"Let's skip ahead," I said to Woodbridge. "Christian crusaders tried for two centuries to expel the Muslims from the Holy Land." I opened a history book and paged through it until I found the right entry. "One horrific account described the Crusaders' entry into Jerusalem in the First Crusade this way," I said, reading to Woodbridge the following description from an eyewitness:
Some of our men ... cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames It was necessary to pick one's way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon (where) ... men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.17
Slamming the book shut with disgust, I looked hard at Woodbridge and asked in a voice laden with sarcasm: "Do you agree that the Crusades were 'just and splendid?"'
Woodbridge pursed his lips. "That kind of bloodshed is repugnant and abhorrent," he said firmly. "Did it happen? Yes, it did. Is it heartbreaking to contemplate? Yes, it is. I'm not going to try to excuse it or rationalize it away. However, your question-were the Crusades just or not-
demands an either-or answer, and I think it might be more helpful to provide a little broader context."
I sat back in my chair. "Go ahead," I said.
"Pope Urban II launched the first crusade in 1095, when he gave a very famous sermon and the crowds responded by declaring, 'God wills it!"' Woodbridge began. "The Crusades continued until the loss of the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land in 1291, when a town called Acre was taken over once again by Muslims. Jerusalem was back in the hands of the Muslims by 1187.
"The Pope called upon barons and others to go to the Holy Land and retrieve it from the Muslims who were occupying it and who were thought to be the foes of Christ. So if we put ourselves back into the shoes of those early crusaders, we can understand that they thought they were doing something magnificent for Christ. But when you study the details of what actually happened, you become deeply troubled. In fact, in one Crusade, the Fourth, the participants didn't even make it to the Holy Land. They got as far as Constantinople, seized it, and set up their own kingdom. Tremendous bloodshed ensued. Western 'Christians' killed Eastern Christians.
"In addition to the violence, another major problem was the motivation of some who went. In 1215, Pope Innocence III actually instructed people that if they went on the Crusades, this could earn their salvation. And if they sent someone to fight in their place, this, too, would earn their salvation. This counsel was an obvious distortion of true Christianity. It makes a mockery of the teachings of the Bible and can't in any way be squared with historic Christian beliefs.
"The motivations of the Crusaders become more difficult to assess after the Muslims took back Jerusalem. Some of the later Crusades involved Christians going to the Holy Land in an attempt to save other Christians who were in desperate straits. All in all, though, it's fair to say that despite anyone's intentions, the general avarice and slaughter associated with the Crusades have created an ugly stain on the reputation of the Christian faith.
"And that's not just a liberal, twenty-first century perspective. In the early part of the thirteenth century, a number of Christians were saying the same thing. One reason why the crusading ideal disintegrated was due to the enormous travesties associated with the Crusades. Popes tried in later centuries to launch crusades, but they couldn't gain political and popular support. The genuine discrepancy between authentic Christianity and the reporting of what the Crusades had been like contributed to this loss of interest or enthusiasm for new crusades.
"This takes us back to the distinction between things done in the name of Christ and those things that really represent Jesus' teachings. When you try to mesh Jesus' teachings with the slaughter of the Crusades-well, there's no way they can be reconciled." I asked: "What do you say to a non-Christian who says the Crusades just show that Christians want to oppress others and are as violent as anybody else is?"
Woodbridge pondered the question for a moment before answering. "I would say that there is some truth in that statement as it relates to the Crusades," he began. "There have been people who have done things in the name of Christ they never should have done. Then I would point out that not everything done in the name of Christ should, in point of fact, be attributed to Christianity.
"But I would not try to dodge the point that terrible things occurred during the Crusades. They need to be confessed as being totally contrary to the teachings of the one the crusaders were supposedly following. It's important to remember that it's not Jesus' teachings that are at fault here; it's the actions of those who, for whatever reason, greatly strayed from what he clearly taught: we are to love our enemies. A 'just war' theory must interact with this principle.
"Nobody was more outspoken against hypocrisy or cruelty than Jesus. Consequently, if critics believe that aspects of the Crusades should be denounced as hypocritical and violent-well, they'd have an ally in Christ. They'd be agreeing with him."
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