Holy War in Christianity: The Birth and Death of a Paradox

crus[Note: This is the third part in a “holy-war trilogy”. Previous posts on Islam and Judaism are here and here, respectively.]

Reuven Firestone hasn’t written a book on the crusades, but I will try to address the theme of Christian holy war as he did for Islam and Judaism. We saw that jihad is essential to Islam, while holy war holds much less importance in Judaism. In Christianity it has no basis, which is why the crusades are so fascinating.

When Christianity became the religion of the state, it did not co-opt the idea of holy war, even though it would have benefited immensely from doing so. The idea of sacred violence would remain unthinkable for centuries, because in Christian thought, holy war was exactly that: unthinkable. From the fourth century to the eleventh, the church taught that violence was intrinsically evil, even when justified, particularly under the influence of Augustine.

The Problem of Christian Knights

What did happen was that a more “muscular” Christianity evolved after the collapse of the Roman Empire (476 AD), in the centuries of warfare against barbarians to the north and east. The Germanic peoples in the fifth and sixth centuries were thoroughly steeped in a warrior culture. Plunder, tribute, and warbands provided a new basis for economic and social cohesion. The church had no option but to recognize these values, even as it sought to diffuse them as much as possible. Essentially, Germanic values became modified by the Christian ethos. The knight represented a Christianized version of the Frankish warrior hero, taught that their profession was a necessary evil but inherently sinful. As a result, they felt spiritually trapped. Their violent obligations made sin inevitable; monks told them that their transgressions would trigger gruesome torments in the afterlife.

The church tried its damnedest to curb knightly violence. It proclaimed the Peace of God in the late 980s, and then reinforced it with the Truce of God in the 1020s. The Peace required knights to protect the weak and the poor and the defenseless, while the Truce prohibited them from any fighting period on Thursdays and Fridays, and special feasts and holy seasons. Violations of either the Peace or Truce carried the threat of excommunication. These were commendable pacifist strategies, but telling a warrior not to fight was like telling a monk not to pray — an epic fail. The Peace and Truce movements saw revivals throughout the eleventh century, especially in the 1080s, always to failure though not for lack of trying. The point is that the church fought violence tooth and nail, in view of its savior’s pacifism.

The crusades were practically a last-ditch effort to embrace the evil on more enlightened terms. “If you can’t beat it, join it”. Or better yet, copy it; counter the enemy’s tactics (the jihad) with your own version. Christian holy war was a proactive measure which functioned defensively.

1. The crusades were (proactively) the product of frustrated reformist agendas. Urban II’s call for holy war came as a godsend to Christian knights. It accomplished what the Peace and Truce movements tried in vain. It was the antidote to Augustine’s theory of just war which only exacerbated knightly guilt. By reversing the morality of violence — by making bloodshed sacred under the right conditions — knights could freely be themselves. As warriors they could “kill for Christ” and have their sins remitted, enabling them to bypass suffering in purgatory. “If you must have blood,” said Urban, “bathe in the blood of the infidels. You who have been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight against the Muslims.” Urban exported knightly violence abroad, in a defensive service, and in the words of a medieval preacher, “By this kind of warfare, people make their way to heaven who perhaps would never reach it by another road.”

2. The crusades were (defensively) a delayed response to Islamic jihad. It was actually Gregory VII in the 1070s, not Urban II in 1090s, who first attempted to launch a crusade. He had introduced the concept of penitential warfare as distinguished from secular warfare, and he tried putting such warfare into practice after the Seljuk victory over the Greeks at Manzikert (1071). In 1074 he announced his intention to lead, in person, a holy army to help the eastern Christians against Islamic invaders. The jihad inspired the crusades, though Christianity “copied” the Islamic idea only so far. Jihad was mandatory and essential to Islamic faith; the crusades were voluntary, hard to justify theologically, and often came under criticism. Gregory’s effort failed in any case. Urban succeeded years later when the Greeks again called for help, due to his ambitions. He preached the crusade in a massive tour of France (1095), and used his skills as a rhetorician to ignite warrior passions, painting lurid accounts of Muslim atrocities.

The crusades, then, derived in part from papal reformist theology as a reply to Germanic martial culture, and in part from the Islamic jihad whose premise of sacred violence it mirrored. The First Crusade was an amazing success, while the efforts that followed in Palestine ranged from the moderately successful to the disastrous. The Muslims of Egypt and Mesopotamia never accepted the existence of Christian kingdoms in Palestine and Syria — anymore than they accepted Christian European nations — and attacked them repeatedly.

Imagining the Crusade

With the crushing Muslim victory in 1291, the crusades ended in Palestine, and with this a change in the idea of holy war. Crusading evolved into a “way of being” more than waging war per se. Military campaigns against the Muslim world certainly continued into the 16th century — primarily in Spain, Italy, and against the Ottoman Turks — as well as in other theaters, like the Baltic region (Finland, Estonia, and Prussia). But the idea of Christian holy-war was kept alive primarily as a state of mind. Christopher Tyerman calls this “imagining the crusade”. The holy-war movement was increasingly spiritualized, and kept alive primarily through festivals, confraternities, guilds, charities, taxes, public processions, and a cult of relics. Crusading became “something to be believed in more than something to do” (God’s War, pp 825-827).

The spiritualization process is similar to the way post-70 rabbis imagined repossessing the land of Israel: through settlement instead of military conquest, and preaching Noahide religion to its Gentile inhabitants instead of subjugating them. They also imagined becoming “new priests” in the wake of the temple’s destruction: through study of the Torah, as table-purity at home reinvented sacrifice on the altar. For the rabbis as much the later crusaders, the material loss of Jerusalem and its environs necessitated the imagining of tradition to keep it alive. The idea of holy war remained important even as its application became problematic.

The 16th Century to the Present

The difference is that in Judaism, holy war was bound to return in its literal manifestation once Jews were again in political control. The crusades, on the other hand, were foreordained to pass from Christian nations, never having a proper grounding to begin with. They had always cut against the pacifism of the New Testament, and the church knew it. Europe became more globalized and cosmopolitan, and it’s hard to do business with people while slaughtering them. (Capitalism has its faults, but religious war-mongering isn’t one of them; warfare is engaged for economic advantage.) In the secular state, crusading seemed archaic to secularists, religiously wrong-headed to religionists, and anti-Christian to Christians. The Islamic world, on the other hand, never evolved in the direction of Christian Europe. This is not only because of its political canvass, but because of beliefs endemic to Islam. Muhammad is the warlord exemplar. Jesus would have excoriated the crusaders with every fiber of his pacifist being.

Wrap-Up: Holy War in “the Faiths of Abraham”

There’s no question that history imposed a certain trajectory on the three faiths. Judaism and Christianity began on the losing side, while Islam was triumphantly ascendant. But historical accidents only explain so much. Islam happened to be victorious conquering the world, but its success persisted on the strength of mandatory militant religiosity. Judaism’s loss of political ground made it impossible to repossess the promised land, but the idea remained important (though not essential) in Jewish thought, grounded in scripture and tradition. Christianity’s sudden favor with Constantine didn’t see the result we might expect, based on the political examples of Judaism and Islam. The idea of holy war was consistently rejected for centuries, and then finally accepted in defense against Islam to solve the dilemma of a knight’s salvation. The eventual spiritualization, and then rejection, of the crusades didn’t require a loss of political control, only a simple recognition that holy wars were as much anathema to Christianity as they were to secular polities.

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