Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Crusades, The Normandy Invasion of 11th Century

With our Commander-in-chief’s recent remarks equating the Crusades to Islam-inspired terrorism, I’ve had a few opportunities to discuss the Crusades online with fellow Catholics who find the Crusades a deplorable debacle, with atheists who like to use the Crusades as a cudgel to bludgeon the Church, with Protestants who see the Crusades as proof of Roman degeneracy away from the Gospel, etc. These people, widely divergent as they are on other issues, all basically agree that the Crusades were terrible - a black mark on Christianity and that we’d be better off if they had never happened. While flagellating our forefathers in the Faith (who were, on a whole, much holier than we) is rather in vogue, and while pointing to something in the history of the West to excuse current behavior of any other culture is all the politically correct rage, some of us (and I happen to be one) still think Truth ought to trump such concerns. 

In that spirit, I thought I’d go over an analogy I’ve used several times that I find clarifies the topic quite a bit. 

Doesn’t Jesus Demand Non-Violence from His Followers?

Yes, ideally there would be no war. And yes, we, as followers of the Prince of Peace (cf. Is 9:6), are especially called to be ministers of peace in the world (cf. Matt 5:9) even to the point of forgiving personal affronts (cf. Matt 5:39), but, as a glance at a newspaper will readily remind us,  we live in a fallen world one in which the ideal is yet to be realized. The coming of Christ began the “end times,” brought forth the Kingdom of God, but we are still living in a world that groans in expectation of the fulfillment and full realization of that Kingdom (cf. Rom 8:22). As such, we must still deal with the reality of evil around us. While Christ calls us to primarily do battle with evil by non-violent means, following the supreme example of Calvary, this, unfortunately, cannot always be realized in our fallen world. 

Can Violence Ever be Justified?

Which brings us to the Catholic theory of Just War, as laid out by the great Saint Augustine of Hippo. Why would there ever be even the possibility of a “just war?” Because we are bound, by direct command of Christ, to love our neighbor (cf. Mk 12:31). Just as it is not loving to watch a gangbanger force entry into your neighbor’s home to rape his wife and plunder his possessions, neither is it loving to watch an aggressive and hostile force invade your neighbor’s land to rape, pillage, conquer, and subjugate the people living there. We can never sit back, thinking we’re holy, and watch our neighbor be destroyed. Evil then, at least until the parousia, must at times be resisted and actively opposed with force of arms. The exact conditions when a war is justified, indeed demanded by the virtue of love of neighbor, are outlined not only in the thought of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, but also in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 2302-2317).


A clear example of a modern just war, one which almost every attacker of the Crusades will admit was just and necessary, is the allied invasion of Normandy to combat the evil of Nazi aggression. To claim the Crusaders and the Muslims conquerers of the Holy Land are equivalent would be little different than claiming the allied armies that liberated France in 1944 were equivalent to the Nazi armies that conquered her in 1940. The Crusaders were seeking to liberate Christian lands. This map shows which lands were Christian before the advent of Islam

the colored lands were all Christian before the advent of Islam (AD 570s)

And this map shows the “expansion of Islam” (which was achieved by the sword). 

the colored lands were all Muslim by AD 750

As can be seen the lands the Crusaders were fighting over were lands which they were seeking to free from Muslim conquest, just as the allies were seeking to rid France of her Nazi occupiers. More than that, as we see on the second map, Islam was set on conquering Europe. In addition to the Holy Land, Muslim arms had subdued Christian North Africa, Spain, and Sicily and would assault Italy (even sacking St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in AD 846), France (were they were stopped by Charles “the Hammer” in AD 732), and would eventually capture the greatest city in Christendom, Constantinople (AD 1453), and reach the heart of Europe before being turned back at Vienna (AD 1683). Europeans in the Middle Ages, far from being “imperialists,” were fighting for their lives. Much like British and American service men taking the fight to the Nazi’s in Italy and France to prevent an eventual attack on their homelands, the Crusaders were taking the battle to an enemy set on destroying them. The launching of the First Crusade, then, can be seen as the “d-day” of the Middle Ages. And, much like d-day, saved Europe from Nazi rule, the Crusades saved Europe from Islamification which was then a very real threat. The Crusaders, it is fair to say, like the allies in the Second World War, were engaged in a just war, fulfilling the command to love our neighbors. Rather than castigating the Crusaders, we ought to recognize if it weren’t for the heroic sacrifices of our Catholic forefathers, we might be speaking Arabic today. 

Would Jesus or Any of the Saints Ever Fight? Isn’t that an 

Absurd Image?

