Do Christians Need to Apologize for the Crusades?

In university, I took a class on Islamic history and theology. Naturally, the course touched upon the Crusades, but we did not solemnly meditate upon that period of history much longer than it took to go over in class. Sometimes people try apologizing for the Crusades as a diplomatic maneuver when they talk about Jesus, but I have two primary reactions to the idea of making such an apology: 1. I’m not sorry—I didn’t do it! 2. Apologizing for the Crusades is just a rote response—are we just trying to get out of feeling bad? C. Michael Patton over at the blog Parchment and Pen wrote a series of posts in January and February debunking misconceptions about the Crusades and arguing for why they were necessary. I largely agree with what he wrote, but I also want to fill in some things that I believe he left out.

The series is entitled “Four Misconceptions about the Crusades,” but I could not find number four. (Yes, really.) I will quickly deal with the posts in order:

  1. Misconception number one: “The Crusades were not provoked.” In sum, Muslims had been conquering Christian territory for hundreds of years. The Crusades were one response.
  2. Misconception number two: “The Crusaders were greedy opportunists.” In sum, the Crusaders gave up personal fortunes in order to go on the Crusades. Sacking and burning was standard operating procedure for wars of the time, and it helped them recover some of the costs of going.
  3. Misconception number three: “The Fourth Crusade was a Christian-on-Christian fratricidal tragedy.” In sum, the Crusaders were responding to Byzantine treachery when they sacked Constantinople. It was bad, but so is war.

Then he wrote the last post, “Why I Think the Christian Crusades Were Necessary,” describing the Crusades as an appropriate response to Muslim invasions of Christian-held lands. The maps in this post illustrate the spread of Islam compared to the territory controlled by Byzantine and European Christian rulers. In a “kill the chicken to terrify the monkey” moment, Christendom struck back. Europe responded to the Muslim threat and demonstrated that they were not interested in submitting to Muslim rule. According to Patton, even if the Crusades began on a pretext, Europeans had to flex a little muscle to make Islamic rulers think twice about continuing invasions into Europe.

I learned principally two things from Patton’s blog series: 1. there is nothing for us to apologize for on an individual basis in reference to the Crusades, 2. the Crusades were not magnitudes worse than any other war in the whole of human history—not even second or third place to the worst one. In his post on the necessity for the Crusades, Patton links the Crusades with the recent American war in Iraq, basically calling that a demonstration of American power against America’s enemies. Demonstrating American power is a political question (with possible religious connotations), and the connection between politics and religion embodied in the Crusades is definitely one point open to criticism. Nevertheless, even on a purely political dimension, if Europe did not want Islamic rulers, Europeans had to fight.

Pacifists, anti-imperialists, atheist critics of Christianity, and Muslim apologists can all find something to criticize in the Crusades. The Crusades are one set of wars continually remembered without reference to other wars happening at the same time. In that era, Christendom and Islam were roughly equal in terms of military power. It was not a simple case of imperialist Europe practicing on its future colonial subjects. Muslims remember their glory days with pride, days in which their literature, philosophy, science, medicine, and civilization were more advanced than that of Europe. Their recollection is correct. If you must go on with the nonsense about Muslims only lifting civilization from Greece and Rome and contributing nothing of their own, please do it in the other room. The Crusades (1095-1291) probably caught Islam in a period of weakness, but the 1453 Fall of Constantinople and the 1529 Siege of Vienna were yet to come. As for America, as the strongest Western power, it has its own problems in handling the issue of the Crusades.

America presently has to answer for the Crusades because America is the strongest Western power, with the strength to start wars wherever it wants. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the interpretation of Israel as a proxy state? Crusades. American military bases in the Middle East as a legacy of the Cold War and the Persian Gulf War? Dens of Crusaders. CIA support for the Shah of Iran? Neo-imperialism. “Crusader” is an easy and halfway appropriate epithet to apply to Americans in the Middle East. There is certainly a grain of truth floating the stereotype that Canadians are more popular abroad than Americans. Nations and nation-states have longer lives than any individual, so naturally their collective memories will reach back hundreds of years. Dealing with individuals in the present is a different matter entirely.

Each new generation uncorks a full bottle of ink, and they learn to write by copying what their parents write at the height of their talent. Parents write with greater skill and sense of context with their own grievances than do their children. Unless their children mature, they only pick up the grievance and go on to write about it with youthful zeal and a full bottle of ink. People generally have an awful sense of history, Christians and Muslims alike. It is harder for children to write well about their parents’ struggles than to write well about their own. Although we have the benefit of hindsight when discussing the Crusades, ink spent passionately denouncing them is ink wasted for solving contemporary evils. Also, if the Crusades are a real sticking point in your relationship with Muslim friends, how likely is it that you are the problem in your relationship with your Muslim friends and not the Crusades?

If you are not a jerk in the present, there is no real reason for the past to make people hate you now. There is no judge other than God who can hand down a just sentence for what happened in the Crusades. We cannot do enough to satisfy anyone who takes it upon themselves to get justice for the Crusades. The only way short of divine intervention to erase a historical grudge is to become a member of the historically offended party. There are Christian organizations dropping “crusade” from their names so that the name does not distract people from the gospel message, so it is right on the one hand to watch out for historically sensitive issues and right on the other hand to not accidentally look like you want to reenact the Crusades. When the Crusades come up in conversation with real live Muslim friends, let’s learn to do something other than dish out apologies.

When I did drama in high school, I had to learn to fence for a scene from Romeo and Juliet. I learned quickly to use my wrist and not my whole arm: the whole arm is stronger, but I got tired very quickly from heaving the sword about. Apologies can be powerful. Apologies can be clumsy. What do you want from making an apology—to not feel bad about the Crusades? To substitute words for deeds in making friends with Muslim neighbors? Ask questions to find out what people learned about the Crusades when they were growing up. Make no concessions to detractors, but learn how other people view history. The Crusades might just be a muckraking feint preceding the “Christianity is bunk!” lunge for your vital organs. If the Crusades never happened, what else would we be apologizing for? Perhaps silence would be better than answering every attempt to fix us with responsibility for the Crusades. From time to time, it is helpful for institutions to issue statements explaining their past. They can refer back to official explanations and apologies when people ask questions in the future, but it is a waste of time to give a fresh answer to everyone who asks. Fence honestly, but use your wrist.