Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 5

David Eller writes chapter 5: Love Your Enemy, Kill Your Enemy: Crusades, Inquisitions, and Centuries of Christian Violence. He summarizes his chapter as follows:

This chapter will focus on two episodes of Christian violence, violence that was not only protracted but officially authorized and highly institutionalized — namely, the Crusades and the Inquisition. However, these two phenomena are not isolated from each other or from wider Christian history; indeed, we will argue here that the Inquisition was a continuation of the crusading spirit long after the war with Muslims was lost, since the Crusades themselves were not “an organized campaign under unopposed military or ecclesiastical leadership but a movement, supported by individuals whose motivations for taking the cross were as varied as their social and ethnic ties” (and as varied and contradictory as Christianity’s own opinions on war). Finally, both the Crusades and the Inquisition follow a long history of Christian justification for violence, justification that, as historian Jonathan Phillips put it, “continues to resonate in modern politics” and “shows no sign of diminishing.”

This chapter covers most of the 2,000 year history of Christianity. It is a one-sided look at history, not a balanced look at history. I’ll restrict my comments to topics I know better than others.

War and Peace (but Mostly War) in the Formation of Christianity

In the first section the author admits:

As for committing violence, early Christians shrank from it in horror. Blessed are the peacemakers who turn the other cheek, after all, their savior taught them. Roland Bainton found no sources before the era of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity in 313, that “countenanced Christian participation in warfare.” For instance, no Christians served in the Roman army until 173 CE, and Tertullian wrote sternly against military service. Obeying their savior, Christian thinkers like Athenagoras and Justin Martyr recommended not resisting evil, not defending oneself, not even notifying the police if one was robbed, and happily dying for Christ instead of killing for him.

This confirms what can be deduced from reading the New Testament: the foundational teachings of Christianity, the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, are generally peaceful in nature. It is simply false to state that the formation of Christianity involved “mostly war” unless we are going to say the formative years of Christianity stretched to the fourth century.

Eller attempts to water down the peacefulness of early Christians:

In its early decades, Christianity was hardly in a position to make war.

Christian pacifism proved to be more a virtue of the weak (causing no harm when one is too weak to cause harm) than a truly principled stance. Almost as soon as the Church stopped being persecuted, it began persecuting, now with the machinery of state on its side.

It is not true that Christianity could not have waged war in its first decades. Jesus and the apostles were Jews and could have supported and participated in movements that led to the Jewish wars with Rome. They made a decision not to do so. It was not a decision forced on them by circumstances.

Consider the context in which Christianity began:

Killing was widespread and acceptable in the world where the early Christians lived. Roman culture of course accepted and glorified killing by the Roman army. Capital punishment via the sword and crucifixion was also the norm. In addition, Greco-Roman culture in the first three centuries justified and accepted widespread abortion, infanticide, and suicide. And one of the most popular “sports” events of the time was the gladiatorial contests, where trained gladiators fought to the death, cheered on by thousands of spectators. That was the context in which the early Christians developed their own witness on killing.1

Against this context, it is unfair to state that the Christian pacifism of the first centuries was not a truly principled stance. It was a counter-cultural stance that the early Christians were willing to suffer or die for. “Prior to the advent of Christianity there is no record of anyone suffering death for a refusal of military service.”2

Nor was it the case that Christians could not have acted violently if they had wanted to. Consider the words of Tertullian (Apology 37):

Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve an ample vengeance? But away with the idea of a sect divine avenging itself by human fires, or shrinking from the sufferings in which it is tried. If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be any lacking in strength, whether of numbers or resources? . . . We are but of yesterday, and we have filled every place among you — cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum, — we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods. For what wars should we not be fit, not eager, even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay?

Or, again, consider the words of Origen (Against Celsus 3.8):

But with regard to the Christians, because they were taught not to avenge themselves upon their enemies (and have thus observed laws of a mild and philanthropic character); and because they would not, although able, have made war even if they had received authority to do so, — they have obtained this reward from God, that He has always warred in their behalf, and on certain occasions has restrained those who rose up against them and desired to destroy them.