 We must again remember that Christianity, while prioritizing the importance of peace, is not a pacifistic religion. Jesus Himself drove the money changers from the Temple with a cord of whips (cf. Mat 21:12). He told his closest followers to sell their cloaks to buy weapons if they didn’t already have them (cf. Lk 22:36). He came, in His own words, after all not to bring peace, but a sword (cf. Matt 10:34). As we saw above love of neighbor (the second greatest commandment) sometimes demands just action to repel evil. Do saints ever go to war? Absolutely. Think of St. Louis IX of France, himself a Crusader of the Seventh and Eighth Crusades, or St. Joan of Arc. Or listen to the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a doctor of the Church, from one of many sermons he gave preaching the Second Crusade,
Fly then to arms; let a holy rage animate you in the fight, and let the Christian world resound with these words of the prophet, “Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood!” If the Lord calls you to the defense of His heritage think not that His hand has lost its power….  Christian warriors, He who gave His life for you, today demands yours in return. These are combats worthy of you, combats in which it is glorious to conquer and advantageous to die. Illustrious knights, generous defenders of the Cross, remember the example of your fathers who conquered Jerusalem, and whose names are inscribed in Heaven; abandon then the things that perish, to gather unfading palms, and conquer a Kingdom which has no end. (source)

St Louis IX, King of France and Crusader

Unfortunately, the Crusades are mired in misunderstanding. They were a source of anti-Catholic polemics used by the Reformers to attack the Church and have been unfairly stained by being associated with later European colonization (which they had nothing to do with). The narrative of  “those bad Catholics” is just too neat and tidy for our anti-Catholic age to be resisted by many who have never read the actual history of what happened. For a great primer on what really happened I heartily recommend Thomas Madden’s short article The Real History of the Crusades published by Crisis Magazine or Steve Weidenkopf’s The Glory of the Crusades (I admittedly have yet to read the latter, but hear great things about it and intend to).

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  1. It's a good article. But I have to be a bit nit-picky when it comes to clumping Islamic empires into one label called Islam.

    First off, the meme:
    I've seen several memes like that, and to be honest, it clumps different Islamic empires into one name. The Abbasids, Umayyads, Seljuks, Malmuks and Ottomans are condensed into one word: Islam. These empires have different rulers with different policies acting in different times throughout history. It's kinda reckless to clump these empires and label them "Islam" or "ISIS". It's like clumping the Roman, the Holy Roman, the German and the Austro-Hungarian Empires and clumping all of them as "Christianity", or recklessly "WBC", even though they're entirely different from each other. To view this in perspective, Arab Muslims call Europe Frankestan (as in Frank Charlemagne Frank, not French Frank), and clumping all Europeans, regardless of how secular a particular European country is, as "Christians".

    When one tells history context should always be considered. We can't judge these Islamic empires the way we judge ISIS. Yes, the Arabs were rapid with their spread of Islam into Europe, but I don't think there is evidence to say that they sent the decapitated heads of Christians whom they beheaded to their rulers the way ISIS does through Youtube. Pillaging, yes. Beheading, maybe not? Interpolation may suggest beheading, but interpolation without evidence can be just fiction.

    Second point:
    The Western notion of Islam is tied to the Middle East and North Africa, most probably ignoring the fact the Muslim populations of sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia. There is evidence that Islam was spread peacefully, through the Indian Ocean trade, to the lands bordering the ocean. This is why my country, the Philippines, has a long and significant Muslim minority. The recent attacks made by Muslims on Christians in Indonesia is probably due to them imitating the actions of their fellow Muslim brethren in the Middle East due to globalization.

    Which brings up a question: if Islam is inherently violent, then why are Buddhists and Hindus in Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslim population, not being persecuted for not being Muslim? That isn't the case in India or in Pakistan.

    In this comment I'm not defending the violent actions of some Muslims, or of ISIS, or the aggression of Islamic empires on Christendom during the Middle Ages. I recognize that the Islamic empires were aggressive against the Christian kingdoms, and that Christendom was on the verge of being snuffed out of extinction. I recognize that the reason for the Crusades was to protect pilgrims from the aggression of the Muslim Seljuk Turks as a way of helping their fellow Christians I just want to clarify that lumping the different Islamic empires and kingdoms into one word, "Islam", is an overgeneralization. Again it's like clumping all the different Christian kingdoms and empires into one word, "Christianity". It doesn't make sense.

    I'm sorry that my comment is so long. I'm just annoyed by, I have to be honest, how BOTH sides of this debate approach this with regards to facts and generalizations and how we should approach Islam when people who say they "speak for" Islam are confusing us even more in a time when there is much confusion.

