The Crusades: "God Wills It!"

The Crusades are the most well known events of the Middle Ages, a bitter flowering of “faith” that saw vast armies clash over God and gold. Pope Urban II’s call to arms in November 1095 ignited the first of eight Crusades.1 The cataclysm of violence unleashed against the “enemy ” — whom he called “an accursed race, a race wholly alienated from God, a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not steadfast with God” — affects the world to this day, and so does the reasoning that launched such wars... The Pope’s wording allowed such enemies to be found not just in the Middle East, but wherever were found those who did not have the Crusaders’ “Catholic faith,” who did not give “the honor which you render to the holy Church.”2

This “enemy” — the Seljuk Turks — threatened no Roman Catholic nation. They did not even border one. For many years they had allowed Christian pilgrims access to their holy places in Palestine. This “accursed race” of the Turks, and in a larger sense the Muslim society of which they were a part, gave many signs of not being “alienated from God ” in their consciences, as their dealings with one another and even their enemies showed.

The Muslims seem to have been better gentlemen than their Christian peers; they kept their word more frequently, showed more mercy to the defeated, and were seldom guilty of brutality...3

In reality, the Muslims showed far more evidence of “setting their heart aright” with God, as seen in their actions, than their Christian opponents.

For five centuries, from AD 700 to 1200, Islam led the world in power, order, and extent of government, in refinement of manners, in standards of living, in humane legislation and religious toleration, in literature, scholarship, science, medicine, and philosophy.

This was beyond the understanding of European Christians. Their religious concepts did not take into account the natural law — the instinctive knowledge of good and evil. They especially had no concept that the instinctive knowledge was at work in those outside “the holy Church.” In such an amoral faith, all unbelievers were by definition evil and almost certainly not worthy to live.

The Seljuk Turks did threaten the Eastern Roman Empire, but as events would prove, they were not as great a threat as the Christian Crusaders. In a shocking display of violence and cruelty, the Fourth Crusade captured, looted, and slaughtered the Greek Orthodox capital in AD 1204. What the Turks did provide was a common enemy against which to unite, and a source of land and plunder the Crusaders could have with more than a “good conscience.” They could have it with the blessing of God.

Telling them Europe is “too narrow for you” Urban admonishes them, in what is surely the most remarkable aspect of his world-shaking speech, to “Let hatred depart from among you” and go forth instead to take the land “from the wicked race.”

Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage war, and that very many among you perish in intestine strife. Let hatred therefore depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.4

Their hatred need not depart from “the wicked race” who barely qualified as human beings. Foundational to their Christian theology is the teaching that all men are totally depraved, whose only possible rescue is faith in the Church. All unbelievers were sure candidates for eternal destruction, so there was little hesitation and little to no wrong in violently sending them there early.

More than Just War

According to the teaching of Augustine, the greatest Christian theologian, the Crusades were “just” wars — not because they were devoid of “the real evils in war,” which he said were the “love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like.5 Far from it, as the Crusaders’ own histories tell.6 They were to be considered “just” for the most fundamental reason of all: that they were waged at the command of God! In Augustine’s own words:

How much more must the man be blameless who carries on war on the authority of God, of whom every one who serves Him knows that He can never require what is wrong?7

And who better to declare a war just than the Pope himself, the Vicar of Christ on earth? In the Roman Catholic Church, a vicar is a priest who acts for another higher-ranking clergyman. The Vicar of Christ acts for Christ. On that fateful day in November, over nine hundred years ago, after Pope Urban II promised the Crusaders “remission of their sins ” and “the assurance of the reward of imperishable glory in the kingdom of heaven” for waging war, they all cried out in unison, “It is the will of God!

In response, Pope Urban told them that Christ was in their midst and God in their spirits. Therefore, when they attacked the enemy, it was the will of God.

Most beloved brethren, to-day is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, ”Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them;” for unless God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry; since, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry was one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted this in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let that then be your war cry in combats, because it is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: ”It is the will of God! It is the will of God!”8

Being thus equipped with the boundless confidence of doing God’s will, the Crusaders set off for the east. They were a new kind of pilgrim, no longer humble and lowly, but great and mighty. At the end of their pilgrimage they attacked the “enemy” in the holy city of Jerusalem, raising the cry, “It is the will of God!” Or more simply put, “God wills it!”