Eller ends the section with the following:

Official orthodoxy branded all other interpretations unorthodoxy and heresy, and already in 385 Priscillian, the bishop of Spain, and six others were tortured and killed. The religion of peace and love had turned deadly.

One can be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of this quote, that the treatment of Priscillian was the norm in 385. It was not:

The most famous example of Martin’s standing against the state machinery of death, when his actions are seen compounded of an all-too-human admixture of hesitancy and courage, compromise and integrity, is provided by his role in the Priscillianist controversy, which came to a head in about the year 385. Priscillian, who in Spain had preached a species of ascetic renunciation flavored with a penchant for slightly dualistic apocryphal writings, at an episcopal synod at Bordeaux held to investigate his teachings had appealed from the judgment of the bishops to that of the emperor Magnus Maximus at his capital Trier. Thither many bishops of Spain and Gaul traveled, including Martin. Sulpicius Severus later observed that of all the assembled bishops there, many of whom were wealthy and powerful men, who disgraced their episcopal dignity by their abject fawning before the emperor and his court, only Martin by his steadfastness of character “maintained an apostolic authority.” Martin at first refused repeated invitations to the imperial table, until, according to Sulpicius Severus, he was finally persuaded to come to a banquet when Maximus declared to him that his unlooked-for victory over Gratian showed that he had become emperor by divine will, and that none of his enemies had been slain except in battle. At the banquet itself, when a servant offered a bowl of wine to the emperor and he ordered it to be given first to Martin, thinking that he would then be graced by receiving the bowl back from the bishop, Martin instead gave the bowl to his accompanying priest, an action in upholding the episcopal dignity that won even the emperor’s admiration.

Years later it was Sulpicius Severus’s opinion that in the trial before the emperor at Trier, the accusers of Priscillian, by his lights admittedly a heretic, were as bad as the accused. Their ringleader was Bishop Ithacius of Ossonuba (in today’s southern Portugal), and according to our source there was nothing holy about him. Although it led to his being charged with heresy himself, Martin repeatedly pressed Ithacius to withdraw the accusation, or at least prevail upon Maximus not to shed the blood of the heretics. Besides, it would be an unheard-of, unholy barbarity for an ecclesiastical matter to be judged by a secular authority. According to Sulpicius Severus, Martin before he left Trier went so far as to elicit a promise from Maximus that he would not inflict any punishment of blood upon Priscillian and his followers. But after Martin’s departure, the prosecution of Priscillian was resumed. He was eventually convicted on a charge of maleficium, and in 385 or 386 he and six of his associates were beheaded, while others were sent into exile.

The execution of Priscillian and his followers was a type of event still novel for its age: the participation of ministers of Christ in the judicial killing of fellow believers who thought and taught something at variance with what ecclesiastical authorities had deemed orthodox. Although the Priscillianists were widely regarded as heretics, many bishops in the West were shocked and appalled at what had happened. If one makes allowances for the exaggerations of panegyric, something of the contemporary opinion on the matter in secular circles can be derived from the speech given before the emperor Theodosius by the Gallic rhetor Pacatus in 389 in the aftermath of Maximus’s suppression. There Pacatus sarcastically admits that the Priscillianists had been guilty of “too much religion and too assiduous a worship of the divine.” He reserves special scorn for the bishops, unworthy of the name, who had instigated and encouraged the execution of the Priscillianists, bishops derided as toadies (satellites) and butchers (carnifices). After their participation in torture and execution, “they brought back to the sacred rites hands polluted by contact with capital punishment, and the ceremonies which they had defiled with their minds they also contaminated with their bodies.” And it seems ecclesiastical censure was likewise severe, and immediate. Ambrose of Milan, for his part, when on an embassy to Trier from the court in Italy would have nothing to do with the bishops involved in the Priscillianists’ prosecution. Pope Siricius in a letter to Maximus complained of ecclesiastics being tried before a secular tribunal, and of Bishop Ithacius’s role in making an accusation involving a capital charge.

