1261, it never fully recovered from the trauma of this crusade.
The fifth crusade was led by the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II . He gained control of Jerusalem by negotiations, promising free access to the city for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Christians held the city for the last time from 1229 to 1244. Frederick was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX for his compromise.
King Louis IX of France tried to lead crusades again in 1248 and 1270, but while he was very pious, he was not an effective military leader. He died in Egypt in 1270 and was declared a saint, St. Louis, the only crusader canonized by the church.
The Crusades failed permanently to restore Christian control of Jerusalem, but they did have many other effects. The Crusades strengthened the power and influence of the pope over the church in Europe. They seriously weakened the Byzantine Empire, which continued to lose territory to Islam until the city of Constantinople fell. Perhaps most seriously and most lastingly, the Crusades implanted a violent image of Christianity and the West in the minds of Islamic people.
Ironies surround the Crusades and their reputation. Islam initiated the wars against Christian lands, at times being as savage as Christians in war, and Islam continued aggressive war against the West for centuries after the end of the Christian Crusades. Yet today many Muslims continue to view Christianity as a violent religion and project their Islamic convictions that religion and state should be united on the West, as if Christianity and the state were still united there.
Most importantly, the history of the Crusades must teach us as Christians to recognize the great damage done to Christ by these wars. The very word crusade comes from a French word meaning “the way of the cross,” first used a century after the beginning of the Crusades. What a betrayal of the Christ, who poured out His life on the cross, enduring injustice and making peace, to identify Him with the slaughter of political enemies. As Christians, we must seek always to advance Christ’s cause through truth joined by love and selfsacrifice, not through violence.