Another View on Obama’s Comments on the Crusades, Slavery, and Jim Crow

As I wrote last week, President Obama was both right and wrong in his comments at the National Prayer Breakfast when he brought up Western Christianity’s involvement in the Crusades, Inquisitions, Slavery, and Jim Crow Segregation in America. He was right to say that all religions can be corrupted and affirm things that are inconsistent with that religion’s founding teachings. That is what happened with Christianity. He was not wrong historically to bring it up. He was wrong in assuming that all religions are the same at their core and in not illustrating what caused Christianity to recognize the error and to expunge it. His comments were superficial in not asking questions about Islam’s reforming principle and how that might work in the future, if it does exist and is to work at all.

President Obama was also wrong to bring the issue of the Crusades up (happened 800-900 years ago) and to bring up the issue of Christian support of slavery (150-400 years ago) and segregation (50-150 years ago) in the current context of denouncing Islamic Extremism today. Those are interesting subjects to consider in discussing how religion can be corrupted by people wanting to use God to promote their own way of life and their own position, as I detail in my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide, but they are unhelpful subjects in addressing violence and oppression supported by religion today. Unless Western Christians are currently supporting violence from a religious perspective and are directing the use of arms against those of other religions, then the perspective espoused by President Obama is irrelevant and muddies the waters.

His view is also incomplete in other ways and there is a lot of scholarship that says so.

The Crusades. Historians, such as Rodney Stark, have shown for some time now that the popular view on the Crusades has been incomplete for some time now. Stark wrote God’s Battalions to give a more complete view of what led to the Crusades and of what they actually were. While any Church sanctioned use of violence and warfare should go through the deepest examination and will likely lead to abuse, and while the Crusades definitely contained atrocities and actions that we should reject as being out-of-bounds, we should not fail to understand what was happening in the hundreds of years before the Crusades.

In addition to Stark, this historical context for the Crusades is provided by Cambridge University scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith in his book, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. Below is an article written about his book by Thomas F. Madden in First Things from 2009.


A transcription of the Bampton Lectures he delivered in October 2007 at Columbia University, it is a thin book, brimming with insights, approachable by anyone interested in the subject.

It is generally thought that Christians attacked Muslims without provocation to seize their lands and forcibly convert them. The Crusaders were Europe’s lacklands and ne’er-do-wells, who marched against the infidels out of blind zealotry and a desire for booty and land. As such, the Crusades betrayed Christianity itself. They transformed “turn the other cheek” into “kill them all; God will know his own.”

Every word of this is wrong. Historians of the Crusades have long known that it is wrong, but they find it extraordinarily difficult to be heard across a chasm of entrenched preconceptions….

….All the Crusades met the criteria of just wars. They came about in reaction attacks against Christians or their Church. The First Crusade was called in 1095 in response to the recent Turkish conquest of Christian Asia Minor, as well as the much earlier Arab conquest of the Christian-held Holy Land. The second was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Edessa in 1144. The third was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and most other Christian lands in the Levant in 1187.

In each case, the faithful went to war to defend Christians, to punish the attackers, and to right terrible wrongs. As Riley-Smith has written elsewhere, crusading was seen as an act of love—specifically the love of God and the love of neighbor. By pushing back Muslim aggression and restoring Eastern Christianity, the Crusaders were—at great peril to themselves—imitating the Good Samaritan. Or, as Innocent II told the Knights Templar, “You carry out in deeds the words of the gospel, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’”

But the Crusades were not just wars. They were holy wars, and that is what made them different from what came before. They were made holy not by their target but by the Crusaders’ sacrifice. The Crusade was a pilgrimage and thereby an act of penance. When Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, he created a model that would be followed for centuries. Crusaders who undertook that burden with right intention and after confessing their sins would receive a plenary indulgence. The indulgence was a recognition that they undertook these sacrifices for Christ, who was crucified again in the tribulations of his people.

And the sacrifices were extraordinary. As Riley-Smith writes in this book and his earlier The First ­Crusaders, the cost of crusading was staggering. Without financial assistance, only the wealthy could afford to embark on a Crusade. Many noble families impoverished themselves by crusading.

Historians have long known that the image of the Crusader as an adventurer seeking his fortune is exactly backward. The vast majority of Crusaders returned home as soon as they had fulfilled their vow. What little booty they could acquire was more than spent on the journey itself. One is hard pressed to name a single returning Crusader who broke even, let alone made a profit on the journey. And those who returned were the lucky ones. As Riley-Smith explains, recent studies show that around one-third of knights and nobility died on crusade. The death rates for lower classes were even higher.