One can well imagine the reaction of the ex-soldier bishop of Tours, who had left the army out of a conscientious aversion to bloodshed, to the news of the execution and exile of the Priscillianists. A synod of Gallic bishops was held at Trier soon afterwards, at which among other matters a successor to Bishop Britto of Trier had to be ordained. Maximus had put under royal protection Ithacius, who by acting as Priscillian’s accuser had rendered himself liable, in an ecclesiastical forum, of being charged with having played a role in the execution of human beings, this being regarded as sinful no matter what they had said or done. When Ithacius and his episcopal allies learned that Martin was nearing Trier, they became anxious that the renowned bishop of Tours would refrain from communion with them for their role in the executions and by his example encourage others to the same course. They had Maximus send out to meet Martin imperial functionaries forbidding him to enter the city unless he swore to share peace with the bishops at Trier, but Martin fobbed them off by declaring that he was coming “with the peace of Christ.” True to his initial resolution, Martin at first had nothing to do with the other bishops at Trier, but instead went to the palace to petition Maximus to rescind his plan to send imperial agents armed with capital authority (“cum iure gladiorum”) into Spain to prosecute the Priscillianists there, seeking thus, as Sulpicius Severus tells us, “to save not only Christians . . . but even the heretics themselves.”

Meanwhile the bishops associated with Ithacius had gone to the emperor to complain of Martin’s refusal to have communion with them. In a private interview with the stubborn bishop, Maximus assured him that the heretics had not been the victims of an episcopal witch-hunt, but had been justly convicted by the laws of the state, and that therefore there was no good reason not to share peace with Ithacius, who in any case had been declared free from blame in the affair in an episcopal meeting a few days earlier. Martin was not swayed by Maximus’s arguments. But upon learning that the emperor was proceeding with his plan to prosecute the Priscillianists in Spain, the bishop rushed to the palace and promised that he would communicate with the other bishops if the emperor called off any further prosecutions. Maximus agreed to the compromise. The next day Martin shared communion with his fellow bishops at the ordination of Felix as bishop of Trier, although he could not be induced to attach his subscription to a document attesting to his communication.

Martin instantly regretted his action. On the way home the next day he was visibly depressed. At one point he sat down dejectedly on the road in anguished torment over what he had done, being persuaded to go on only after an angelic visitation, according to our source, convinced him that, considering the circumstances, he had had no choice. When afterwards he cured the possessed with more difficulty than he had previously, he confessed with tears that since “the evil of that communion” he had sensed a diminution of his spiritual powers. Despite his actions at Trier, however, in the end it was not the well-connected courtier-bishops who had connived at the execution of the Priscillianists who are remembered as being a friend to humankind. And lest Sulpicius Severus be thought to have exaggerated Martin’s subsequent regret at communicating with Priscillian’s executioners in order to blunt the effect of what many then, and later, must have regarded as a disgraceful compromise, a blot on his reputation for integrity, the saint’s disciple refers to what must have been at the time a well-known fact, that for the rest of his life Martin never went to another synod, and kept his distance from any meeting of bishops.3

You Always Hurt the Ones You Love

After Constantine, Christian rulers needed to use violence to defend and govern the Empire. This section touches on Augustine and just war. Contrary to popular opinion, Augustine “had not formulated his own just war idea.”4 Eller then incorrectly states that Augustine thought war should be waged out of love.

It is true that Augustine had a number of times cited the example of a father disciplining his son with harsh correction to show that “there can be love in punishment,” and had explicitly likened that model to the actions of governors and kings in using punishment to maintain societal order. In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, Augustine noted that in the past the saints had punished some sinners with death in order to instill fear in would-be sinners and to prevent those punished from committing even worse sins had they lived, adding that anyone so punishing “should punish with the disposition of a father punishing his little boy.” But although Augustine like many another Christian writer in later times could subsume under the state’s ius gladii both the exercise of domestic justice and the waging of war, all the above examples explicitly involve the state’s right to inflict capital punishment. As we have seen, Augustine knew very well what war was, and considered it one of the evils of postlapsarian life; tellingly, he did not include capital punishment in the lists of evils that included war. Almost everything he wrote regarding what should motivate leaders to initiate wars and soldiers to fight them involved the simple and straightforward duty to obey the orders of one’s superior: the leader should initiate war in obedience to God, and the soldier should fight in war in obedience to his legitimate superior. There is no mention of the need to fight with love in one’s heart.

