Let’s Go to Theology Class: Perspectives on the Crusades

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

The Crusades became a new hot topic around the turn of the 21st century (March 2000), with Pope John Paul II and each succeeding pope making apology for them. Beginning with the horror of 9/11 both presidents and terrorists have referenced the Crusades, for various reasons. What is your opinion of the Crusades?

Sunday Times (London) called The God Delusion (2008) entertaining, wildly informative, a splendidly written polemic. “We are elegantly cajoled, cleverly harangued into shedding ourselves of this superstitious nonsense that has bedeviled us since our first visit to Sunday school.” Dawkins: “Imagine, with John Lennon, a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7 1, no Crusades, no witch-hunts…” 2 Reddit posted many anti-religion quotes over the years since 9/11: Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings.

Christianity is saddled with guilt regarding the Crusades, defending against the accusation that they were unprovoked attacks fueled by religious intolerance. In AD 636, Muslims captured Jerusalem, Alexandria, Egypt, and Spain. Gonzalez says Christians, faced with the safety and order of the state, developed the Just War theory.3 Riley-Smith says Augustine was “at his most positive when writing about the right intention required of those who authorized and took part in violence,” adding, “only use as much force as necessary.”4 Just cause, legitimate authority, and right intention should be followed in Christian violence. The Crusades were to be reactive only and not wars of conversion. Muslims have a not-so-just policy of holy war (jihad), a solemn duty of every Muslim. The Bible forbids blanket use of military might or forcing unbelievers to convert or be killed. When Muhammad died (632), caliphs who succeeded him prosecuted a series of wars whose aim was conquest. These invasions had an egregious impact on the ancient centers of Christianity. Gonzalez states, “Islam presented itself as a constant threat to be held back only by armed force, with the result that Christianity became radically militarized.”5 Expansion of Islam eventually threatened Western Europe. Unwavering violent takeovers by Islamic forces had to be defended against. Charles Martel (France) stopped Muslims from invading Europe at the Battle of Tours (732).

The first Crusade (AD 1095-1102) was to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim domination. Muslims marched toward global domination, seizing land. They demanded conversion or death. Jihad is a religious duty built upon universalism inherent in the Muslim mission. Aggression is a matter of Islamic theology. It has been implied that Islam is a religion of peace. However, the word Islam means “submit.” We cannot dismiss the Crusades entirely as defensive. Riley-Smith says the Crusades were not only fought in the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean region, but also along the Baltic shoreline, in North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Poland, Hungary, the Balkan, and parts of Western Europe, proclaimed not only against Muslims but also pagans, Balts, Lithuanians, shamanist Mongols, Orthodox Russians and Greeks, and Catholics. Riley-Smith says, “The crusading movement generated holy leagues, which were alliances of front-line powers, bolstered by crusade privileges, and military orders, the members of which sometimes operated out of their own order-states.”6

Regardless, many believe Muslims should wage jihad as a protest to the Crusades.  Osama bin Laden announced a fatwa against America because Saudi Arabia used American troops to fight against Saddam Hussein. He was infuriated by the presence of U.S. troops throughout the “holy lands” since the 1980s. Yet Madden denies any correlation between the Crusades and increased terrorism today. As with any religion, biaes, prejudices, selfish interests, and dogmatic defections abound. It is impossible to claim unequivocally that a religion or political body adheres 100% to applicable theology or law. It is unfortunate that the Crusades are often seen as a black mark against Christianity. Todays liberal thinkers and pacifists trade heavily on their opposition to war (of any type) as unjust, stating a “God of peace” cannot also be a “God of war.” Today’s evangelists and apologists must address this issue responsibly with gentleness and reverence.


July 7, 2005 London Bombings.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2008), 23.

Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 293.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 12-13.

5 Gonzalez, 293.

6 Riley-Smith, 9.

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