  2. Hi Karl, Thanks for the thoughts. Allow me to respond.

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. Your comment rests on a faulty Nineteenth Century assumption that “nationality” is more important or more fundamental than religion in forming an identity through time. Were there different “nations” throughout history that spread Islam via the sword? Yes. Would distinguishing between them be terribly important in analyzing the geo-political history of the Middle East over the last 14 centuries? Absolutely. Does any of it matter when looking at the history of a religion and it’s (the religion’s) relationship to violence and it’s (the religon’s) propensity to spread its faith at the edge of a sword? Not in the least. I think you may be confusing the analysis offered by a history of religion with the analysis (equally valid, of course) offered by looking at geo-political realities throughout time. The meme (and the article) are looking at the former, it is not a valid criticism to claim it isn’t doing the latter (as it doesn’t intend to).
    2) This point seems to confuse what Islam teaches with what some Muslims may have been able to accomplish in opposition to those teachings. Islam (lit: peace through submission - to Allah) has at its core a teaching of war against unbelievers. Whether some areas have seen Muslims acting differently has absolutely nothing to do with this point. Now, if the post was claiming “all Muslims kill unbelievers” or even “Islam is only ever spread by the sword” you’d have a valid point. Such simply isn’t the case. Here we are examining the Crusades, which were not in the Philippines or Sub-Saharan Africa, but precisely in those lands which were violently seized by Islamic armies from Christians.

    1. You have a valid point with your first rebuttal to my first point. I do know that religion was a uniting force during the Middle Ages. People identify more with a dynamic of religion-state rather than tribe. An Englishman and a German during the Middle Ages wouldn't call themselves as such since they believe that they are part of one unit: Christendom. Same as with the caliphate: an Arab in Spain would not recognize his fellow in Baghdad as someone completely different from him since they're both part of the same religious-political unit. I do recognize that distinction between the medieval and modern mindset when it comes to identity while writing the comment.

      And yeah, it seems that you are looking this through the standpoint of the history of religion and the dynamic between religion and political identity. I was skimming the article the first time I read it, so apologies for my misunderstandings. However I still think that the meme (not your post) is mentioning this religious-political dynamic in a fool-hardy, schoolboyish way without any regards to the complexity of the dynamic. I remember something similar to that in my grade school days when I told a Scotsman he's British and he got mad - not knowing the complexities of British identity at the time.

      For the second point, I see that I have taken my explanations out of the context of the issue. I also apologize for that since I sometimes do that in discussions. However on your point about Islam's core teachings in your reply.... eh.... the number one problem with Islam is that it is disorganized; it doesn't have a central authority unlike Catholicism.

      Therefore it would be difficult to assure oneself whether or not a Muslim's teaching or claim based on teaching is adhering to the original teachings of Islam, or which version of Islam is a "true" version since there isn't any full consensus between Islamic scholars. One scholar might recommend a radical, extremist teaching, another might recommend a more moderate, peaceful teaching. The enforcement of doctrine is not uniform in Islam, which can lead to confusion. Both ISIS and Malala Yousafzai (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) believe that their version of Islam is the "true" version of Islam. Adding to that is the antagonizing split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. ISIS kills fellow Muslims who don't follow their brand of Islam. It would be easier to judge Islam if it is as organized as the Church, but it seems we have to live with the difficulty of judging Islam based on the conflicting opinions of Muslim religious authorities.

      Thanks for the reply to my comment.

  3. Hi Karl,

    You make a couple good points. Yes the meme is a bit "fool-hardy" and "schoolboyish" but such is the case, I find, with most memes. Indeed, in some sense, that is the point of most memes. They're more like jokes than like arguments. Sadly, in our sound bite culture, they often are more effective than arguments with some people. Obviously, the Crusaders weren't actually fighting ISIS as ISIS didn't exist during the Crusades, so I concede your point.

    You also make a nice point, and an important one, when you point out the lack of a central teaching authority in Islam. In that sense, you're right, it's hard to say "this is the real Islam" and "this isn't." However, I think looking at the history of Islam (and looking especially at the life of Mohammad, considered to be a model of perfection for Muslims) we can see an affinity with violence written into the genetic code of Islam. We ignore this, I believe, to our peril.

    1. Thanks. :)

      Sometimes I get a bit impatient when it comes to disagreeing with certain issues which the Magisterium leaves open, like the approach to Islam. But, like Fr. Dwight Longenecker (One of my favorite Catholic bloggers which I follow; he has so much wisdom in him I'm tempted to waste my time reading him!), one must have patience with Catholic whom you disagree with.

      Yeah we might disagree on some points, but we should remind ourselves that we are in the same communion line (got that from Fr. Dwight himself :) )