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Did the Crusades Get a Bum Rap?

(UNDATED) — The Crusades, when Christians tried for two centuries to oust Muslims from the Holy Land, left over a million dead, with territory lost and gained and lost again — all in the name of Jesus.
These days, Christians are not so quick to call the Crusades the golden age of Christendom, but a millennium later, their memory still reverberates.
Even so, Rodney Stark, 75, a professor of social sciences at Baylor University, says the crusaders were not all that bad, and certainly not barbaric, greedy warmongers.
In his new book “God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades,” the 1996 nominee for the Pulitzer Prize depicts soldiers who truly believed their military service under God would cover over a multitude of sins — namely all that murdering and marauding required of them in the tumultuous Middle Ages.
“I get tired of people apologizing for the Crusades, like Christians were a bunch of dirty looters that went over there and killed everybody,” Stark said. “It just wasn’t true.”
Of course, apologies on the subject have been many. Pope John Paul II expressed regret for the medieval violence in 2000, the same year Wheaton College, alma mater of preacher Billy Graham — who made evangelistic “crusades” famous — changed their mascot from the Crusaders to the Thunder.
Stark argues that Muslims asked for it, that the Crusades were the first military response to Muslim terrorists and their looming, advancing Islamic empire. “It wasn’t like they were harmless, little people minding their own business and tending their sheep,” Stark said.
Indeed, Islamic powers were mighty before the Crusades, and bounced back after Christian attempts at conquest ultimately failed.
“I suspect that Muslims will hate the book, and I’m sorry about that,” Stark said. “That’s just the way the world is. I make no apologies or real accusations.”
Stark, a sociologist of religion, admits he is no historian of the brutal battles waged between 1095 and 1291. The one-time journalist enjoys making academic writing accessible for popular audiences, and he said his book is merely synthesizing current research by others.
Stark balks at the theory, in vogue 30 years ago, that the Crusades were spurred on by the promise of wealth and land. The Crusades were bloody expensive, he argues, and far from being a profitable, colonial enterprise, they made paupers of princes.
Thomas Madden, professor of medieval history at Saint Louis University, agrees that recent analysis reveals the “crusades were a big money pit.” He said it is important to understand the crusaders on their own terms, and like Stark, he sees faith as their primary motivator.
“These were men who lived by the sword,” Madden said. “…They were keenly aware of their own sinfulness and their crusade was a way to get around damnation or at least a very long time in purgatory.”
Despite noble intentions, the crusading onslaught recalls atrocities like the Holocaust for Jews, said Talal Eid, founder of the Islamic Institute of Boston and commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“The term crusade marks a painful time in the history of my kind, a painful era,” Eid said.
Despite that legacy, the word “crusade” resurfaced after both the Sept. 11 attacks and the intense European colonization of Muslim lands in previous centuries.
In 2001, former President Bush called his nascent “war on terror” a crusade, alarming critics. Osama Bin Laden, too, has made use of the politically charged term.
“If you look at the fatwas of Osama Bin Laden or al-Qaida against the U.S. or the Western world, these fatwas are always called against crusaders and the Jews,” Madden said. “They see the United States and Western Europe as crusaders always.”
Stark knows his book will have its critics, including his own academic colleagues. He usually chooses the outsider role, preferring his home office to faculty meetings or campus politics any day.
In Christian circles, it’s more of the same. Though he has defended the Lutheran faith of his North Dakota childhood, he is a reluctant Christian apologist.
“Answers of faith are always very complicated for me,” Stark said.
“I have always been culturally a Christian, committed to Western civilization, but I have to admit in parts of my life, I was only culturally Christian. Slowly, I wrote my way to a more faithful position.”
Stark does not worry about how his sympathetic portrayal of crusaders will be handled.
“If you sit there and worry about people misusing your stuff, you’re never going to have anything to say,” he said.
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • cknuck

    Wars are always about land, money and power without exception unless it is about love lost.

  • pagansister

    Actally the Crusades were just the Christians inviting themselves into Muslim countries for tea and cookies. All that killing was just a secondary part!