None of this is to defend the Crusades or appeal to religious violence being appropriate. And, the idea of plenary indulgences was wrong Biblically (speaking from a Reformed Protestant perspective, obviously). Christ is our substitutionary atonement for sin and we cannot earn forgiveness or merit the merit of Christ. I believe that all theological justifications for the Crusades were wrong and should be rejected on Biblical and moral grounds. What this does show us, however, is that the simplistic understanding of the Crusades as being wars of aggression by violent, greedy European Christians against peaceful Muslims minding their own business are historically inaccurate. And, this simplistic understanding rejects all context and ignores the fact that Muslims had been conquering and subjugating Christian lands for 450 years prior to the First Crusade. Context does matter. While the Crusades were wrong and should be rejected as a viable means to handle problems (especially when sanctioned by religion), the popular, contemporary view of them is incomplete.

Slavery. As I wrote in my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide, Christianity in the South was subverted to promote slavery, racism, and later, segregation/Jim Crow. However, it should be noted that the great impulse for the Abolition of Slavery in America and England came from Christians who were working from a Biblical perspective of every person being created in God’s Image. As I show in the last third of the book, the “Better Way of Jesus” is the Way of the Cross and sacrificial love and seeing all people as being valuable to God. These are Christian ideals that eventually won out over the arguments for race-based slavery. We cannot understand the fight against slavery and later against racism without also seeing the role that Christianity played. Studying the legacy of John Newton, William Wilberforce, and the Clapham Sect in England also gives insight into the role of Christianity in abolition.

In addition, one must consider that the Civil Rights Movement initiated and led by African-Americans was largely a Christian initiated movement. It was led by Black Baptist pastors and churches. The mass meetings that gave fuel to the movement were held in churches and Black Christians in the South were the foot soldiers in the movement. They were inspired and aided by a Biblical view of their worth and value as people made in God’s image and loved by God. Scholars such as Charles Marsh and David Chappell have told this story well in their work, but the popular understanding of the Civil Rights Movement as part of a Third Great Awakening in American History that was the second wing of the post-WWII Evangelical revival has been largely submerged under the weight of secular co-opting. Racial division kept this work of God in American life from unifying and being what it truly could have been.

What does all of this mean? It means that when we talk about religion, peace, violence, and the darker aspects of human existence, we are talking about complicated things that require more thought than can be given in a blog post or a speech or a news article or a sound bite. We are talking about hundreds of years of history, millions of people, and ideas and reactions that are incredibly complex. The truth can be known, but it is likely a truth that has more to do with “both/and,” and “yes/but” more than it does “either/or.”

The Crusades were a mess and were wrong, but they were not initated just so that Christians could abuse Muslims and steal their stuff. There were reasons for why they began that should be considered, even if we disagree with them still. American race-based slavery and ensuing racism was horrible and, yes, this evil was wrongly endorsed by many Southern Christians to our great shame. I wrote a book about it. I mentioned the Crusades too as an example of the Church doing wrong. But, there were also many Christians who opposed slavery and racism on Biblical grounds and their legacy is vast and should not be forgotten.

As with most everything, the truth is complicated and nuanced. Wisdom states that it probably would have been better if President Obama had not engaged in the moral equivalency argument from actions in the West from the past. It would also be a good idea for Christians from the West today recognized that the larger point that he was making, while ill-timed, is one that will continue to affect us and our interactions with the larger world. It is best that we understand that world, other religions and arguments, and the mistakes that litter Christian history rather than just react in shock when someone brings it up.

It would also be a good idea if we would remember that the entire Biblical story involves the people of God confessing and repenting of past sins and that, because of the grace and forgiveness found in the Cross of Christ, we can admit past error, experience that grace, and go in forgiveness and freedom to live again. We don’t have to defend ourselves. Our authority is not based in our past exemplary conduct historically. We fall short. This recognition should produce humility in us. Our redemption is based only on the living person of Jesus Christ today as known through His life and message contained in Scripture. We witness to Jesus and His Kingdom – not our own conduct in the past.

And, because of what Jesus has done, not only can we go on in the future without constantly being immobilized by guilt for what happened in the past, but we are also free to help make things right in the lives of those who are still affected by what happened in history – and by lots of other things as well.


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