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Onward, Christian Soldiers: The complicated legacy of the Crusades (COMMENTARY)

(RNS1-JULY26) An undated illustration shows the taking of the Greek city of Edessa in 1097 during the First Crusade. Accused Norwegian murderer Anders Behring Breivik considers himself a modern-day crusader. See RNS-CHRISTIAN-TERRORIST, transmitted July 26, 2011. Religion News Service photo, courtesy of The History Channel/Bettmann/Corbis.
(RNS1-JULY26) An undated illustration shows the taking of the Greek city of Edessa in 1097  during the First Crusade. Accused Norwegian murderer Anders Behring Breivik considers himself a modern-day crusader. See RNS-CHRISTIAN-TERRORIST, transmitted July 26, 2011. Religion News Service photo, courtesy of The History Channel/Bettmann/Corbis.

An undated illustration shows the taking of the Greek city of Edessa in 1097 during the First Crusade. Religion News Service photo, courtesy of The History Channel/Bettmann/Corbis.

(RNS) It used to be that Social Security reform was the “third rail” of American politics. Touch it and you got zapped. The same could be said for discussing religion — it’s just something you didn’t talk about in polite company.

President Obama recently stumbled into a third. The “C word.” Crusades.

In attempting to show that all religions (not just the murderous Islamic State group) have engaged in violence, Obama told the National Prayer Breakfast: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Obama was not the first president to use the word. Dwight Eisenhower called his successful World War II military campaign against Nazism the “Crusade in Europe.” After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush first labeled the battle against Islamic extremists a “crusade.” He later dropped the word and reformulated it as a “war on terror.”

Obama’s critics denounced his reference to the Crusades and claimed that European Christians, beginning in 1096 and continuing for the next 200 years, used their military might in a worthy effort initiated by Pope Urban II. The papal purpose was to stem feared Muslim aggression, to protect Christian pilgrims in the Middle East and reclaim areas of the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, which had been captured in 637 by Islamic forces. For their valiant efforts, the pope promised his warriors remission from their sins.

After Obama’s speech, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a wannabe GOP presidential candidate, reminded us that the Crusades happened a long time ago. Acting as a religious historian, Jindal assured a nervous nation that “the medieval Christian threat is under control.” Good to know.

But that doesn’t mean that the term “Crusades” is some sort of benign, even quaint, historical reference.

As part of that long-ago “threat,” the Roman Catholic Crusaders were equal opportunity attackers during their two centuries of bloody assaults, killing thousands of Jews, Muslims and even Orthodox Christians. In 2001, St. John Paul II wrote to Christodoulos, the Orthodox archbishop of Athens, saying: “It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret.”

When the Christian Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in July 1099, they killed untold numbers of Muslims. That massacre is an integral part of the Islamic narrative about the West and the Crusaders.

Today, many anti-Western Muslim militants, including al-Qaida and the self-declared Islamic State, label all Westerners in the Middle East, including Jews, as “Crusaders” who will ultimately be expelled from the region, just as the original Crusaders were ousted after they lost the final battle in Acre (now a part of modern Israel) in 1291.

While Christians may debate the positive and negative legacies of the Crusades, the lethal events of that horrific era are, however, indelibly etched into the collective memory of the Jewish people.

Godfrey of Bouillon, a prominent Crusade leader from France, wanted “to go on this journey (to Jerusalem) only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name ‘Jew,’ thus assuaging his (Jesus) own burning wrath.” Spurred by such fiery rhetoric while marching to the Holy Land, the Crusaders stopped along the way and murdered thousands of Jews — including women and children — in the German towns of Mainz, Trier, Cologne and Regensburg.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, is the author of "Cushing, Spellman, O'Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations." RNS photo courtesy Rabbi A. James Rudin

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.” Photo courtesy Rabbi A. James Rudin

Although some Catholics offered protection to the vulnerable Jewish communities, Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan, an eyewitness to the slaughter of innocents, wrote of “cruel  … Frenchmen and Germans … (who) put crosses on their clothing and were more plentiful than locusts on the face of the earth.”

When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, they burned a synagogue filled with Jews. For the next 88 years, the Christian rulers did not allow Jews to live in the city.

No wonder the single word “Crusades” is filled with such extraordinary emotional and historical power, and one that should be used carefully, if ever.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)

KRE/MG END RUDIN

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A. James Rudin

10 Comments

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  • Thank you, Mr. Rudin, for providing an alternate viewpoint from what I would have expected here. Namely, the entrenched battle between those who claim that the Crusades was a war like any other–bloody and amoral on the part of multiple parties–and those who would claim it was merely a defensive war on the part of the Christians.

    It is nice to hear from writers who are neither Christian nor purely secular, that some new insight can be brought to the discussion.

  • Thanks for sharing this. History, as they say, is written by the victors. But facts are hard to destroy. The dilution and revision of history will undoubtedly continue apace, and what is factual will increasingly take on a mythical aspect. Yet we can hope some will keep the candle burning.

  • Thanks for introducing some much-needed facts to this discussion that has been monopolized by religious fanatics. I might suggest the book:
    When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs
    by Charles Kimball for further reading on this subject.

  • If the Muslims had not antagonized Christian pilgrims, the Church would have had no need to confront them. Islam has always been a violent “religion”, it is a tenet of their faith to convert or kill infidels. Christian violence pales in comparison with Islam, just as the validity of Islamic beliefs pale in comparison with the Christian Faith and the authority of its Founder.

  • yes James, you’re 100% right. just like Jesus said, “turn the other cheek, unless it’s someone else’s fault. then kill them!” I’m paraphrasing, but I think that is verse is Teaphesians 6:66

  • Jeff, if you need more information to support your excellent quote:

    “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (French: Les Croisades vues par les Arabes) is a French language historical essay by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf.

    As the name suggests, the book is a narrative retelling of primary sources drawn from various Arab chronicles that seeks to provide an Arab perspective on the Crusades, and especially regarding the Crusaders – the Franks (Franj), as the Arabs called them – who are considered cruel, savage, ignorant and culturally backward. From the first invasion in the eleventh century through till the general collapse of the Crusades in the thirteenth century, the book constructs a narrative that is the reverse of that common in the Western world, describing the main facts as bellicose and displaying situations of a quaint historic setting where Western Christians are viewed as “barbarians”, unaware of the most elementary rules of honor, dignity and social ethics.”

  • So “Crusades” is a word “that should be used carefully, if ever.” I have a problem with the “if ever” part. I HOPE that the author is not suggesting we should just forget all about it, lest the “goood name” of Christianity be besmirched by the truth of mis-deads performed in its name.

    Islam is, after all, not the only “mother-lode of bad ideas” out there. Islam just happens to be responsible for the highest body count at the present time. At the moment.

  • You corrupt the message of Jesus, His life and teachings were the ideal man must strive for. Certainly mankind cannot sit by and allow itself to be slaughtered. The Crusades were a belated defense against Muslim attacks, they were not started to eradicate the Muslim faith. Pull out all the horrible incidents you want, and an equal amount can be ascribed to Islam…….you are talking about wars fought 1,000 years ago. Only Muslims and the anti-Catholic rabble cite the Crusdes as something more than it actually was……..a war…..

  • This is a really stupid comment. Jesus said “turn the other cheek”, not “let someone chop off your head and disembowel you.”
    Getting slapped in the face hurts and is insulting, in which case you should “turn the other cheek.” Muslims were slaughtering Christians within muslim countries. As Pope Urban II cited when calling for Christians to go East to save these people “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” -John 15:13
    I think you really have no idea of the history here. If you think ISIS is bad; then you know nothing of the Seljuk Turks.

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