If you had been there, your feet would have been stained to the ankles in the blood of the slain. What shall I say? Neither women nor children were spared. — Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127
Perhaps the most alarming single fact that I’ve learned about the First Crusade is that after the Christians breached the walls of Jerusalem and slaughtered all who had sought refuge in the Dome of the Rock mosque (Fulcher actually called it the Temple of Solomon), the soldiers went immediately to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Constantine on the site believed to be where Jesus’ tomb had been, and gave thanks to God for the victory.
Has there ever been any series of events that were so strongly supported at the time of their occurrence only to be so thoroughly repudiated by later history? The crusaders believed so strongly in the divine support of their mission that they launched at least eight of them over the 180 years between 1096 and 1271.
As we’ve seen, the church began its life as an oppressed movement that forbade its members from even joining the army, in part because soldiers likely would be asked to arrest, torture or kill Christians. Power had changed much about the Christian comfort with soldiery and violence, especially violence in the name of God.
As recently as 1066, the famed Battle of Hastings that changed western civilization forever, the papal-backed soldiers of Normandy paid penance for the deaths they caused on the battlefield. Yet just 30 years later, Pope Urban II made a substantial shift in the relationship between killing and sin.
Although Muslims had been in control of the Holy Land for centuries, a different faction of them – Seljuk Turks – had wrested control from the more tolerant Arabs, who had lived in an uneasy peace with Christians for most of the previous 300 years. The Turks were more aggressive and had resumed warfare against the much-reduced Byzantine Empire, advancing quite close to Constantinople. The emperor, Alexus I Comnenus, sought help from the west.
Seeing a chance to promote unity between the schismatic halves of the church – and redirect the violent tendencies of the bandits and robbers who were afflicting western Europe – Urban II made a speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095 that provided the justification for the upcoming crusade:
On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it is meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it. For all those going, there will be remission of sins if they come to the end of this fettered life while either marching by land or crossing by sea, or in fighting the pagans. This I grant to all who go, through the power vested in me by God. …
O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights. Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians. Let those who have been serving as mercenaries for small pay now obtain the eternal reward.
In the end, Urban offered something far more valuable than the gold and silver to be gained from looting the Muslims of Palestine. The remission of sins isn’t quite what we might think today – this was under the assumption that the fighters had already gone through the steps of salvation, contrition and confession to gain absolution from their sins. Remission would allow the crusaders to bypass purgatory and any other so-called temporal punishment for their sins. It was the logical conclusion of an evolution in the sacrament of penance and the doctrine of purgatory, which could be a whole other series of posts! Suffice it to say, none of this seemed particularly unusual at the time and made perfect sense given the centuries of development that had occurred to that point.
It’s indeed a sobering lesson. As Shane Claiborne said when he visited our campus for Summit back in 2010: “Christians should be the last ones to support war, not the ones leading the charge.” Although we are quick to condemn the kinds of holy wars commissioned by Urban II and his successors, the church has not done a particularly good job in our lifetimes of holding political leaders accountable for their own records of violence and killing overseas – whether that’s the two wars launched by an evangelical Christian or the increasingly barbaric drone warfare conducted by a member of the United Church of Christ. How much more sadly ironic that all of those policies are being waged in the same region where the crusades took place and are viewed by the residents of that region as another western war against their religion and way of life. How much have we really learned?
It’s been 750 years since the last crusade, but we have yet to truly come to grips with the legacy of church-sanctioned violence the Crusades have left us.