Crusades and Memory

I have a new piece up at The Guardian on the recent right-wing fury over President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast (an event for which presidential involvement needs to be ended).

While relatively few contemporary Christians are calling for the crusades these days (although crusader iconography is not uncommon in the US military), it’s a mistake to believe in Christian exceptionalism – the idea that Christianity alone has solved its problems – while other religions are still “medieval”. One of history’s lessons is that any ideology, sacred or secular, that divides the world into ‘us versus them’ can and will be used to justify violence.
But when we talk about the past, we’re often really talking about ourselves. In myscholarship, for instance, I look at the ways in which medieval people developed stories about holy war as a response to contemporary problems – which often had little to do with the Crusades.

Later, I turn to the Crusades themselves:

The Crusades were pretty bad. Historians debate the precise extent and savagery of the violence, but we generally agree that the intensity of the religiously-motivated brutality was staggering. We argue, for example, whether there really was cannibalism during the First Crusade (probably), and whether blood really flowed up to the combatants’ ankles in the Temple of David in 1099 (probably not). But there’s no question that crusaders were sometimes driven to slaughter non-Christian civilian populations both in Europe and in southwest Asia, all in the name of religion.

So do we generally agree that “the intensity of the religiously-motivated brutality was staggering?” I think so, but I’d be interested in hearing from my colleagues. There are, however, all sorts of followup questions about how bad was it, relatively.

For example, there are anti-Jewish pogroms related to the Crusades and anti-Jewish pogroms not related to the Crusades. Does it matter if the ones not related to the Crusades are worse? Does it matter if three or five of the major outbreaks are related to the Crusades? I suggest not – when religiously motivated violence happened, it was terrible.

Moreover, a lot of commentators are throwing the work of my good friend, colleague, and mentor Tom Madden at me (and others Bernard Lewis, but I don’t really care about Lewis). Tom writes about the Crusades as an explicitly defensive war, adopting the rhetoric of medieval people who wrote about it that way. I regard such a claim with considerable skepticism, as the articulation of aggressive wars as defensive is as old as writing about warfare (ok, well, the Greeks. I don’t know anything about justifications for war before the Greeks). But here’s the thing.

Even if we accept the defensive-war reading as 100% accurate, it still doesn’t belie the fundamental point that they involved acts of great violence, that they were religiously motivated, and that the religion in question was Christianity. Christianity, like all religious, and like all ideologies, can be and has been used to justify or inspire violence. This is fundamental to the human condition.

I find it grim, but vital, to simply face up to the dangerous power of ideas.

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