  • nnmns

    I’m certainly no historian; here’s the Wikipedia article on the crusades.
    You have to ask what’s the point of writing the book. Since he admits he’s introducing no new information and since there doesn’t seem to be a crying need for an apologist’s book rehabilitating the crusades, the main reason would seem to be for money. And just possibly for making it seem more ok to physically fight for Christianity. And that is something the world doesn’t need at all!
    As I understand it from this article, the old hypothesis about the crusades is that they were to gain money and land. He claims instead that
    a) they were expensive so it wasn’t about gaining land or money
    b) people did them to be absolved of sin, not to gain land or money.
    Let’s look briefly at each of these:
    a) GWB and Rummy thought Iraq would be cheap. The fact it has been very expensive, and by the time all the damage to our veterans is accounted for it will have been outrageously expensive, shows that a war intended to cheaply gain money and land can turn out to be very expensive. The fact a war is expensive certainly doesn’t give it more credibility.
    b) In what way is it better to wound, rape and kill people so you go to heaven than to kill people so you get land or money? In either case you gain at the expense of the people wounded, raped and killed. Of course it turns out getting to heaven is imaginary but they all presumably believed it was as real as land or money.
    In any case, I think cknuck has war pretty well nailed.

  • nnmns

    Here’s an interesting quote from the Wikipedia article.
    In 1099 “The Jews and Muslims fought together to defend Jerusalem against the invading Franks. They were unsuccessful though and on 15 July 1099 the crusaders entered the city. They proceeded to massacre the remaining Jewish and Muslim civilians and pillaged or destroyed mosques and the city itself.”
    But of course they weren’t bad people.

  • Kauko

    Not only that, nnmns, Crusaders slaughtered whole Jewish communities in Europe on their way to the Holy Land (most notably those communities in the Rhineland in Germany during the First Crusade)

  • Heretic_for_Christ

    So the Crusaders were not all greedy pirates. Sounds like a straw-man to me — who ever proposed that the rank and file cannon fodder were cynical opportunists?
    The issue at hand is not The Warm and Tender Side of the Crusader. It is how we think of the entire notion of crusades today. And in light of the rhetoric coming from Christian dominionists, I’d say that there are still way too many people who think God needs warriors to conquer the world. I don’t care about the crusaders of the Middle Ages; I care about the self-appointed crusaders of our world today, and how it can be that we have learned so little from history that large sections of the American population STILL seem to think that America was founded to be a Christian nation and will be “restored” to that status thanks to our brave modern crusaders.

  • Nate W

    My guess, nnmns, is that since Stark often works as a popularizer, he’s writing the book for just that purpose: to popularize current scholarly research, since most non-academics don’t have the means to easily procure and find time to work through the scholarly sources. For academics, money is rarely a motivator for publishing, since there’s usually very little money to be gotten from publishing these kinds of books: one would do far better to go take a night job as a waiter if one wanted a little extra cash.
    The fact of the matter is that the Crusades were far more complex than usually portrayed in popular imagination, both for the political masterminds and for the soldiers involved, and Stark is doing a great service if he can help popularize what scholars have already known for a while now and (thankfully) what most new college students are learning if they take medieval history courses. Were many of the men involved scoundrels? No doubt; soldiering always tends to attract a high number of scoundrels, and getting some of these scoundrels out of Europe was one of the early motivations for the initial crusades. But other important factors are far too often forgotten, notably the fact that there was a constant clash between empires (the Muslim caliphates and the Byzantine Empire, the Muslims and Western ex-Roman territories in Africa and the West) centuries before the Crusades began, and that as brutal as they were, the Crusades were probably necessary to stop to steady advance of the Muslim armies into Europe. There may simply not be any such thing as Western civilization today had it not been for events like the Reconquista and the Crusades, so they should probably not be singled out as particularly sinister examples of religious warfare. All conquest and reconquest, all invasion and rebuffing, all war, is horrible, and the Crusades are not exceptional in that regard.
    But the enduring question for all Christians, and indeed for all religious people, is this: why are so many of us more ashamed of those who killed in the name of God than we are of those who in our contemporary world kill in the name of country? Very many people in the Religious Right are ashamed to think of Christians marching into battle under the cross, but they hail those who march under the American flag as heroes. What gives?

  • Heretic_for_Christ

    Nate W,
    Is your comment about those who kill for their country a general observation about war or a specific criticism of certain wars that have been launched by cynical politicians for no legitimate purpose?

  • Henrietta22

    Are you reading and watching on msnbc about present day possible “crusaders”, called Blackwater?
    God is a belief by the believers, Crusaders pushed by the Power in charge to go conquer for God, allowed at this point of history.
    A country is where people live and the armed forces fight for their country pushed by the Power in charge, and the desire to keep their country.
    Definte difference.

