Since last week, Christian critics have been pounding President Obama for his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he had the temerity to reference religious violence with a passing mention of the Crusades.
How about we listen to some facts, rather than partisan bluster?
What set off the First Crusade, and what the Christian participants did in order to gain access to paradise, is the subject of an interview at Bloomberg View with historian Jay Rubenstein, a Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur Fellow who teaches at the University of Tennessee.
Below are the most fascinating passages.
On the religious lead-up to the crusades:
[T]here was a real sense of prophetic mission among a lot of people who answered this call for Crusade. You can’t have a normal war for Jerusalem. That seems to me as true today as it would have been in the 11th century. Jerusalem, from the medieval Christian perspective, was both a city on earth and a city of heaven, and these two places were linked. The idea that the Jerusalem on earth was being dominated by an unbelieving, infidel — in their terminology “pagan” — group was unacceptable.
The rhetoric that was associated with the people holding Jerusalem is pretty shocking: Christian men are being circumcised in baptismal fonts, and the blood is being collected! They’re yanking people’s innards out by their belly buttons! This is not normal talk. Hatreds and passions were stirred up. The heart of it, and why it was so successful, was that the call to Jerusalem was felt so strongly.
On why the slaughter stood out, even for medieval times:
Warfare on this scale, with this level of brutality, with the end of cleansing the streets of Jerusalem with the bodies of the people you have killed — that’s not typical of the medieval experience. What I’ve tried to bring to the table is the apocalyptic element of thought: the idea that we are entering into the battle of the Last Days here, we’re moving in prophetic times. …
[F]rom the perspective not just of medieval Christians but even of a lot of the modern evangelical Christians I grew up around, the end of the world is something you look to with hope and excitement — maybe even more so in the Middle Ages, because the end of the world was going to be a military event, and soldiers were going to be involved in it. You’re recruiting people to fight in the grandest epic of all time. That sort of sense of apocalyptic, history-making, epoch-ending excitement is what’s missing from the other [academic] explanations [of the crusades].
On other scholars overlooking the fact that religious wars differ from political ones:
Their argument is the Crusades were just an example of the realities of war. It was understood, for example, that if you laid siege to a city and the city did not surrender, if you subsequently took that city by force, the population and all of the goods in the city were forfeit. My response to this is, I’ve never found an instance of medieval Christians defeating a city of medieval Christians and when they took the city they killed everyone inside. Never happened.
On the idea that the Crusades constituted an “ethical revolution”:
What the Crusade introduced into medieval thought was the notion that war was not just a necessary evil, it was a positive good. Not only did it not count against you, it was actually a moral good to massacre the enemy.
And finally, on what the Crusades helped unleash:
[On] the Islamic side, the notion of jihad was dying out [before the Crusade]. Holy war was something that had happened in the past, and there had been this steady state reached in the Middle East. I’m not sure that the Turks saw what they were doing when they were engaging the Byzantines as engaging in jihad. After the First Crusade, within 10 years of it, you get Islamic voices like Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami … saying we need to revive jihad. He says: The Franks [a catch-all name for the Crusading forces] have been waging jihad against us; now we have to get the jihad going back up again.
It also seems to me that the new model of jihad borrowed from what the Crusaders brought. You get the idea of martyrdom — the idea that if you died you would go straight to heaven. You get mythical holy figures appearing in battles that Muslims were fighting against Christians. You get a more poisonous relationship between religion and warfare than existed before.
Mind-boggling: Almost a millennium later, we’re still dealing with the fallout.
For more, Rubenstein has a 192-page reader on the subject here.
(Image via Shutterstock)