The Crusades: From the Editor — The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

RECENTLY, a group of Christian leaders, mostly missionaries to the Muslim world, gathered in Jerusalem, at the spot where 900 years earlier Christian knights and soldiers stormed the walls. They read historical accounts of the Jerusalem massacre. Then they formally apologized for the Crusades. I apologize for their apology.

Not because I’m a cheerleader for the Crusades. I cringe when I think of the centuries of slaughter and pillaging done in the name of Christ, with the blessing of the church. I’m saddened by what Muslims and heretics suffered. As philosopher David Hume put it, the Crusades stand as a “durable monument to human folly.”

But it’s too easy, when we repudiate actions of Christians of other times and places, to subtly repudiate those Christians. They become the distant uncle with the dark and troubled past—someone we don’t talk about. And when we’re forced to, we shift nervously and turn a little red.

For too long, modern Christians have assumed the crusaders are not spiritual parents but distant uncles: “If these crusaders were real Christians, they wouldn’t have done such a thing!”

But the crusaders were real Christians. They deplored their sins. They longed for forgiveness. They loved fellow Christians in the East. They yearned to do something noble and lasting for their Lord. They prayed and fasted before battles and praised God after victories. Their devotion and courage make ours look juvenile.

So much of what they did was wrong. Yes, and all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So there’s little point in becoming judgmental. Better to try to understand the crusaders in the context of their times.

This issue focuses on crusades to the Holy Land, made between 1096 and 1291, especially on the First Crusade. But church-sponsored military action, with an indulgence attached, continued against unbelievers and bad believers (heretics) through the sixteenth century. Some historians, as you’ll see in our interview, suggest that in parts of Christendom today, crusading is alive and well.

We present you, then, with a movement and a time in which the good, the bad, and the ugly mingled, when Christian men and women did wonderful and horrible things, when they desperately loved God and neighbor and yet fell so short, as do all of us.

 
By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #40 in 1993]

Next articles

How Could Christians Do This?

Why followers of the Prince of Peace waged war.

Bruce L. Shelley

Why You Should Crusade

The author of On Loving God, also urged Christians to fight for Christ. Here are some excerpts from a letter written in 1147.

Bernard of Clairvaux

The Crusades: A Gallery of Martial Monks & Holy Kings

The great preachers, planners, and fighters of the Holy Land crusades.

Stephen M. Miller

Major Crusades to the East: Christian History Timeline

Chronology of major events in the crusades.

the Editors
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