In only one instance does Augustine come close to saying something of that sort. In his letter to Marcellinus refuting the pagan Volusianus’s charge that the pacifistic counsels of Christ were incompatible with the empire’s need to defend itself against its enemies, Augustine had countered that were the empire defended by an army that truly followed Christ’s commandments, then “even wars themselves would not be waged without kindness.” But as noted above in discussing this passage, this seems in context an (not unique) instance of polemical overkill on Augustine’s part; not only was he countering Volusianus’s unrealistic evocation of Christian quietism with an equally unrealistic picture of a thoroughly Christian army in a thoroughly Christian society, he was at the same time that he wrote this letter beginning The City of God, in which the earthly city was depicted as being ultimately irredeemable.5

Eller claims that Augustine gave “Christianity . . . the permission it needed to evolve from a pacifist to a militarist religion.” This is doubtful considering Augustine abhorred war.

Augustine’s attitude toward war, in fact, remained fairly constant, with little or no change discernible, in the almost three decades’ worth of written evidence we possess on the matter. Far from his being the stance of a detached theoretician of war, in either the broader or the narrower sense of the word, the constancy in his attitude was one of abhorrence. Even in the few instances when he seemed to approve of war, Augustine felt compelled to defend such statements; ironically, those very statements ultimately motivated by his aversion to war later helped make him into its justifier. His most consistent attitude toward war Augustine expressed a number of times quite simply and straightforwardly: war was one of the evils of this world.6

Augustine’s generally positive view of Christian military service does not mean, however, that he had a similar view of war. To him, war was one of the evils of this world. Roman history amply illustrated the truth that human beings in fighting each other acted worse than the most savage animals. He himself had witnessed firsthand the baleful effects of war, particularly in the civil wars that plagued his time. Though wars were evil, they nonetheless fell within the purview of divine providence. God used war to punish the wicked, or to test the virtue of the good. In wars that served particular ends of divine justice, God of course was ultimately in charge, but he chose boni, good men found in the appropriate rank in human society, to wage wars under divine auspices. Such boni, unlike ancient and some contemporary Romans, eschewed the pursuit of power and gloria for their own sakes. Most such wars had occurred in Old Testament times, but in the battle of the Frigidus the Christian emperor Theodosius, a contemporary example of a bonus, had fought after receiving assurance of divine support, a support manifested during the battle itself by a providential wind that was like the miracles in the battles of the Old Testament. As for the “just war” of the Romans, it was at best a necessary evil, at worst a pretext for crime.7

Eller goes on to say: “Augustine was also a champion of religious persecution, specifically against heretics whose beliefs diverged from Church orthodoxy.” It should be noted that Augustine changed his mind on this matter:

At first Augustine had resisted using the secular authorities to coerce the Donatists. He had ended up changing his mind, though, due to the intransigence and violence of the schismatics, and the undeniable success the enforcement of imperial edicts had had in convincing many of them to become orthodox.

I have, then, yielded to the facts suggested to me by my colleagues, although my first feeling about it was that no one was to be forced into the unity of Christ, but that we should act by speaking, fight by debating, and prevail by our reasoning, for fear of making pretended Catholics out of those whom we knew as open heretics. But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by conclusive examples.8

Augustine did not want to see heretics killed:

It is also true that a survey of Augustine’s writings that focuses on his justifications for state-sanctioned killing and the licitness of Christian participation in it leaves a misleading impression of a certain bloody-mindedness on his part. On the issue of capital punishment, simply because he argued that legitimate authorities could execute criminals due to their having derived their authority ultimately from God does not mean that he thought they should. From early on, we see Augustine being sympathetic to the notion of avoiding the exaction of the ultimate penalty whenever possible. In 394 in his treatise De mendacio Augustine treated the question of whether a Christian should lie to conceal someone accused of murder, regardless of his innocence or guilt, since “it is part of Christian teaching not to despair of anyone’s correction or to shut off to anyone the possibility of repentance.” Augustine concluded that it is always wrong to lie. Nevertheless, he counsels a Christian who knows where a fugitive is to reply on being asked where, “I know but I will never reveal it,” even on pain of torture. One should go so far to preserve even the slightest possibility of someone’s repentance, even in the case of murderers. Augustine’s counsel here to go to such lengths to avoid the execution of criminals, regardless of their culpability, is at odds with the picture of him as the apologist for capital punishment.9

But we can see especially in his letters where Augustine gets down to “real world” cases. There what seems at times a hard-nosed rigidity is often softened by mercy and humanity. In every instance we know from his letters where real as opposed to theoretical capital punishment was involved, Augustine counseled mercy, even for Donatists who had killed and mutilated Catholic clergy.10

The above should not be taken as a defense of the persecution of heretics. I am merely trying to provide balance to Eller’s depiction of Augustine.

