On a Crusade (1095-1291)

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken February 21, 1999

his year we are looking back on the last millennium in church history. Each month we will open a window on an important event from one of the last ten centuries. As an added attraction, our Hymn of the Month will usually be taken from the same century. Perhaps you have noticed that we sing our hymn for February—“Of the Father's Love Begotten”—to a plainsong melody from the 12th century.

The Crusades began shortly before the 12th century, and they lasted long after, but we need to talk about them sometime, and the 12th century is as good a time as any. The crusading movement started in 1095 when Pope Urban II (1088-99) announced that it was the will of God for Christians to deliver the Holy Land from Muslim occupation. In a series of seven Crusades spread out over the next 200 years, European nobles, knights, squires, and foot soldiers tried to capture the land of Christ.

It is hard to think of anything good to say about the Crusades, so I am not going to. We have already discovered that church history has its sordid episodes, but the Crusades marked perhaps the lowest point of all. They did take place, after all, during the “Dark Ages.”

There were two major problems with the Crusades. One was the goal. Aside from the political aspirations of the pope, the Crusades were intended to reopen Jerusalem for Christian pilgrimages. Yet the recapture of Palestine served little true spiritual purpose.

It is true, of course, that there is great value in visiting the Bible lands. I encourage every Christian to visit Israel at least once during his or her lifetime. The Christian faith rests upon actual historical events which took place in real physical locations. Many biblical truths take on new significance when one has first-hand knowledge of biblical archaeology and geography.

Yet there is nothing intrinsically holy about the so-called “holy sights” of the so-called “Holy Land.” The kind of worshipers God seeks are those who worship him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24), not the kind who consider one place more sacred than another.

Treating Palestine as holy ground tends to bring out the very worst forms of religion. One thinks of the transparent platform currently being built just under the surface of the Sea of Galilee so people can “walk on water.” Or of the recent announcement that Pope John Paul II will grant indulgences to Roman Catholics who make a pilgrimage to Israel in the year 2000 [reported in Evangelicals Now, February, 1999]. It all comes from the tendency to worship things and places rather than the living God.

As unnecessary as their objective was, the method the Crusaders used to achieve it was even worse. The Crusades were known as “holy wars,” but they were anything but holy. In fact, they were unspeakably brutal. Already by the year 1099 the Crusaders had succeeded in capturing Jerusalem, but their victory came at the cost of many Muslim, Jewish, and Christian lives.

It is always a mistake for the church to wage conventional warfare. Remember the words Jesus spoke when one of his companions tried to defend him with a stroke of the sword. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

The only weapons the church has in its arsenal are spiritual weapons like faith, prayer, and the Word of God. If the church fights with anything else, then it is using the wrong means, and probably pursuing the wrong ends, too. The Crusaders failed on both counts: they used ungodly means to pursue an unworthy goal.

The worst atrocity of the Crusades was the sack of Byzantium (1204), where the Crusaders stopped for three days of destruction on their way to Palestine. According to one historian, they were filled with a lust for destruction. They rushed in a howling mob down the streets and through the houses, snatching up everything that glittered and destroying whatever they could not carry, pausing only to murder or to rape… . Wounded women and children lay dying in the streets. For three days the ghastly scenes of pillage and bloodshed continued, till the huge and beautiful city was a shambles [Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, 3 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1954), 3:123].

Since Byzantium was the home of the Eastern church, its destruction made permanent the breach between East and West which we discussed last month.

The brutality of the Crusades also created bitter animosity between Christians

and Muslims. To this day, the Crusades are an open wound in the Islamic world, for which the church is held responsible. Muslims will never forget that so-called Christianity did its worst to disturb the peace of the Middle East. It is little wonder that to this day a vast number of Muslims remain hostile to the gospel. Islamic Jihad is the logical consequence of the Crusades.

A few years ago now, a group of Christians decided to do something to undue the damage caused by the Crusades. They traveled from Europe to Asia Minor, retracing the steps of the first Crusaders on their way to the city of Jerusalem. Along the way they stopped at various sites along the traditional route to Jerusalem, trying to visit as many mosques as they could. In each city they sought forgiveness from the Muslim community for the sins of the Medieval church.

I suppose it was a case of “better late than never.” The church never should have tried to capture Jerusalem, especially the way it tried to do it. The least we can do now is repent for the sins of the past and pray that God might yet pour out his grace on the Muslim world. The Crusades serve as a permanent reminder to Christians not to be over-sure what God wills or over-zealous in trying to achieve his will by force.

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