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Defending Obama

President Obama may some day, if not already, rue the day he compared the Crusades to the current terror tactics of ISIS. But, was his comparison completely off-based?

Several well-circulated articles have appeared by Crusades scholars to put the Presidents remarks to the lie. These articles have been very helpful in setting the record straight. To be sure, the comparison between the Crusades and ISIS is historical revisionism at best. 

Even so, I wonder if the President’s remarks were all wrong. While not an expert in history, never mind Medieval history, I have some serious theological and ethical concerns about the Crusades that I think give some justification to the President’s comparison. While his comparison was troubling in many ways (a discussion for another time!), I do not believe that it was completely without some rationale.

This is what I mean.

First of all, Thomas F. Madden in his First Things article makes clear that the Crusades were a “holy war.” In other words, it was a war of defense, seeking to push mack Islamic aggression that came with the promise of eternal life for its warriors. In other words, Madden notes, the wars need to be understood in penitential terms. Those who fought in the war, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, paid for their sins and earned for themselves a plenary indulgence from the Pope. To say that this is bad theology, not to mention ethically dubious motivation for taking up arms, is an understatement. But what is interesting, for our purposes here, is that Islam sees its Jihad against the infidels in a similar way. War is a means of grace, a way to earn eternal life. Obama is not completely off in his comparison. 

Second, Madden is correct to underscore the history of just war theory in the Christian tradition. Civil magistrates, as Paul explains in Romans 13, do not bear the sword in vain. But is it the role of the church to bear arms for the sake of self-defense? Notice, this is a different question than the one about whether or not an individual Christian may use arms to exercise violence in self-defense or as a member of the state’s military. The tradition’s answer to that latter question is overwhelmingly in the affirmative. But the question is, does the Pope—or any representative of the church—have the authority to command the taking up of arms by those who represent the church and for the sake of the church? It seems to me there is a terrible confusion of spheres of authority at this point. Christ does not say take up your arms and advance my Kingdom through violence or arms. Rather, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor 10:4-5). Furthermore, Jesus says that his Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and when we are reviled we are not to revile in return knowing that we are to joyfully accept the plundering of our property, since we know that we have a better possession and an abiding one (Hebrews 10:34). In other words, to attempt the advancement—or otherwise the defense—of Christianity through carnal weapons is to adopt the same ethic as Islam. Again, Obama was not too far off in his comparison. 

So, what is a Christian to do when fighting the good fight of faith and the cultural warfare we find ourselves in? How about we acknowledge the faults of our forefathers in the past? 

This is not to say that self-defense was not called for—it was. But self-defense should have been carried out by the civil magistrate, not the church. And failing that, the believers suffering under the oppressive hand of an inherently violent religion would have rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name (Acts 5:41). 

In conclusion, the Crusades were not without fault (I wonder if maybe Madden overdoes it with the theological and ethical whitewash?). In fact, it was in many ways very Islam-like. It adopted the presuppositions of Islam’s—if I can put it this way—philosophy of ministry; not to mention its soteriology. Islam believes in the advancement of a worldly religion through carnal means motivated by a semi-Pelagian soteriology. In other words, to use Luther’s distinction, both Islam and the Crusades were driven by a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross.

Let us take the higher road. Instead of feeling like we need to defend Christian errors of the past, we would do well to confess them and then move on to the real claims of Christ seeking the reconciliation of our Muslim neighbors to the one true and living God.


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