The Crusades against the Muslims

Thomas F. Madden summarizes the beginning of the Crusades:

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt — once the most heavily Christian areas in the world — quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

Eller writes:

Most importantly, as Geoffrey Hindley reminds us, the eye of western Christians was not exclusively or primarily on Jerusalem or the Muslims; after all, one Muslim ruler or another had occupied the holy city for four hundred years by the late eleventh century. In fact, Hindley contends that Pope Gregory VII (reigned 1073-85) “had envisaged a military campaign with himself as ‘general and pope,’ to establish papal primatial authority in Constantinople.” In other words, the immediate prize for the Catholic Church was not Jerusalem but the Eastern Church.

While I’m no expert on the Crusades this sounds questionable to me. I notice that Hindley contends Pope Gregory VII envisaged a military campaign. This suggests it is a matter of dispute that he really did so. But even if Pope Gregory VII did, in fact, envisage a military campaign to establish papal authority in Constantinople that does not mean the Crusaders, who fought after Gregory’s reign, fought for this reason.

Eller again:

The author of the Crusades, Pope Urban II (reigned 1088-99), seized the crisis in eastern Christendom as his chance to fulfill Gregory’s wish, calling upon Christians to rise to the holy cause of resisting the Turks; at the Council of Clermont, which convened on November 18, 1095, Urban “preached a sermon on the suffering of the Christians in the East and concluded with a passionate appeal for volunteers to enlist under the sign of the Cross of Christ.” But Michael Köhler insists too that “the conquest of the Holy Places was seemingly not a primary objective” of the Pope, and the War of the Cross as a program to take Jerusalem “was not presented to the Crusaders from the outset”; indeed, for many of the combatants, military action was “little more than an extensive conquering expedition” dressed up in Christian garb.

It is not clear how resisting the Turks was supposed to fulfill Gregory’s wish to establish papal authority in Constantinople. Kohler’s claim also seems doubtful if we read accounts of Urban II’s speech at Clermont:

Robert the Monk

Let the holy sepulchre of the Lord our Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially incite you, and the holy places which are now treated with ignominy and irreverently polluted with their filthiness. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, be not degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.

Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.

This royal city, therefore, situated at the centre of the world, is now held captive by His enemies, and is in subjection to those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathens. She seeks therefore and desires to be liberated, and does not cease to implore you to come to her aid.

Version of Balderic of Dol

We say this, brethren, that you may restrain your murderous hands from the destruction of your brothers, and in behalf of your relatives in the faith oppose yourselves to the Gentiles. Under Jesus Christ, our Leader, may you struggle for your Jerusalem, in Christian battleline, most invincible line, even more successfully than did the sons of Jacob of old – struggle, that you may assail and drive out the Turks, more execrable than the Jebusites, who are in this land, and may you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which He died for us.

And turning to the bishops, he said, “You, brothers and fellow bishops; you, fellow priests and sharers with us in Christ, make this same announcement through the churches committed to you, and with your whole soul vigorously preach the journey to Jerusalem.

Version of Guibert de Nogent

Most beloved brethren, if you reverence the source of that holiness and if you cherish these shrines which are the marks of His footprints on earth, if you seek (the way), God leading you, God fighting in your behalf, you should strive with your utmost efforts to cleanse the Holy City and the glory of the Sepulchre, now polluted by the concourse of the Gentiles, as much as is in their power.

Consider, therefore, that the Almighty has provided you, perhaps, for this purpose, that through you He may restore Jerusalem from such debasement. Ponder, I beg you, how full of joy and delight our hearts will be when we shall see the Holy City restored with your little help, and the prophet’s, nay divine, words fulfilled in our times.

