If you are at all familiar with The Crusades, the major Christian warrior campaign of the Middle Ages to reclaim the Holy Land, the one thing that most people have in common in their mind’s eye is an image of a strong, threatening, looming knight on horseback sword in hand with a shield displaying the Saint George Flag with its red cross on a white backdrop emblem. And that near universal recognition of the Crusader knight is nearly the only thing that people tend to agree on where the Crusades are concerned. Were the Crusades a bad thing? Were they a good thing? Were they good and bad?
Unfortunately, in our modern Western Culture, we have been conditioned into a state of shame for what sometimes seems practically everything that Christendom, the grand European Civilization of the Medieval Era did to build the Western Civilization that we know today. Rarely do we hear how often Christian Europe was raided, attacked, invaded (or attempted to be invaded, especially by Islamic forces), and how often it was the victim, and how rarely it was the actual oppressor.
Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the Crusades. In reading about the Crusades, the reader is almost bound to be overwhelmed by the details. There was certainly corruption, a thirst for power and domination, and men waiting in the wings for the right chance to selfishly capitalize on what in and of itself was a good cause. Foresightedly, Pope Urban II who had called for the First Crusade had at the same time forbidden and warned against going on Crusade for selfish motives, seeking power, glory and gain. That some of the Crusaders, and others involved in the Crusades that we might not officially call “crusaders” as they were opportunists looking to benefit only themselves, were individually barbaric or criminal in intent and action does not and should not equate to a historical analysis of the Crusades as having been a wicked, wrongful pursuit of Christianity against Islam. Man has a fallen human nature, and as our own worst enemy, and certainly with the powers of Hell never at rest, all that the Crusades could and should have been, namely, liberation of the Holy Land from Islamic oppression that had ripped it away from Christianity some centuries before, destroying Christian institutions within it, and destroying Holy sites like the Holy Sepulchre, and ensuring for the long term, safe access for Christian Pilgrims the routes to and from the Holy Land and the ability to actually visit the Holy sites, largely did not come to pass, or certainly not for very long.
While we should never gloss over the wrongdoings of Christians in the past, we need to confront the fact that we are living in a culture in which Hollywood and our Education systems present historical subjects like the Crusades as a blood thirsty offensive endeavor by the Church in an effort to subversively undermine and discredit Christian Truth, paying little heed to giving both sides of the story. Such actions are not education, but deception.
While there is much that one can say about the Crusades good, bad and ugly, a big picture view of The Crusades helps us understand that at their core, they were justified, though again, the heart of what they were about ultimately ended up largely lost in the chaos of those times. The Holy Land had been in Christian hands for six centuries prior to the emergence of Islam. The Crusades were in fact, a delayed defensive maneuver, aiming to retake the Holy Sites of Judeo-Christianity, and open up safe pilgrimage routes for Christians trekking far and wide from their European homeland to visit in person the greatest Holy sites from Christ’s Life, Passion, and Death that a Christian could encounter. While Christianity had predominantly and still predominantly spreads the Gospel message peacefully, the exact opposite has often been the case with Islam, whose defining characteristic, besides centuries of what seems like continuous infighting, has been spreading the crescent moon of Islam by sword, and enslaving and killing those who refuse to accept it.
While Christianity is not free of those who have been corrupt, such bloodshed and corruption have been the exception, not the rule of Christian Civilization. Unfortunately, it seems that precisely at the times that the greatest unity was needed amongst the Body of Christ, to say nothing of the masterful Evangelical tool for spreading the Gospel message such peace among brothers can be, it was just then that Christians have lost sight of God and turned inwards on themselves.
Moving beyond the sad state to which individual Christians have at times lowered themselves, blurring the fact that during the Crusades Muslims had no lack of barbaric, corrupt, cruel members in their ranks that treated Christians frightfully is not a presentation of history, but a distortion of the reality of the situation. The same holds true when we are presented with solid historical facts regarding the numerous attempted Muslim invasions of Christian Europe, hated by Islam, during the Middle Ages, which also brings up the startling realization that the Crusades also had a focus on liberating Spain, which for a number of Centuries had been overrun by Islam as well (Note: Spain was successfully freed from the oppressor).
For those wanting an excellent graphical presentation of this fact which compares battles of Islam against Christian versus the rarity of occasions in which Christianity went forth to battle Islam, a simply google.com/images search of “muslim conquest battles crusade battles” reveals the startlingly larger number of attempted Islamic invasions of Europe versus the attempted Christian liberation of the Holy Land that was the goal of the Crusades. While the large number of immoral attempted Islamic Jihad invasions of Europe in order to oppress and kill non-Muslims is often given a free pass, The Crusades which at heart had a moral, upstanding goal of liberation, are frequently if not constantly harangued as shamefully wicked without attempting to define between individual Crusader corruption and the wholesome goals of the Church. Sadly, if it doesn’t fit the narrative of the prevailing culture, presenting and teaching actual history is not something that enters the equation very often in many corners of Western culture today.
While it can be difficult to undo the knots of confusion about The Crusades, an accurate description could be that what The Crusades were intended to be, and what they were at their heart, liberation of Christianity from an oppressive Islam, was a good thing. What they became was a sorrowful, wicked thing because of man’s selfishness: infighting, greed, a thirst for power. This is a historical lesson we should heed and a tragic fact of history, a fact that ultimately crumbled the goal of the permanent liberation of the Holy Land and the opening of safe passages for Christian pilgrimages.
When Pope Urban II had declared the First Crusade, all of Europe was behind his proclamation. Europe resounded with “Deus le volt!”, “God wills it.” Surely the Lord willed the reclamation of Christian Holy Sites, and freeing Christianity from those that sought to stop, oppress and destroy it, but our God never desired the descent of the Crusades into a bloodthirsty, power hungry affair. The Catholic Church we know, is both human and Divine. The more apparent her human nature becomes, so all the more is the splendor of her Divine nature revealed. The corruption and sins of the past 20 centuries that individual men have hurled upon and from within the walls of the Church should underscore for us, not that the Church is false, but that she is truly also Divine, for if she was merely a human institution she would long before now, long before this 21st Century arrived, have dissolved into but a faded memory in the annals of History.
Of the Crusades we can say that what was authentic in them lives on: Courage, Valor, Humility, Self-Sacrifice for Christ’s Body the Church, and a Zeal for the Truth to Triumph. If we learn the lessons that the Crusades teach us, that Christians need unity, humility, a love for the Gospel message, and a recognition that the World needs saved by us, not us consumed by its ways, then all the more will we be prepared to face the storms of our own times that are building that seek to oppress and destroy Christianity.
The Crusades were good, bad, and ugly. They were good inasmuch as the Church intended, and many a Crusader intended to selflessly free and reclaim the Holy Land. They were bad and ugly because of man’s selfishness. May the bad and the ugly be lessons for the Church and individual Christians today, and what was Good in them carry on through us and see the Christian Faith be triumphant in our present day.