Our men chased after them, killing and dismembering as far as the Temple of Solomon. And in that place there was such a slaughter that we were up to our ankles in their blood. Our pilgrims entered the city, and chased the Saracens, killing as they went... In the morning our men climbed up cautiously to the roof of the Temple and attacked the Saracens, both male and female, and beheaded them with unsheathed swords. The other Saracens threw themselves from the Temple.

Then our men held a council, and gave out that everyone should give alms and pray that God would choose whom he wished to reign over the others. They further gave orders that all the Saracens should be cast out on account of the terrible stench: because nearly the whole city was crammed with their bodies... Such a slaughter of pagans no one has ever seen or heard of; the pyres they made were like pyramids.9

God Willed It?

But is the slaughter of pagans or infidels the will of God? Most Christians today would answer, “No, it isn’t.”

The weight of Christian history, however, comes down hard on the affirmative: the killings of non-Christians are acts of violence without guilt, if not of positive merit. Augustine’s doctrines of war and persecution of heretics and non-believers would fuse into a deeply held belief that the sword could advance the cause of Christ and His Kingdom.

What made the Augustinian teaching even more corrupting was the association in his mind between ’war by divine command’ and the related effort to convert the heathen and destroy the heretic — his ’compel them to come in’ syndrome. Not only could violence be justified: it was particularly meritorious when directed against those who held other religious beliefs (or none).

The Dark Age church merely developed Augustine’s teaching. Leo IV said that anyone dying in battle for the defense of the Church would receive a heavenly reward; John VIII thought that such a person would even rank as a martyr...10

Worse than an Unbeliever?

It is possible, according to the New Testament, to be worse than an unbeliever.11 Saladin, the great leader of the Muslims, recaptured Jerusalem from the Christians in AD 1187. Even today, the memory of the Christian conquest of 1099 has not faded yet in the Middle East. It certainly hadn’t then. Yet when the lives of the descendents of that conquering hoard were in his hands, Saladin the unbeliever extended to them what their fathers had shown none of — mercy. As soon as the Christians surrendered, the killing stopped. The survivors were even granted safe passage back to their lands. Behavior like this accounts for the enduring fascination Western writers and historians have had for Saladin, and the paragon of princely virtue Muslims have made of him, for this “barbarian” was obviously more just and humane than his Christian opponents.

Pope Urban II had sent the Crusaders off to “rescue” the Holy Land from the hands of the infidels in memorable and poetic words:

Jerusalem is the center of the earth; the land is fruitful above all others, like another paradise of delights. This spot the Redeemer of mankind has made illustrious by his advent, has beautified by his sojourn, has consecrated by his passion, has redeemed by his death, has glorified by his burial.12

History records that in the ardor of their perverted faith, they covered “this spot” with undying shame and disgrace as they waged this most “just” of all wars. For in spite of the words of their supposed Savior, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,”13 they showed no mercy. How then will they escape the righteous judgment of God?

For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. (James 2:13)

  • 1. First: AD 1096-1099; Second: 1147-1149; Third: 1189-1192; Fourth: 1202-1204; Fifth: 1218-1221; Sixth: 1228-1229; Seventh: 1248-1254; Eighth: 1270-1272
  • 2. “Pope Urban’s Clermont Address,” as recorded by Robert the Monk, in Encarta 2000 Encyclopedia
  • 3. W. Durant, The Age of Faith, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1950, pp. 341-342
  • 4. See footnote 2.
  • 5. Augustine, “Against Faustaus, the Manichaean,” Book XXII, Par. 74.
  • 6. “Wonderful things were to be seen. Numbers of Saracens were beheaded. Others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers. Others were tortured for several days and then burned in flames. In the streets were seen piles of heads and hands and feet. One rode about everywhere amid the corpses of men and women.” (Eyewitness account of Raymound of Angilles, which all other accounts substantiate)
  • 7. Augustine, “Against Faustaus, the Manichaean,” Bk XXII, Par. 75
  • 8. See footnote 2.
  • 9. The anonymous chronicler of the Gesta Francorum, quoted by Elizabeth Hallam, editor, Chronicles of the Crusades, Godalming, U.K. Bramley Books, 1996, p. 93.
  • 10. P. Johnson, A History of Christianity, Atheneum, New York, 1976, p. 242. Leo IV reigned as pope from AD 847-855 and John VIII from AD 872-882. And later, of course, Urban II promised them heaven.
  • 11. 1 Timothy 5:8
  • 12. See footnote 2.
  • 13. Matthew 5:7

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