While at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute, I heard an informal lecture from a former Rector of Tantur about a particular discussion between Christian and Jews in which one of the topics was what each religion really knows about the other. A rabbi said that for some Jews in Israel all they know about Christianity is “the crusades, inquisition, and holocaust.”
Obviously, this statement does not represent all Jews, but it is indicative of a widely held belief that Christianity is a violent religion and has caused millions of deaths. There is no doubt that Christians have perpetrated countless acts of violence, as have the representatives of every other major religious and political movement. How can we determine that Christianity per se is the cause of the violence of the crusades, inquisition, and holocaust?
This is a very difficult question to answer. First, we cannot unequivocally determine the principle cause of complicated and multi-dimensional movements of 800 years ago. We cannot garner simple answers from ancient and too-often conflicting records.
Second, we cannot clearly separate religious motives from the social, economical, and political motives of the kings, princes, despots, and ecclesiastical authoritarian figures of the periods of the crusades, inquisition, and holocaust. Frankly, it’s just as easy to say territorial and economical interests motivated the crusades, as did religious motives.
Third, we cannot easily determine whose role in the crusades indicates the true Christian position. There was not unanimity among Christianity’s leaders about the legitimacy of the crusades.
I will not address the first two issues here. Yet, I want to show that there were strongly held opposing opinions on the crusades, and that because the charge that Christianity caused the crusades is a serious allegation against it, we need to determine which view represents Christianity.
Here are two religious leaders justifying the crusades. First, there was Arnold Amaury (died 1225), the leader of the Cistercian order of monks, who Pope Innocent III charged to conduct the Albigensian Crusade against the heretical group called the Cathars of southern France. The crusade started in 1209 with twenty thousands soldiers, and at the town of Brezier, they killed twenty thousands. In his report to the Pope, Amaury wrote, “Nearly twenty thousand of the citizens were put to the sword, regardless of age and sex. The workings of divine vengeance have been wondrous.” It also didn’t bother Amaury that orthodox Catholics were killed as a necessary measure to complete the task. Anyway, God would know His own, as he reasoned.
Innocent III started the crusade with the help of the king of France, Philip Augustus, who wanted to annex the territories of southern France. The Pope and King made a bargain to help out each other. One would eliminate a heresy, and the other would get new land. The justification to end the heretical threat was connected with the King’s political/territorial goals. What was good for the King must be good for the Church, so they reasoned.
A second representative is St. Dominic (died 1221), who started the order of Dominican friars. Pope Innocent III established the order to be traveling preachers of the Gospel and also to find and persecute suspected heretics. He accompanied the armies, praying for the conversion of the heretics and the victory of the King’s solders over the rebels. A number of Dominican friars were directly involved in the burning of Cathars. For St. Dominic the defense of the integrity of the faith also meant the use of violence to safeguard the authority of the Church and State.
Perhaps, St. Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) is the most famous of Dominicans. Though it would be inaccurate and unfair to reduce St. Thomas’ theology and philosophy to just what he said about persecuting heretics, but he also agreed with St. Dominic that the State should kill obstinate heretics, because they are a threat to the stability and integrity of society and hence the Church.
However, Amaury and St. Dominic were not the only ecclesiastical leaders at that time addressing the legitimacy of the crusades. St. Anselm of Canterbury (died in 1109) is well known for his theological-philosophical accounts of the atonement of Christ, the certainty of God’s existence, free will, and the nature of evil. He is also well known for his opposition to the English King, Henry I, who disputed with Anselm over investitures. Anselm vehemently opposed the King appointing Bishops and using the Church’s land and wealth for his own pursuits. For this, Henry exiled Anselm twice. Anselm knew the difference between the authority of a King and the authority of the Church.
What is not well known about Anselm is his opposition to the crusades. A young Italian nobleman, whose brother was fighting the Muslims in Asia Minor, had written Anselm asking his advice about joining the crusades. Anselm’s recommendation was to join the monastery at Bec instead. He said, “Do not be ashamed of breaking the bond of the vanity of this world: it is a privilege, not a dishonor, to reach out to the liberty of truth [which lay in the humility of the monastic life].” The crusades were contrary to the Church’s mission and frankly fit the purposes of the King more than Christ.
R. W. Southern expresses Anselm’s position on the crusades this way, “For him, the important choice was quite simply between the heavenly Jerusalem, the true vision of Peace signified by the name Jerusalem, which was to be found in the monastic life, and the carnage of the earthly Jerusalem in this world, which under whatever name was nothing but a vision of destruction” (in Saint Anselm, p. 169). In Anselm’s mind, Christianity rejects using the carnage of the crusades at Jerusalem because it can never represent the Church’s knowledge of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Another example of an influential Christian leader opposing the crusades is St. Francis of Assisi (died in 1226). Most people remember him for his compassionate identification and care for lepers, animals, and the poor. However, he was also a company-man. He knew that for his movement to survive, he needed Vatican recognition. So he worked with the institutional system and eventually obtained Papal recognition from Pope Innocent III, the same Pope who had commissioned the brutal Albigensian Crusade.
Ironically, St. Francis accompanied the Fifth Crusade of about 32,000 Hungarian and Austrian fighters into Egypt. However, instead of blessing the fighting as St. Dominic had, he tried to stop it. He entered the camp of the Muslim leader, Sultan Al-Kamil to persuade him to stop the violence. He told the Sultan that he would show the truth of his faith by stepping into fire if the King’s religious leaders would as well. None agreed. The Saint inspired the Sultan, but the violence continued on both sides.
Instead of trying to convert Muslims by violence, St. Francis tried by non-violence, because he knew using violence would be contrary to the Church’s mission.
In conclusion, the question is which group is more indicative of the essence of Christianity? A lot would be involved in giving a conclusive answer, but we can make the following observations:
1. Christian leaders were never unanimous about the legitimacy of the Crusades;
2. It is thus inaccurate to say that Christianity caused the violence of the Crusades;
3. However, the Christian leaders who did justify violence patterned their understanding of the Church’s authority on the King’s authority;
4. Those who did not justify violence did not confuse the institutional authority of the Church with that of the State.
5. It follows that if the Church’s mission is based on the authority of Christ, then she cannot use the authority of the State and King to promote her mission, and, consequently, she cannot use the same means the State and King use to promote their interests when in conflict with others—i.e., violence.
6. Finally, as a general observation, we can never be certain that we represent and follow the morally superior position in a conflict, if we use the same destructive violence against our adversary as the adversary would against us.