Unfortunately, Eller does not opine on whether it was morally permissible for Christians from the West to come to the aid of Christians in the East and to capture lands that had been lost. There is nothing obviously wrong with these aims.

Moving on, Eller seems to think the Muslim general Saladin was more merciful than the Crusaders:

As the Christians were fading in power, a Muslim general, Salah-ed-Din or Saladin, was rising. Between the late 1160s and late 1180s, he grew from the ruler of Egypt to the head of a resurgent Islam, reconquering Jerusalem in 1187; impressively, unlike the good Christian soldiers, he did not slaughter the city’s inhabitants but actually protected local Christians from harm.

Rodney Stark explains why this is a misreading of Saladin:

Admiration for Saladin is not a recent invention. Since the Enlightenment, Saladin has “bizarrely” been portrayed “as a rational and civilized figure in juxtaposition to credulous barbaric crusaders.” Even Edward Gibbon, writing in 1788, noted, “Of some writers it is a favourite and invidious theme to compare the humanity of Saladin with the massacre of the first crusade . . . but we should not forget that the Christians offered to capitulate, and that the Mahometans of Jerusalem sustained the last extremities of an assault and storm.” There we have it, one of the primary rules of warfare at that time: cities were spared if they did not force their opponents to take them by storm; they were massacred as an object lesson to other cities if they had to be stormed, since this usually inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers. This rule did not require cities to surrender quickly: long sieges were acceptable, but only until the attackers had completed all of the preparations needed to storm the walls. Of course, cities often did not surrender at this point because they believed the attack could be defeated.

Not only have Saladin’s modern fans ignored this rule of war; they have carefully ignored the fact, acknowledged by Muslim writers, that Jerusalem was an exception to Saladin’s usual butchery of his enemies. Saladin had looked forward to massacring the Christians in Jerusalem, but he offered about half of them a safe conduct in exchange for their surrender of Jerusalem without further resistance. In most other instances Saladin was quite unchivalrous. Following the Battle of Hattin, for example, he personally participated in butchering some of the captured Knights Templars and Hospitallers and then sat back and enjoyed watching the execution of the rest of them. As told by Saladin’s secretary, Imad ed-Din: “He [Saladin] ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and Sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics; each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais; the unbelievers showed black despair.”11

According to Eller the Crusades accomplished nothing worthwhile in the long run:

Despite the fact that the Crusades accomplished nothing in the long run, other than alienating Muslims, their champion, the Catholic Church, continues to praise them to this day. The aforementioned Catholic encyclopedia speaks approvingly: “If, indeed, the Christian civilization of Europe has become universal culture, in the highest sense, the glory redounds, in no small measure, to the Crusades.”

First, the alienation of Muslims due to the Crusades is a recent phenomenon:

As Jonathan Riley-Smith explained: “One often reads that Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. Before the end of the nineteenth century Muslims had not shown much interest in the crusades . . . [looking] back on [them] with indifference and complacency.” Even at the time they took place, Muslim chroniclers paid very little attention to the Crusades, regarding them as invasions by “a primitive, unlearned, impoverished, and un-Muslim people, about whom Muslim rulers and scholars knew and cared little.” Moreover, most Arabs dismissed the Crusades as having been attacks upon the hated Turks, and therefore of little interest. Indeed, in the account written by Ibn Zafir at the end of the twelfth century, it was said that it was better that the Franks occupied the kingdom of Jerusalem as this prevented “the spread of the influence of the Turks to the lands of Egypt.”

Muslim interest in the Crusades seems to have begun in the nineteenth century, when the term itself was introduced by Christian Arabs who translated French histories into Arabic — for it was in the West that the Crusades first came back into vogue during the nineteenth century.12

Thus, current Muslim memories and anger about the Crusades are a twentieth-century creation, prompted in part by “post-World War I British and French imperialism and the post-World War II creation of the state of Israel.” It was the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire to rule with absolute authority, Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909), who began to refer to European Crusades. This prompted the first Muslim history of the Crusades, published in 1899. In the introduction, its author, Sayyid Ali al-Hariri, noted: “The sovereigns of Europe nowadays attack our Sublime Empire in a manner bearing great resemblance to the deeds of those people in bygone times [the crusaders]. Our most glorious sultan, Abdulhamid II, has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us.”

