Christians and Catholics are supposed to think of the Crusades with shame and regret. It’s the kind of thing that detractors mention when they want to put us in our place if we get too assertive, especially in the political sphere of life but I can honestly say that the Crusades don’t bother me.
By saying that the crusades don’t bother me, I’m not saying that the evil or unjust things that happened during the crusades don’t bother me, but rather the fact that the Catholic Church called for the crusades and the fact that they took place in principle, from a Christian perspective, doesn’t bother me and I hope that by the end of this video, you’ll understand why.
But I can already anticipate some of you saying that of course I’d take this position because I’m Catholic and biased towards a more flattering interpretation of all things Catholic.
But, even if I am biased, it doesn’t follow that I’m wrong about my interpretation of these and other historical events related to the Church. To say that it does is to indulge the genetic fallacy which claims that an argument is invalid because of some perceived defect in its source. I can be biased and right at the same time.
But I’d argue that whatever biases I do carry, they don’t come naturally to me. I was saturated in influences throughout my formative years that reinforced the same popular conclusions as most people which is that the Crusades are just one of many atrocities that shape the bad character of the medieval world and the Catholic Church.
I was formally educated in this idea at school and it was relentlessly reinforced through popular culture in whatever superficial commentaries I would encounter or through movies like The Kingdom of Heaven which depict Medieval Christendom as a desaturated, dark, and superstitious society while the Islamic world, by contrast, is vibrant, tolerant, and prosperous.
And any time the Crusades are mentioned, whether it’s in a YouTube pop education video or a Barack Obama speech, it’s taken for granted that it was a grave evil without ever considering or examining the details.
That’s the first indication that something’s amiss – that everyone has a moral opinion about it, but very few people know any meaningful details about it. That’s the worst kind of ignorance. It’s like racism. You hate something you don’t understand because you’ve been taught to hate it.
In my experience, it took a lot of personal study to overcome those same prejudices and they were dispelled not by forming new irrational prejudices clouded by ignorance, but by coming to terms with the actual historical facts that shaped those events.
Part of the reason people are so easily swayed to think of the Crusades as a stain on the character of Christianity is because we tend to interpret things we don’t understand by associating them with things we do understand.
And one general impression that a lot of people have about history, especially European history, is that in that far off time known as the olden days, white Europeans, were in the habit of attacking and colonizing peaceful nations composed of less pasty citizenry.
And since we all have this general impression of history, it’s very easy for someone who doesn’t like Christianity or the Catholic Church to tell the story of the Crusades with very selective details which reinforces that narrative.
And so it usually appears like this: In 1095, Pope Urban II with the aim of conquering peaceful Muslims in the Middle East because they were different, rallied all the principalities of Europe to align themselves in this cause and to march East. And so they did, joining up with the Byzantines along the way before arriving at Jerusalem in 1099 in which they captured the city and slaughtered everyone inside.
Sounds like typical European colonialism doesn’t it, and so we fill in our blanks and assume that’s all we need to know about it.
But as I indicated, that’s a very selective presentation of the events. The truth is, the Crusades were primarily a defensive war waged as a response to hundreds of years of Islamic expansion and aggression against Christian peoples which was now threatening to overwhelm Europe.
So when I say that the Crusades don’t bother me, I mean that in the same way that it doesn’t bother me that the Allies decided to fight WWII against Nazi Germany’s aggression.
But the Allies committed war crimes and killed countless civilians in their campaigns against the Axis powers. Yes, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean that the war itself was, in principle, wrong.
They had every moral right to fight back because if they hadn’t, you and I would be goosestepping our way to and from work and school shouting Heil Hitler every chance we get – assuming that our ancestors weren’t gassed.
So the question of the crusades, for me, isn’t did bad things happen. It’s more a question of whether or not the crusaders were right in choosing to fight that war at all.
A better summary of the crusades is to call it a series of conflicts and military expeditions between European Catholic Christians and Near Eastern Muslim belligerents in the Middle Ages. It was called for by Pope Urban II in response to a request for aid from the Byzantine Emperor Alexius.
Why was he calling for aid? Because at this point in history, Islamic armies, starting with their Prophet Mohammed himself, had already conquered and subjugated two thirds of the Christian world including the Holy Land, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain and they were now set to overwhelm the Christian Byzantine Empire and Europe.
So the Christian nations, seeing that the expansionist intentions of the Muslim world were not going to subside, organized a defence of the remaining territories in Anatolia and Europe. The 1st Crusade was a defensive war. Just like World War II.
Now some might say, then why did they insist on invading Muslim countries. Well, for starters, those were formerly Christian countries that were occupied by Muslims. Secondly, for the same reason that the Allies invaded Germany. They knew that simply defending their borders wasn’t going to end the aggression. They had to stop the aggressor.
And they were right, Muslim armies continued to invade into Europe throughout the Middle Ages getting as far as and nearly conquering modern day Italy and Austria. It’s notable that over a million Europeans were abducted by Muslim incursions and take back to be slaves in the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbary_slave_trade)
So that’s the first reason I don’t think Christians shouldn’t regret the Crusades. It was a defensive war.
The second reason is because it highlights a key difference between Christianity and Islam, because both of them have doctrines about warfare.
Jesus never advocated for violence or war, but Christianity has a concept known as Just War Theory which was developed by St. Augustine who is now considered a Doctor of the Church. Augustine taught that violence is to be avoided as much as possible, but at a certain point there are instances in which a Christian can and should fight back against an aggressor.
This concept was developed further by other Catholic theologians. The conditions for a Just War are that it be in self defense, have a reasonable chance of success, and it must be proportional to the evil that is being fought against, as well as a few other periphery considerations.
In Islam, by contrast, Mohammed himself, developed a concept known as Jihad which has multiple meanings, but was primarily about waging warfare on non-believers in order to subjugate them and expand the influence of Islam. And so, that’s what they did. Mohammed himself raised an army and fought many battles to expand his influence.
Christians, by contrast, had to really crack open their theology just to justify violence in self defence because of how much Jesus taught about non-violence.
Muslims, by contrast, weren’t just given permission but commanded by Mohammed to assail non-believers in the hope of bringing the entire world under Islamic belief. Christians had no such permission according to the Bible or Church teaching so any examples of Christians doing that is in violation of their religion.
And the data tends to substantiate this claim. Dr. Bill Warner put together a database of 548 aggressive battles that Muslims fought in the name of Jihad. By contrast, crusade battles against Muslims accounted for 15 battles. http://cspipublishing.com/statistical/charts/Islam-BattlesDate.pdf
In fact Muslim armies had been attacking and conquering Christian societies and nations for nearly 400 years before the 1st crusade was called as a response. That is a LOT of turning the other cheek before deciding, maybe self defense is justified here.
And, I’ll just point out in closing that for all the evils that were committed by the crusaders, and there were evils committed by crusaders, it’s not like they were being egged on by the Church or Christians back home. For example, when the crusading army sacked Constantinople in the 4th Crusade, they did so in direct disobedience of the Pope who subsequently excommunicated the crusaders.
So Muslims, even during Mohammed’s time and under his leadership, were conducting military expansion. This was built into their theology as a good thing and so it’s no wonder it was common.
Christian theology was and is extremely prohibitive against violence of any kind, so the amount of restraint shown by Christian civilization is hard to ignore and whenever they did fight, it was out of self defence unless they broke faith with the Church.
And since you’re on YouTube, if you want to learn more about the Crusades, I’d encourage you to check out Real Crusades History. It’s historically and academically rigorous as well as engaging. I’ll leave a link in the description.