  • Matt

    People of every religion or non-religion hate. Believers and non-believers squabble and fight. Co-exist is not possible. Even without religion people would hate over differences.
    Thank God for God and His forgivenes.

  • nnmns

    “Believers and non-believers squabble and fight. ”
    Yes they do, but religion and nothing else is the reason for some of those fights.

  • cknuck

    nnmns your sermons never change concerning religion and as usual you have a narrow viewpoint. I repeat wars are regardless to religious claims always about land, power, and wealth. Many people involved at the top of the crusades were every bit atheist as you.

  • jestrfyl

    The good guys are rarely all that good and the bad guys and rarely entirely bad. I do find this topic interesting, but I like this sort of thing. It was one of those times when religion was a convenient camouflage for other agendas and schemes (this seems kind of familiar, in a recent Middle East campaign sort of way). What I find aggravating is the way religious people are so easily duped by something like this (again, familiar territory).
    This article makes an interesting partner to the Heaven & Hell article. There is some overlap. Fear of what comes next can drive people to make some otherwise irrational decisions. Funny – in an “I’m-not-laughing” kind of way.

  • cknuck

    good post jest I agree although I might add that yes the religious is duped in these affairs but the religious haters are duped as well and it serves to fuel their dislike and tendency to blanket point and group. Many true believers would never have anything to do with killing and taking and their actions are noble but they will get blamed too.

  • Rev. Ray

    Historical evidence still requires a lot of evidence to come to any conclusion. Mercenaries fought for money and I doubt if they had to pass and psychological tests to become one. So how many of these brave crusading people, just enjoyed killing?
    War based on religious differences makes one wonder just how pious and peace seeking these different religious groups are. You must believe in my god or else. Please. My Goddess says play nice, so I will follow the harder road of understanding, forgiving and being tolerant.

  • Usama3

    There is an obvious effort in the American rightwing who claim to follow Jesus (as) that they desire the Crusades and desire all those emotions that come with conquering weaker peoples and ‘bringing’ their way of life on them. The Blackwater security firm was founded and supported by evangelical Christians who constructed a corporate culture as if they were Templar Crusaders conquering Muslim lands with the power of life and death over Muslim people. Evangelical preachers have infiltrated the US military to advance Crusaderlike ideals and thoughts as they preach to soldiers. Eric Prince, Blackwater founder, not only professed Crusader ideas in his company, but he allegedly engaged in murder of employees to protect his work.
    To no surprise, Harpers Magazine ran a recent article with the title ‘Jesus Killed Muhammad’- the phrase uttered by American soldiers as they battled with Iraqi insurgents.
    Many other articles show American Christians who’s real lust is to conquer and impose their way of life on weaker peoples to reenforce their own beliefs.
    The lies, bigotry, and hatemongering spewed forth by Christian preachers against Islam and Muslims every day in America on the radio, TV, and at the pulpit seems to be reflected in this ‘author’s work to show the benefit and righteousness of the Crusades.

  • Usama3

    BTW, folks should not think the Crusades really ended. In the 7-9th Crusades, the French led the Crusades to retake Jerusalem by conquerring Egypt, thereby cutting off supplies to Jerusalem. While the French failed to do so, Napoleon did indeed attack Egypt, conquerred it, and used this move as a method to gain more power. Eventually, during WWI, the British and French empires reconquerrred the Holyland and their military leaders invoked Crusaders and Christian claims when doing so. Its long claimed that British general Allenby entered Jerusalem and said: where are you now Saladin? French general Gouraud said upon entering Damascus: “Behold Saladin, we have returned.”
    Its also well known that the one of the failures of the Crusades was that the Christian empires transplanted Europeans into the Holyland who did not have an attachment to the land and often required European funds and support to survive. This made them vulnerable.
    What they needed were settlers who would be as attached to the land as the Muslims. They accomplished this by encouraging European Zionist Jews to settle in the Holyland who sustained their own nation.
    Thus, today’s Holyland is directly linked to the Crusades. The British and French conquerors divided the Muslim lands and actually gave them the nations’ names from the Christian bible to fufill their Christian prophecies: Jordan is not a Muslim or Arab name- it was given by the British. Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt- none are from Arab or Muslim sources. All are from biblical interpretations.
    The modern Middle East was concocted by Imperial Christians from Europe who envisioned and imposed their ideas which were directly connected to the respective cultural ties with the Crusades.

  • cknuck

    Very educational although I doubt the Muslim population is a weaker people.

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