Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The tragedy of the "Crusades", and what can we learn from it....

Out of thought that we Christians would have been the last people who could gloatingly accuse another faith of nurturing violence, given our often so gory history. We should be hanging our heads in shame and contrition when we think of the Crusades, of so-called heretics being burned at the stake, or more recently Christians giving the world the Nazi Holocaust. Christians who supported Apartheid in South Africa, as being justified biblically. Or who were at each others throats in Northern Ireland, who committed horrendous atrocities in Rwanda and in Bosnia. No, we certainly should not gloat or think we are morally superior to those of other faiths.
(Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

As I was reading online reactions to "Campus Crusade for Christ" (an Evangelical campus ministry in many colleges) officially changing their name to "Cru", it reminded me of one of many 'elephants in the room' that Christians like myself have to deal with, including certain parts in our history and the words associated with it. In this particular case: the "Crusades".

This is from an article in the Washington Post, as Steve Sellers (VP for Campus Crusade for Christ) talked about the change:
“It’s become a flash word for a lot of people. It harkens back to other periods of time and has a negative connotation for lots of people across the world, especially in the Middle East,” said Steve Sellers, vice president for the U.S. for Campus Crusade for Christ, as reported by Christianity Today “In the ‘50s, crusade was the evangelistic term in the United States. Over time, different words take on different meanings to different groups.”

Indeed, "Crusade" in 2011 is a word that for many people (Christian and non-Christian) has a lot of negative connotation. I remember reading the excellent "Fear and Trembling" by Kierkegaard and feeling very uneasy with a term that he uses in the book. The term (again, to me) reminded me of the "Crusades": the 'knight of faith'.  (I should note that I do not believe that Kierkegaard was thinking of the "Crusades" when he talks about the 'knight of faith'; that connection was entirely of my own doing.)

In a very interesting article on the website Patheos, Dr. Timothy Dalrymple (philosopher/scholar of religious thought that I read regularly to get a serious, honest and intellectually solid Evangelical perspective) was interviewing Dr. Rodney Stark. Stark is a a sociologist and historian of religion and he was answering some questions about his latest book God's Battalions: the Case for the Crusades.

While I agree and disagree with some parts and responses given in the interview, I found it (on the whole) to be an honest discussion about the Crusades. However I got the feeling (and I know I could be mistaken) that in the end the "case for the Crusades" failed. Of course, that judgment is only based on reading the article and I would hate to fully judge the book without reading it.

Before I say anything else, I must give credit where credit is due: Dr. Stark was very clear that:
"What is overlooked about the Crusaders, and the knights and nobility of the 10th century and thereabouts, is that they were very bloody-minded. They had been raised since infancy to devote themselves to fighting." There was also an analysis of the historical background before the Crusades and other points, including the expansion of the Muslim empire and the effects of that expansion.

But then came this question regarding the sack of Constantinople that in the words of Dr. Dalrymple is taken as a classic example of the irrationality and ultra-violence of the Crusaders... In this I believe he is correct and then states the following question: 
"What of the sacking of Constantinople, when western Christians who had set out to reclaim the Holy Land decided instead to attack eastern Christians?" 

This was an excellent question and one I asked myself many times. If the Crusades were supposed to be about Christians reclaming the "Holy Land" from Muslims, then why did they sack the Christian city of Constantinople? Yes, they were Eastern Christians instead of Western Christians but they were Christians, and not Muslims.

Here is the full response:
"It seems to be pretty clear that, through about four crusades, the Byzantines had betrayed the westerners. In the First Crusade, they were supposed to send their army along, and they did not. They were supposed to supply the knights, and they did not. They tried to make separate peace agreements, which was virtually treasonous. This went on and on and on.

Eventually, the knights from the west, having backed a faction of the Byzantines, found themselves having been betrayed again and starving outside of Constantinople. So they sacked the city. It's a wonder they didn't do it sooner.

As we look at our past, it is important to try to understand why as human beings we did this or that. I applaud that Dr. Stark wants to give an honest take on the Crusades. But this explanation....well, it made me very sad since it made me recall a conversation I had a couple of years ago with an Eastern Orthodox priest.

The priest (who from other conversations with him makes me think that he would agree with a lot of what Dr Stark said in the interview) has heard similar explanations to the sack of Constantinople before and, every time he hears them it makes him sad, mad and furious, specially when those explanations come from other Christians. And more to the point, the talks between us happened in the comfort of his parish in 21st century America, far removed from the events of the Crusades. I believe that if an Eastern Orthodox priest back in Constantinople after the city was sacked and, as he was seeing the bodies, the crying, the suffering and the destruction caused by the Crusaders would have heard a response like that...well, I think he would be sadmad and furious to say the least if he was sitting here with us reading the article. Then I also think "what of the people of the city?" Would they accept this 21st century explanation?

When I look at events from the past, I try my best (sometimes I fail) to remember that history goes beyond words in a book. Real people of flesh and bones have, are, and will, be part of history. When it comes to events in history that involves Christians and/or Christianity, we as Christians have to be extra careful. When Archbishop Tutu tells us that as Christians we should be hanging our heads in shame and contrition when we think of the Crusades is not I believe to say that all Christians are evil or that Christianity itself is evil; that is a discussion that I have many times with Christians and non-Christians. No, I do not believe that. I believe what he (and I agree with him) understands is that when people that call themselves Christians commit horrible acts then, before we say anything the first thing we should say is: "that was a horrible act, and that horrible act caused suffering." Then I believe, we can continue to talk about it.

So what can we learn from the tragedy of the "Crusades" (and we must include everyone involved) as we move from one day to the next day? In the 21st century, we are less likely to repeat acts like the sack of Constantinople. Yet history has taught us that just like human beings are capable of doing wonderful and great acts in the name of Christianity and religion (fighting slavery for example) the same human beings are also capable of doing horrible and terrible acts in the name of the same Christianity and religion (supporting slavery as another tragic example). The legacy of Christianity (and I am part of it as a Christian) is full of both wonderful and terrible acts.

I hope that I misunderstood the answer given by Dr. Stark. But the following is clear:

Yes, it was war.
Yes, both sides (Christians and Muslims) did horrible acts.
Yes, there was animosity between Eastern and Western Christians and there were many reasons for this.
Yes, the Crusaders outside of Constantinople were starving.

But, in the end it was not these things that sacked Constantinople but human beings...human beings wearing the sign of the cross and acting with their freewill did. 

The same can be said for human beings who considered themselves Christians and caused the Holocaust, and this included the Christian theologians and Christian ministers that provided reasons to support the Nazi regime. (Note: I should also point out that other Christian theologians and Christian ministers, for example Dietrich Bonhoeffer, fought against the Nazi regime and paid with their lives for doing so.)

I wonder how many Crusaders had to go back home later and struggle with the memory of that act, how it changed them...I wonder how that same act changed the lives of the people that were left...

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