This theme was eagerly picked up by Muslim nationalists. “Only Muslim unity could oppose these new crusades, some argued, and the crusading threat became an important theme in the writings of the pan-Islamic movement.” Even within the context of Muslim weakness in the face the modern West, Islamic triumphalism flourished; many proposed that through the Crusades the “savage West . . . benefited by absorbing [Islam’s] civilized values.” As for crusader effects on Islam, “how could Islam benefit from contacts established with an inferior, backward civilization?”

Eventually, the image of the brutal, colonizing crusader proved to have such polemical power that it drowned out nearly everything else in the ideological lexicon of Muslim antagonism toward the West — except, of course, for Israel and paranoid tales about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy.13

Second, it is not evident that the Crusades have not had some positive, lasting effects. Roland Bainton notes:

The crusades are commonly believed to have contributed, nevertheless, to European unity. Despite political fragmentation, medieval society from the Baltic to the Mediterranean became a corpus christianum, a respublic christiana. Very probably the crusades did aid by setting Christendom over against Islam. On the other hand, a greater weight is perhaps to be assigned to those peaceful processes by which the Church unified the west sufficiently to make possible a crusade. It may well be that the many instances of the avoidance of war by arbitration, in the Europe of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were due to weariness and revulsion against the crusades.14

Thomas F. Madden says:

Whether we admire the Crusaders or not, it is a fact that the world we know today would not exist without their efforts. The ancient faith of Christianity, with its respect for women and antipathy toward slavery, not only survived but flourished. Without the Crusades, it might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into extinction.

Crusading against the Enemy at Home

While some aims of the Crusades may be defensible there were many atrocities committed during the period. This section quickly covers wars against pagans and Christian heretics.

The Inquisition: Justice of the Cross

The Inquisition came about as a way to correct and punish Christian heretics, not non-Christians. During the Spanish Inquisition, Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity were also tried in inquisitorial courts. Eller seems relatively accurate (to this layman) in this section but omits important contextual information.

In the midst of the Waldensian and Albigensian crises, the Church felt the need to establish some institutional measures to deal with heresy.

It should be remembered that the civil courts, like the courts of the pagan empire of old, viewed heresy as a form of treason against the state, punishable by death.15 The church became complicit in the violence of the state but it was not the only one to view heresy as problematic.

Based on the Roman legal concept of inquisitor or inquiry, suspected heretics were brought before one or more inquisitors, who called witnesses and conducted cross-examinations.

Note that the inquiry had Roman, not solely Christian, roots.

When a confession was not forthcoming, torture could be applied. Religious torture used exactly the same techniques as secular/legal/criminal torture. . . .

Keep in mind that the “use of torture was an ancient, common provision of Roman law, contrary to centuries of Christian legal usage but recently revived by the civil courts of the Holy Roman Empire.”16

In 1320, Pope John XXII authorized the Inquisition to expand its mission into investigations of witchcraft and sorcery, and theologians at the University of Paris in 1398 pronounced witchcraft and other forms of magic to be a type of heresy.

David Bentley Hart provides important additional information:

Nevertheless, it was the Catholic Church, of all the institutions of the time, that came to treat accusations of witchcraft with the most pronounced incredulity. Where secular courts and licentious mobs were eager to consign the accused to the tender ministrations of the public executioner, ecclesial inquisitions were prone to demand hard evidence and, in its absence, to dismiss charges. Ultimately, in lands where the authority of the church and its inquisitions were strong — especially during the high tide of witch-hunting — convictions were extremely rare. In Spain, for example, in the whole of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we have evidence of only two prosecutions going to trial. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Catalonian Inquisition set the precedent (imitated by other inquisitions soon after) of arguing against all further prosecutions for witchcraft. In or around 1609, during an eruption of witch-hunting panic in Basque country, the Spanish Inquisition went so far as to forbid even the discussion of witchcraft; and more than once, in the years following, Iberian inquisitions were obliged to intervene when secular courts renewed prosecutions.17

Back to Eller:

In 1478, in the midst of the ongoing Spanish Catholic wars against the occupying Muslims or Moors, the crusading Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received permission from Pope Sixtus IX to operate an independent inquisition against Jews.

