10 February 2015

On crusaders and misguided Crusade apologias

The most recent comments by Obama on the – shall we say, checquered – history of Christianity with regard to human rights, with the usual boxes tickmarked (the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery), did not go over well in the usual quarters, or even in some quarters where Obama might have expected more sympathy. Indeed, many voices on the American right have come out of the woodwork attempting to defend the Crusades as a just response against a violent aggressor, and the Inquisition as having been more lenient than the secular courts. Both of these stances have decent cases to be made, though one might well question the motives of those committing themselves to such stances now. (What has modern American politics to do either with the Crusades or the Inquisition? Slavery and Jim Crow as we understand them are indeed New World phenomena, but at first glance the same cannot be said about the former two.) Coming as Obama’s comments do amidst the continuing US air strikes on Daesh, though, the question needs to be considered seriously, though the answers reflect well neither on the President nor his Crusade-defending detractors.

Even if we grant, for example, that the Crusades were wars of just cause, undertaken with good intentions by well-meaning people at great personal expense and with a profound care for the state of their own souls – and speaking as an Orthodox Christian, indeed our predecessors (notably Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of the Byzantine Empire) prompted and facilitated that cause – the conclusion cannot be escaped that the results were not as bargained for, to put it bluntly.

It is not merely that the Crusaders behaved literally worse than the Goths of Alaric when it came to Jerusalem, or to Constantinople, or to Jews practically anywhere. It is not merely that the just cause devolved into unseemly bickering between self-serving Normans and Franks, and the Byzantine Emperors who had asked for their help. It is not merely that the Crusader states ultimately failed to bring justice to the Christian pilgrims in Muslim-held lands. It is that the Crusades provided a precedent for justifying modern warfare. In the Christian world, war was no longer something which, though a grave wrong, sometimes had to be done out of the necessity of defending the helpless – but something which itself could be exculpatory of other past wrongs. There is every reason to take seriously the idea that noblemen could wash away their sins of past violence through further violence – this was the main innovation of Crusade.

In this, Obama (whether wittingly or not) positions himself as the heir of the very Crusades he criticises. The violent wrongs which have been done by previous American administrations in the Middle East, and even by his own (see here and here), are not to be criticised, are not to be reflected on, are not to be repented. They are to be washed out by air strikes against Daesh – an entity which we have not only helped to create by our blundering actions in Syria and Iraq, but which we continue to help by supplying weapons to ‘moderate’ groups which lie brazenly to our faces – in the hallowed name of liberal ideals.

His criticism of Crusade and of Christian history more generally, merely highlights the self-serving shift in emphasis. Obama’s punchline in castigating Christian crimes is not to call people to question their commitment to America’s wars (or to examine more carefully how they have stoked ‘sectarian war in Syria’ or the ‘murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria’ or the rise of Daesh), but rather to highlight the ‘wisdom in our founders writing in those documents that help found this nation’, and to conflate ‘humility’ in one’s religious understanding with the liberal ideals of America’s founding. Brendan O’Neill of spiked makes the point that these wars are all undertaken with the purpose of exculpating the guilt of a liberal foreign-policy outlook, thus completing the analogy in one final ironic twist. Good intentions are still enough, and blood must still be shed in the Holy Land, that the sins of laïcist America, the Leader of the Free World™, will be forgiven.

Where both President Obama and his detractors miss the point, ultimately, is that President Obama is not to be understood as an anti-Crusader in any meaningful sense. He’s simply stripped the last Christian element from an already dubiously-Christian enterprise, and appropriated it for American foreign-policy idealism, and for the military-industrial complex which reaps the lion’s share of the benefits. Once again, the historical record about Syria and Libya will get papered over by the true believers and the zealots – but this time those true believers are Christian only in a nominal and cultural sense. Their true faith lies with the deists; more wont are they to believe in the credo that ‘the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants’. And with the blood of a few innocent people – but hey, Jefferson will know his own.

1 comment:

  1. You wrote: It is not merely that the Crusaders behaved literally worse than the Goths of Alaric when it came to Jerusalem, or to Constantinople, or to Jews practically anywhere.

    The Goths of Alaric never came within a thousand miles of Jerusalem, so I wonder why you mention them.

    The problem is you speak of "the crusaders." Different folk became crusaders with differing motivations. The overwhelming majority did so because they wanted the Holy Land to be open to Christians. (The region had recently been taken over by a group far more vicious than the IS and almost as evil as George Bush's Americans.)

    No Jews suffered. That's just a fact. There were some trashy criminals and hangers on to the First Crusade that did attack Jews in the Rhineland. You seem not to know the bishops in those cities defended the Jews, often at the cost of their lives. Those that committed the crimes were not themselves crusaders.

    Again to generalize about many thousands of folk over a period of 200 years is just.... well silly and stupid.

    Best Jan Rogozinski