Religion causes all the violence—just look at the Crusades. Have you heard this before? It’s a claim that many critics of Christianity make. In summary, it goes something like this:
For hundreds of years, Popes declared ‘holy war’ and sent religious fanatics marching to the Middle East. They went there to colonise, and they slaughtered anyone who wouldn’t convert to Christianity along the way.
So many Muslims and Jews were killed in the streets of Jerusalem that blood flowed up to the crusaders’ knees. All of this violence was condoned by the church so that Christians could expand their empire and line their pockets with wealth.
Maybe you’re so appalled reading this that you’re ready to hit the back button. Who would bother trying to defend this kind of violent hypocrisy?
Without doubt, the Crusades were a bleak period of church history. Those who fought and led had clearly ignored the words of Jesus, who said:
“Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also.”—Luke 6:27-29
But it’s also true that the Crusades are victim to a lot of Fake News. If we’re going to talk about the Crusades, we need to rescue the facts from the fiction.
What Were the Crusades?
The Crusades were a series of campaigns fought by European Christians to recapture the ‘Holy Lands’—those places where all the Bible’s major events took place. Think modern-day Israel, Turkey and Egypt.
The First Crusade (1096-1099) was probably the most infamous. It was a successful but bloody recapture of Jerusalem. It also led to the founding of several ‘Crusader states’ in the Middle East.
The Second Crusade (1147-1149) was a failed attempt to retake a defeated Crusader state.
The Third Crusade (1189-1192) was launched to recapture Jerusalem after it had been overtaken once more by Muslim armies. The Crusaders failed again.
The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) began like the others, but along the way, the Crusaders got mixed up in the local politics of Constantinople. After a dispute, they sacked the city, plundering it and killing fellow Christians. The whole episode was an embarrassment and a great injustice.
The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) was another failed attempt to recapture Jerusalem, this time via Egypt.
The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) involved almost no fighting. Through diplomacy, the Crusaders secured Jerusalem and other parts of Israel.
The Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) was by far the best equipped, but it ended in almost total annihilation for the Crusaders.
Other minor Crusades can be added to this list, but it’s these seven that have captured the popular imagination. With the exception of the first and the sixth, the Crusades were an anticlimax. The last Crusader stronghold fell in 1291, bringing the era of crusading to an end.
The Context of the Crusades
We’re rightly outraged by the Crusades. But there is context to these events that many people have never heard but that change the way we view them.
First, what made the Crusades unique wasn’t their violence: almost every medieval culture was extremely violent. By our standards, the Crusades were shocking, but by the standards of the time, they were unremarkable.
What made them unique was that the command to wage war was given by a Christian leader, the Pope. Not only is there no grounds for this in the teachings of Jesus: there’s also no precedent for it in Christian history—and fortunately, no repeat of it either.
“What made the Crusades unique wasn’t their violence.”
Second, not all of the violence that took place was condoned by church leaders. Popes condemned the sack of Constantinople, along with much of the violence and pillaging that took place en route to the Middle East.
Third, it turns out to be a myth that Crusaders went for fame and fortune. Most who went bankrupted themselves for armour and travel costs, and they didn’t count on coming back alive. They went because—misguided as they were—they believed it was a noble venture.
“Popes condemned much of the violence.”
Fourth, it’s a myth is that the Crusaders forced people to convert to Christianity. The purpose of the Crusades was to secure passage for pilgrims to the Holy Lands.
Fifth, the story about blood running up to the Crusaders’ knees was a myth. The siege of Jerusalem was ruthless, but it was exaggerated beyond possibility in the retelling.
“It’s a myth that the Crusaders forced people to convert to Christianity.”
All of these corrections might seem minor. But there’s one more fact many omit that fundamentally alters our perspective on the Crusades, and it’s this: the Crusades were defensive wars.
In the 6th century, most of Europe and the Holy Lands were Christian. Pilgrims were free to traverse the empire and visit Jerusalem as they wished.
But the birth of Islam changed this. While Christianity had spread peacefully, Islam spread rapidly, and mostly through warfare. Within a few centuries, Islam conquered over two thirds of what were previously Christian lands.
The First Crusade was proclaimed by the Pope, not as an act of aggression, but in response to an existential threat. The Crusades slowed the advance of Muslim armies into Europe, and probably helped spare western civilisation.
Funny how this fact barely rates a mention in the popular retelling of the Crusades.
“The Crusades were defensive wars.”
Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t condone the Crusades. Violence is not the way of Jesus. But if we view them not merely as religious conflicts and instead see them as the defence of a civilisation, they make a whole lot more sense. Context is everything.
Here’s a little more context for the claim that ‘religion causes all the violence’. The Crusades were bloody, resulting in the tragic death of around a million people. But communism—which sought to bury religion forever—was far more savage. It took the lives of over one hundred million.
Even if we correct for population growth, communism was still twenty times more ruinous for humanity than the Crusades—and in just a quarter of the time.
This isn’t a cheap-shot. My point isn’t that Christians are better because they’ve killed less people. I’m simply countering the claim that religion causes all the wars, or that more Christianity equals more violence.
“Violence is not the way of Jesus.”
On the whole, Christianity has been a powerfully civilising force through history.
Its leader, Jesus of Nazareth, didn’t merely say, “Love your enemies.” He practiced what he preached—all the way to the cross. He chose to endure violence rather than commit it.
Jesus has shaped us more than we know. He’s a big reason why—even with all their context—Christians and critics alike still can’t stand the violence of the Crusades.
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