Once again, David Bentley Hart provides balance:

True, it was Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) who authorized the early Inquisition, but he did so under pressure from King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504), who — with the end of centuries of Muslim occupation of Andalusia — were eager for any instrument they thought might help to enforce national unity and increase the power of Castile and Aragon. Such, however, was the early Inquisition’s harshness and corruption that Sixtus soon attempted to interfere in its operations. In a papal bull of April 1482, he uncompromisingly denounced its destruction of innocent lives and its theft of property (though he did not, admittedly, object in principle to the execution of genuine heretics). But Ferdinand effectively refused to recognize the bull, and in 1483 he forced Sixtus to relinquish control of the Inquisition to the Spanish thrones and to consent to the civil appointment of a Grand Inquisitor. The first man to wear this title was the notorious Tomas de Torquemada (1420-1498), a priest both severe and uncompromising, especially toward Christian converts (conversos) from Judaism and Islam whom he suspected of secret adherence to the teachings of their original faiths. Before he was finally reined in by Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), Torquemada was responsible for the expulsion of a good number of Jews from Spain and for perhaps two thousand executions of “heretics.” Even after Sixtus had surrendered his authority over the Inquisition, however, he did not entirely relent in his opposition to its excesses. In 1484, for instance, he supported the city of Teruel after it forbade the Inquisition entry — a revolt that Ferdinand suppressed the following year by force of arms. And Sixtus and his successor Innocent VIII (1432-1492) continued to issue sporadic demands that the Inquisition exercise greater leniency, and continued to attempt to intervene on behalf of the conversos when the opportunity arose. Over the next century, the Inquisition was often involved in the nauseating national politics of “blood purity,” limpieza de sangre, from which no one — not even a monk, priest, or archbishop — was safe. Within Spain itself, there was some resistance to the new Spanish racialism, none more honorable and uncompromising than that of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits. But from racialist harassments often only the papacy’s interventions could provide relief, however small or infrequent.18

Onward, Christian Soldiers

This section primarily covers Christian violence in Europe in the last 500 years (e.g., the Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years’ War). Eller does admit that politics and power also factored into the violence. He closes with this:

How far Christianity has come from its original assertion of peace and love, even if that assertion was more a matter of necessity than principle (Christians, as a weak minority, valorizing weakness and meekness). As Christianity attained power, it found clever arguments in support of its own vice and violence, perfecting the art of casuistry, the practice of specious or subtle reasoning for the purpose of rationalizing or misleading. To be sure, early Christians had models of “just war” provided by the ancients; all they had to add was specifically Christian justifications. But then, justice is in the eye of the beholder, and even more so, history has shown that “the greater the justice of my cause and the more violating a rule is necessary for my cause to prevail, the greater my justification in violating the rule.” Unfortunately, few people find anything more just, and therefore justifying, than their religion.

I’ve shown above that the first Christians were peaceful as a matter of principle. The bold section is an admission that the teachings of Christianity have to be ignored or re-worked to justify certain acts of violence (or perhaps a situation is misjudged).

  1. Sider, Ronald J. (2012-07-01). The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (Kindle Locations 168-174). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
  2. Bainton, Roland H. Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960, p. 53. 
  3. Wynn, Phillip (2013-11-01). Augustine on War and Military Service (Kindle Locations 2366-2427). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. 
  4. Wynn 7245-7246 
  5. Wynn 7264-7283 
  6. Wynn 4793-4798 
  7. Wynn 7139-7148 
  8. Wynn 3904-3910 
  9. Wynn 4400-4411 
  10. Wynn 7166-7169 
  11. Stark, Rodney (2009-09-16). God’s Battalions (pp. 199-200). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 
  12. Stark 245-246 
  13. Stark 247-248 
  14. Bainton 116 
  15. David Bentley Hart. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Kindle Location 1074). Kindle Edition. 
  16. Hart loc. 1072-1073 
  17. Hart loc. 1084-1090 
  18. Hart loc. 1140-1152 

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