Westminster KnightIn my experience, Christians are hypersensitive to any mention of the Crusades (along with other glorious parts of Christianity’s history such as the Inquisitions, witch-hunts, and more). They just don’t want to hear about them … even if they’re actually part of the history of their religion. They petulantly refuse to acknowledge these events as examples of their religion’s history, and get their knickers in knots when anyone dares confront them with them.

Naturally, then, what President Barack Obama said last Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast has them in a towering rage (WebCite cached article). The Washington Post, among many other media outlets, reported on their anger and fury (cached):

President Obama has never been one to go easy on America.…

His latest challenge came Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

These remarks kicked up so much sanctimonious outrage among the “Christian Nation” that NASA scientists probably picked up the sound of it from their New Horizons probe out by Pluto.

Some Republicans were outraged. “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore (R). “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”…

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called Obama’s comments about Christianity “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”

As someone who studied the Crusades in college — unlike all these outraged commentators — I think it’s time to clear up a lot of misconceptions about them:

  1. Christians these days think the Crusades were a legitimate military response to the military threat posed by Muslims. While it’s true that Muslims in the east did threaten Christians near them, and had been fighting the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantium) for centuries, one must remember the Crusades were carried out by western Europeans … mostly of French origin. In the 11th century when the Crusades were launched, no Muslim was a threat to the French. Not even close! The Muslim advance into western Europe which began around the turn of the 8th century had been halted at the Battle of Tours in 733/4. In the over three centuries which followed, the Muslim state in Spain had been surrounded and eroded by its Christian neighbors. The Emirate of Granada did not, in any way, threaten any of the mostly-French lords who embarked on the First Crusade.
  2. While it’s true that the Byzantine Empire was engaged in fighting against Muslims — which was the reason its Emperor Alexius I Comnenus wrote to Pope Urban II to request assistance in 1095 — the First Crusaders ultimately ended up not helping shore up Byzantine defenses. Quite the opposite: They left the region near Constantinople in the dust and plunged straight through Anatolia (at a frightful cost in terms of lives lost, since they had no idea what they were doing and weren’t prepared for such a venture) and into the Levant as quickly as they could. Once there, and once they’d made some conquests (e.g. retaking Antioch), they didn’t restore those lands to the Byzantines; instead, they kept them for themselves.
  3. The Holy Land itself had been in Muslim hands since the early 7th century, but there were still Christians living there, and western Christians had been able to go on pilgrimages there pretty much the entire time. The Muslim rulers had allowed monks to tend to pilgrims there (most of them needed some assistance after their long journey). That Muslim overlords held the region hadn’t really put a dent in Christians’ ability to live and worship there.
  4. The main danger posed by Muslims to Christendom, at the time the Crusades began, was not in the Holy Land, and didn’t involve the French. The real danger was that the Seljuk Turks would overwhelm Byzantium and other Christian states near it. Had the French — who, living as they did at the western end of the Mediterranean and weren’t threatened by Muslims — really wanted to help defend Christendom, the proper strategy would have been for them to place themselves at the disposal of Alexius and work with the Byzantines to rebuild their state and reacquire their lost territory. Then they would have helped Byzantium maintain more defensible borders.
  5. In fact, a little over a century after the First Crusade embarked from western Europe, a subsequent expedition — the Fourth Crusade — didn’t even bother going to the Holy Land at all. Instead, its armies went after their fellow Christians, the Byzantines. They drove out two Emperors in succession, sacked Constantinople, made one of their own Emperor, and left the Eastern Roman Empire a shell of its former self. Byzantium later recovered somewhat, but it was never the same again, and entered into a long decline.
  6. The idea that the Crusaders were trying to defend Christianity is belied by the way in which they treated the eastern Christians they came across. In addition to fighting with the Byzantines more than they cooperated, they also seized Edessa, an Armenian Christian state. They drove out the local Orthodox hierarchy, including the Patriarch of Jerusalem, installing a replacement of their own who was loyal to the Pope. Overall, their relations with eastern Christians were never very good, and the Crusaders never actually acted like their guardians.

In sum, the idea that the Crusades were a rational and proper military response to a genuine military threat, is — quite simply — fucking laughably ridiculous. French armies had no legitimate business making a beeline through many hundreds of miles of territory and trying to home in on the Holy Land. Their expedition was hideously expensive — in terms of money, resources expended, and lives lost — and punctuated by atrocities like the massacre that took place when they captured Jerusalem in 1099. None of that contributed in the slightest to the defense of Christendom against Muslim expansion. Again, had this been the Crusaders’ true goal, they’d have assisted the Byzantines in rebuilding and refortifying their Empire.

It was also often said — particularly back in the ’80s when I was studying the subject in college — that the Crusades weren’t motivated by religion, but rather by a desire for new territory. But this makes little sense. Most of the princes who made up the First Crusade had been engaged in various military expeditions for years, before deciding to embark on their expedition to the Holy Land. Bohemond of Taranto, for example, had invaded the Balkans and fought the Byzantines there some 15 years prior, and he’d engaged in a few other minor wars and skirmishes. Had he stayed home, he’d have continued those same expeditions, and could well have won new lands that way. The same was true of Raymond of St Gilles, who had fought Muslims in Spain already, and could certainly have continued doing so, had he wished to, instead of crossing the Mediterranean. There’s quite simply no way these princes’ desire to reach and retake the Holy Land in particular makes any sense, unless they’d been at least partly motivated by religion.

Getting back to the main point: Obama’s mention of the Crusades as well as other things like slavery and Jim Crow, was not an “attack” on Christians or Christianity. They are an actual part of Christian history. To deny this is to be delusional. They happened … period. Maybe modern Christians would prefer not to hear about them, but too fucking bad. Complaining that the Crusades were “1,000 years ago” (they weren’t, if you recall they were a sequence of expeditions that began in the 1090s but ended with the fall of Acre in 1291) also isn’t going to help. “It’s history,” Obama’s self-righteous critics say. “They’re in the past. They’re over. So what?” It may be true that the Crusades and Inquisitions have been over for centuries, but they were only two of Obama’s examples of the use of religion to support immorality. The others (slavery and Jim Crow) are both much more recent. Witch-hunting, which Obama didn’t mention, happens to be a present-day pastime of African Christians.

Obama also didn’t “blame” modern Christians for the Crusades; that objection is just more delusional paranoia. He also didn’t say Christians are as bad as ISIS; that too is a childish fabrication which multiple Rightists have spewed.

The real lesson Obama had delivered — and which the “Christian Nation” refuses to hear, no matter how true it may be — is that any religion can be used to justify evil. Yes, even Christianity! It happened in the past — both in the distant past, and in more recent times — and it could, conceivably, happen again. That it offends Christians to be told this, only shows how childish they really are. It’s time for them to pull on their big-boy pants and act their ages instead of getting all bent out of shape because they like thinking that the president they despise, Barack HUSSEIN Obama, is “attacking” them for something.

P.S. I still don’t get how or why Christians find it necessary to host big splashy events like “national prayer breakfasts.” After all, the founder of their own religion explicitly and unambiguously ordered them never to express their piety publicly. So why do they insist on doing it? Why won’t they obey their own Jesus?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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