Really? Are we at the point in public discourse where we are actually defending THE CRUSADES?
So, yes. The Crusades, like every Geo-political movement, were complicated and ambiguous. So was World War I, the dropping of the Atomic bombs, the rise of Nazism, slavery in the American South, etc. And it is the proper work of the historian to remind us how complicated and ambiguous such movements are. But, we will be at a loss if the focus on such complexity leads us to abandon our moral judgments about such events and movements.
So, for a moment, let me just remind you.
The Crusades were shot through with racism. Take the following quotes from various recollections of Pope Urban’s call to the first Crusade.
I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy THAT VILE RACE from the lands of our friends.”
“The sad news has come from Jerusalem and Constantinople that the people of Persia, AN ACCURSED AND FOREIGN RACE, enemies of God, ‘a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not steadfast with God,’ have invaded the lands of those Christians …
You should be moved especially by the holy grave of our Lord and Savior which is now held by UNCLEAN PEOPLES, and by the holy place which are treated with dishonor and irreverently befouled with their uncleanness.”
“Holy men do not possess those cities; nay, BASE AND BASTARD TURKS hold sway over our brothers.
Those advocating for the crusades often confused human power with divine power. One recollection of Pope Urban’s call to the crusades indicated that God would lose the battle of Armageddon if the Crusaders were not successful.
… the mother of churches should flourish anew to the worship of Christianity, whether, perchance, he may not wish other regions of the East to be restored to the faith against the approaching time of the antichrist. For it is clear that antichrist is not to do battle not with the Jews, not with the Gentiles; but according to the etymology of his name, he will attack Christians. And if the Antichrist finds there no Christians (just as at present when scarcely any dwell there), no one will be there to oppose him, or whom he may rightly overcome …
And the Crusades cannot be separated from the whole matter of indulgences, in which one’s works in waging war were said to be able to eradicate one’s sin. Again, a recollection of Pope Urban’s call makes the point.
All who dies by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.
Or consider the claim of Bernard of Clairvaux, who taught that participation in the crusades allowed the participant to fulfill his “obligations” to God, and even took a place in the divine plan of salvation, where God allowed Godself to be in need of the Crusader so that the Crusader could be saved!
He puts himself in your debt so that in return for your taking up arms in his cause, he can reward you with pardon for your sins and everlasting glory.
The Crusades included several massacres of innocents. Take for example the account of one observer, reflecting on the holiness of the way that the Crusading armies dealt with the women who had been taken captive after a battle at Antioch:
We did nothing evil to them, but simply speared them through.
So, were the Crusades complicated? Yes. Should Christians now try to claim that they were morally good? No. And Christians should be the first to recognize the moral theological mess that they represent.