On the Crusades and Their Significance for Christianity

Shellfish. Starving children in Africa. The Crusades. In a normal, rational world, these three subjects would be as far apart from each other topically as they are physically. In religious debate between an uninformed atheist and an unprepared Christian, however, these three topics are the conversation’s bread and butter. Having grown up in the church with an interest in theology and philosophy, I have been able to debunk these for years. To my annoyance, while the value behind these posits has been erased completely, the posits themselves subsist in some sort of perverted strength in numbers. I post this article in perhaps the vain hope that, with the right ideological equipment, newer, more productive discussions can take the place of the old ones. Since that’s a tall order, I will reduce my argument to that of the Crusades.

First, some counters that do not work. Yes, dozens of jihads were launched before the first crusade ever started. Arguably, the Crusades could be considered defensive, but this is an ultimately weak argument. Besides, a tu quoque is not going to convince someone who believes that all religions are bad; Islam and Christianity are two sides of the same Ibrahimic coin in their eyes. Safe passage for pilgrims has been another very popular excuse, brought down through the generations. Persecution much greater than this has happened to Christians before. Unorganized raiding along the roads to Jerusalem, while still potentially at the forefront of the noble-intentioned crusader’s mind, is not backed well enough to posit.

No, the argument against the Crusades is their near unanimous records of failure. I could explain most, but I’ll give some brief highlights. The First Crusade took the Holy Lands out of pure luck, and even then the crusaders had massive food shortages, coordination problems, and infighting. Never again would a Crusade capture land in the Middle East. The Fourth Crusade only ever assaulted Catholic Hungary and Orthodox Byzantium. The Northern Crusades, while still practical failures, created a powerhouse faction in the Teutons, against which Poland had to side with the ex-pagans to fight. The Hussite Crusades pitted the most powerful and expensive armies Europe could afford against a series of wagon fortifications, and the wagon fortifications won. Failed battles, lost glory, poor conditions. The Crusades are pathetic.

The values of many religions are made apparent by the general actions of their followers. When Muhammad died, his followers took up the sword and carved themselves a vast empire. Even today, their religious extremists take great pride in physical land. Islam is a religion that is good soil for war. The Jews throughout history have lived in small pockets of closely-concentrated communities. Their structure is logical and pragmatic, which has allowed their communities to survive through the worst social catastrophes imaginable. Today, functioning as the state of Israel, the Jewish people hold their own against millions of men and billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. Judaism is a religion that is good soil for defense. For non-monotheistic examples, Hinduism and its diminutive Karma practically justify impassable social structures and class divides. Buddhism and Confucianism never had any teeth to contribute anything of note as an organized following. The list continues, but the point is made.

Christianity spreads and thrives in peacetime, more than any other religion. It thrives even as its practitioners are murdered by the thousands. It thrives among downtrodden areas, and it shifts billions of dollars across continents just to spread its message. It spans every culture and creed, booting out dozens of weaker beliefs without shedding a single drop of blood. A religion that says “let him without sin cast the first stone,” a religion whose central figure heals the soldier trying to arrest him, a religion that created the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is a religion that pushes for the best possible conditions for humanity, and one that shuns the worst.

So, yes, the Crusades are, oddly enough, an argument for Christianity. I have many criticisms about the practice of Christianity, and the interpretation of its tenets. I recommend, however, that we focus less on easy “gotcha” moments and focus on tougher material. Uneducated positions have a tendency to backfire, after all.


One response to “On the Crusades and Their Significance for Christianity”

  1. Zachary Shuster Avatar
    Zachary Shuster

    I definitely found this to be a different way of understanding the Crusades, and appreciate that. It is very true that almost all of the Crusades failed miserably and were often counterproductive at their own time. It is also true that popes and other major church leaders opposed many of the Crusades. These were often populist uprisings driven by a misguided religious fervor.
    But I do have two challenges to your arguments.
    1. While the Crusades, generally speaking, failed to gain any territory for Christendom, they did not fail to wreak havoc to many innocent/bystander communities across Europe and the Middle East. Combining this with your principle that “[t]he values of many religions are made apparent by the general actions of their followers” leads to a pretty grim image of Christianity.
    2. It seems one-sided to paint the image of Christianity as you do in your penultimate paragraph. None of what you say there is wrong, but there is also the other side of the sword: Christ will conquer in the eschaton. While we are called to be meek, to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, and to pray for our enemy, we are also told that in doing this we “will will heap coals of fire upon his head.” Even the martyrs, saints_in_heaven, plead for God to enact justice and AVENGE their blood! This is all good, and should not be separated from the radical forgiveness Jesus calls us to. After all, we are in the end days, as Jesus and Paul declare. But it’s also very easy for a Christian theology to guess a wrong eschatology and go berserk against God’s plan. This is arguably due to our (good!) belief that Christ will conquer, and our (true) belief that the end times will be bloody.
    It’s easy to dismiss Crusaders as fake Christians, but I don’t think that’s a good way to go about it. Of course, many were not real Christians, but the fact is that many were real (and flawed) Christians. This would be a classic No True Scotsman fallacy. (I’m not saying that you’re using this fallacy; just anticipating problems with such a line of thought.)
    These challenges aside, I did find the way you approach the Crusades to be an interesting new perspective. I am curious what you would say regarding my two challenges.

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