People often refer to the Crusades without understanding their actual history and meaning

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Reactions to the Crusades tend to be black or white. Either the Crusades were evil crimes or they were glorious triumphs of medieval Christendom. The truth is somewhere in between and requires a recognition of the honorable aims of the Crusades and also the crimes committed in their various campaigns.

At the National Prayer Breakfast last February, President Barack Obama exhibited popular misconceptions about the Crusades (and the Inquisition, but that is beyond this article’s focus). Trying to put the atrocities of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in context, Obama said: “Lest we get on our high horse and think this (barbarity) is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” The real problem, which led many commentators to object, is the comparison of the Crusades to ISIS, as if barbaric evil was sanctioned by the Church during the Crusades. President Obama is not alone in misunderstanding history. Shortly after 9/11, President Bill Clinton argued that the memory of the crusaders’ sack of Jerusalem in 1099 led to continued animosity between Muslims and Christians. Ironically, Bin Laden and other leaders of Al-Qaeda have also viewed their actions as responses to the crusaders, even when their targets are secular Westerners and not religious zealots.

According to Professor Thomas Madden, the Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University, the truth is the Crusades were not major events in Islamic history, especially as Muslims ultimately won. Rather, misconceptions of the Crusades were introduced as “constructed memory,” in response to the modern West’s alleged imperialism in recent history.

President Obama’s facile comparison of the Crusades and Islamic terrorism earned a strong reaction, not because the crusaders were innocent. Their atrocities have been well documented. The real difference lies in the motives and goals of these distinct movements. Islamic radicalism sees the use of violence as a legitimate means of establishing the Dar al-Islam, the realm of Islam, in the world. Indeed, Pope Benedict touched a nerve in his Regensburg Address when he cited a dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II and a Muslim, referred to as an “educated Persian.” The exchange linked the use of religious violence to a distorted understanding of the nature of God in violent jihad, the aggressive struggle or resistance against the enemies of Islam. Jihad is a duty for all Muslims and thus a central aspect of Islam. Certainly many Muslims and many interpretations of Islam don’t view jihad as primarily violent, but radical jihad has a long history.

Unlike Mohammed, a warrior and secular leader, Jesus preached love and peace and rejected the establishment of a physical kingdom. Nonetheless, medieval Christendom saw itself as a unified society only in and through the Catholic faith, and accepted Christ as its true King. The Crusades were not seen as an act essential to the Christian faith, comparable to jihad, but rather as a defensive measure in response to centuries of Islamic expansion at the expense of Christians. The Holy Land, Syria, Egypt, North Africa and modern-day Turkey were all Christian lands conquered by Islamic armies. By the late 11th century, the Byzantine Empire was in danger of extinction and Catholic pilgrims to Jerusalem were being slaughtered by Seljuk Turks. The Byzantine Emperor called upon the Pope to organize a response to this aggression, and Pope Urban II responded by calling the First Crusade in 1095.

The misreading of the Crusades, which persisted in academia into the early twentieth century and remains popular, saw them primarily as both a power grab by young, landless nobles and an expression of religious intolerance. In What Were the Crusades?, published in 1977, Jonathan Riley-Smith transformed Crusade studies. He is an historian, the founder of the Society for the Study of the Crusades and Latin East and the author of 15 additional books on the Crusades. The key point he establishes is the defensive nature of the Crusades—in stark contrast to Islamic expansionism and terrorism— which followed Augustine’s teaching on Just War Theory:

“It was just to defend one’s country, laws and traditional way of life, just to recover property unlawfully taken by another, perhaps even just to enforce by physical means a properly delivered judicial sentence. It was not just to wage a war of aggrandizement or conversion.”

Although it must be said that the Baltic and Albigensian Crusades were conceived as conversion campaigns, the Crusades to the Holy Land definitely met Augustine’s criteria by liberating Christian lands, defending the Byzantine Empire (even if some actions were criminal) and protecting pilgrims visiting the holy sites.

Smith refutes the false assumptions of modern scholars, especially Steven Runciman, whose writings have helped perpetuate contemporary Crusade myths. Smith explains that “the image of the landless youngsters on horseback riding off in search of land and wealth has been replaced by a more complex picture of knights and nobles … making sacrifices” of wealth, time, and especially their lives. Further, Smith argues that taking up the cross— worn literally on a crusader’s clothing—in a Crusade was ultimately an act of love and penance, since crusaders knew they were unlikely to return (and few did). Their goals included the liberation of Holy Sites, defense of pilgrims and atonement of sin through the hardships of traveling far and risking one’s life.

Because of the fractured feudal political situation in Europe, a central figure was needed to direct the effort. Accordingly, the Pope assumed the key coordinating role and called on Christians to set aside violent conflicts at home and pledge service to the true king of Christendom, Christ.

Smith defined the nature and purpose of a Crusade as “an expedition authorized by the pope on Christ’s behalf, the leading participants which took vows and consequently enjoyed the privileges of protection at home and the [reception of an] indulgence.” The Crusades were holy wars authorized by the Church with the aim of liberating the holy sites. Smith further clarified that this “was a special kind of holy war in that it was also penitential. It was at first associated with pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” The penitential nature referred to the indulgence granted to crusaders, which resulted in the forgiveness of all temporal punishment for the forgiven sin (in shorthand, known as the forgiveness of sin).

If it is important to put the Crusades in the proper context and to appreciate their legitimate goals, it is just as important to recognize that the Crusades were marred by the sins and failures of individual and groups of crusaders. For example, as noted in a New York Times article in February 2015, Jews were slaughtered during the First Crusade. Tragically, some crusaders and other Christians saw Jews as enemies of Christ. However, such attacks were never an accepted aim of any Crusade and instead were condemned by many bishops, popes and even personally stopped by St. Bernard.

Also, crusaders often participated in reprisals against Muslims. However, this was not done primarily through religious intolerance, but rather according to the common, albeit egregious, siege practices of the day.

In 2000, St. John Paul II officially apologized for crimes committed during the Crusades. Regarding the Fourth Crusade, the pope spoke to the Patriarch of Constantinople, saying:

“Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret. How can we fail to see here the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the human heart?”

Although war is at times justified and even necessary, it also unleashes dark forces within the human heart, the mysterium ininquitatis. As a result—but not as an excuse—Christians did commit terrible sins in the name of God.

But this was not equivalent to Islamic terrorism, which sanctions violence as a religious obligation. In fact, ISIS commits outrageous atrocities—public beheadings, immolations and crucifixions even of children, as well as rape and selling captives into slavery—as part of a strategic plan to incite apocalyptic worldwide violence, as chronicled at length recently in The Atlantic magazine. While most Muslims reject this radicalism, it can’t be denied that intrinsically violent forms of Islam have existed since the religion’s founding.

How dangerous then to misinterpret Christian failings as essentially similar. Alternatively, it would be dangerous to valorize the Crusades, which would create the opposite false equivalency, and could be used to rationalize unjust aggression.

As Ross Douthat noted last February in the New York Times:

“The Crusades as an epoch-spanning phenomenon aren’t in and of themselves a great stain on Christian history: They’re a phenomenon in Christian history that includes many stains and sins and great crimes, but also involves many admirable figures and heroic moments, many great tragedies, and many individuals and incidents that simply resist any kind of manichaean reading.”

Dr. R. Jared Staudt, serves as Assistant Professor of Theology and Catholic Studies, University of Mary