Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 15—1095-1453 C.E.—Resorting to the Sword
“Men will wrangle for religion, write for it, fight for it, die for it; anything but live for it.”—Charles Caleb Colton, 19th-century English clergyman
CHRISTIANITY in its early years was blessed with believers who lived their religion. In defense of their faith, they zealously wielded “the sword of the spirit, that is, God’s word.” (Ephesians 6:17) But later, as events between 1095 and 1453 illustrated, nominal Christians, not living true Christianity, resorted to using other kinds of swords.
By the sixth century, the Western Roman Empire was defunct. It had been replaced by its Eastern counterpart, the Byzantine Empire with Constantinople as its capital. But their respective churches, suffering the shakiest of relationships, soon saw themselves threatened by a mutual foe, the rapidly spreading Islamic domain.
The Eastern church realized this, at the latest, when in the seventh century the Muslims captured Egypt and other parts of the Byzantine Empire located in North Africa.
Less than a century later, the Western church was shocked to see Islam moving through Spain into France, reaching to within some one hundred miles [160 km] of Paris. Many Spanish Catholics converted to Islam, while others adopted Muslim manners and embraced Muslim culture. “Embittered by its losses,” says the book Early Islam, “the Church worked ceaselessly among its Spanish sons to fan the flames of vengeance.”
Several centuries later, after Spanish Catholics had regained most of their land, they “turned on their Moslem subjects and persecuted them without mercy. They forced them to deny their faith, drove them from the country, and took drastic steps to uproot every trace of Spanish-Moslem culture.”
At Swords’ Points
In 1095 Pope Urban II called on European Catholics to take up the literal sword. Islam was to be deposed from the holy lands of the Middle East to which Christendom claimed exclusive rights.
The idea of a “just” war was not new. For example, it had been invoked in the fight against Muslims in Spain and Sicily. And at least a decade before Urban’s appeal, says Karlfried Froehlich of Princeton Theological Seminary, Pope Gregory VII “envisaged a militia Christi for the fight against all enemies of God and thought already of sending an army to the East.”
Urban’s action was partially in response to a request for help from Byzantine emperor Alexius. But since relations between the Eastern and the Western parts of Christendom seemed to be improving, the pope may also have been motivated by the possibility this offered of reuniting the bickering sister churches. At any rate, he convoked the Council of Clermont, which declared that those willing to engage in this “holy” undertaking were to be granted a plenary indulgence (the remission of all penance for sin). The response was unexpectedly positive. “Deus volt” (“God wills it”) became a rallying cry in East and West.
A series of military expeditions began that covered the better part of two centuries. (See box on page 24.) At first the Muslims thought the intruders were Byzantines. But after realizing their true origin, they called them Franks, the Germanic people from whom France later got its name. To meet the challenge of these European “barbarians,” sentiment grew among the Muslims for a jihad, a holy war or struggle.
British professor Desmond Stewart points out: “For every scholar or merchant who planted the seeds of Islamic civilization by precept and example, there was a soldier for whom Islam was a call to battle.” By the second half of the 12th century, Muslim leader Nureddin had built an efficient military force by unifying the Muslims in northern Syria and upper Mesopotamia. So “just as Christians of the Middle Ages took up arms to advance the religion of Christ,” continues Stewart, “Moslems took up arms to advance the religion of the Prophet.”
Of course, advancing the causes of religion was not always the motivating force. The book The Birth of Europe notes that for most Europeans, the Crusades “offered an irresistible opportunity to win fame, or collect booty, or carve out new estates, or rule whole countries—or just to escape the humdrum in glorious adventuring.” Italian merchants also saw an opportunity to establish trading outposts in Eastern Mediterranean lands. But regardless of motive, all were apparently willing to die for their religion—be it in a “just” war of Christendom or in a Muslim jihad.
The Sword Brings Unexpected Results
“Although the Crusades were directed against the Muslims in the East,” says The Encyclopedia of Religion, “the zeal of the Crusaders was exercised on the Jews who lived in the lands from which the Crusaders were recruited, that is, in Europe. A popular motif among the Crusaders was vengeance for the death of Jesus, and the Jews became the first victims. Persecution of the Jews occurred in Rouen in 1096, followed quickly by massacres in Worms, Mainz, and Cologne.” This was but a forerunner of the anti-Semitic spirit of the Holocaust days of Nazi Germany.
The Crusades also increased the East-West tension that had been growing since 1054, when Patriarch Michael Cerularius of the East and Cardinal Humbert of the West mutually excommunicated each other. When the Crusaders replaced the Greek clergymen with Latin bishops in the cities they captured, the East-West schism came down to touch the common folk.
The break between the two churches became complete during the Fourth Crusade when, according to former Anglican Canon of Canterbury Herbert Waddams, Pope Innocent III played “a double game.” On the one hand, the pope was indignant about the sacking of Constantinople. (See box on page 24.) He wrote: “How can the Church of the Greeks be expected to return to devotion to the Apostolic See when it has seen the Latins setting an example of evil and doing the devil’s work so that already, and with good reason, the Greeks hate them worse than dogs.” On the other hand, he readily took advantage of the situation by establishing a Latin kingdom there under a western patriarch.
After two centuries of almost continuous fighting, the Byzantine Empire was so weakened that it was unable to withstand the onslaughts of the Ottoman Turks, who, on May 29, 1453, finally captured Constantinople. The empire had been slashed down not simply by an Islamic sword but by the sword wielded by the empire’s sister church in Rome as well. Divided Christendom had given Islam a convenient base for moving into Europe.
The Swords of Politics and Persecution
The Crusades strengthened the papacy’s position of religious and political leadership. They “gave the popes a controlling hand in European diplomacy,” writes historian John H. Mundy. Before long “the church was Europe’s greatest government . . . , [able] to wield more political power than any other Western government.”
This climb to power had become possible when the Western Roman Empire collapsed. The church was left as the sole unifying power in the West and therefore began playing a more active political role in society than did the Eastern church, which at that time was still under a strong secular ruler, the Byzantine emperor. This political eminence held by the Western church lent credence to its claim of papal primacy, an idea the Eastern church rejected. While allowing that the pope was worthy of honor, the Eastern church disagreed that he had final authority on doctrine or jurisdiction.
Driven by political power and misguided religious conviction, the Roman Catholic Church reached for the sword to stamp out opposition. Hunting down heretics became its business. History professors Miroslav Hroch and Anna Skýbová of Karls University in Prague, Czechoslovakia, describe how the Inquisition, the special tribunal designed to deal with heresies, operated: “Contrary to general practice, the names of informers . . . did not have to be revealed.” Pope Innocent IV issued the bull “Ad extirpanda” in 1252, which allowed torture. “Being burned at the stake, the usual method employed to put heretics to death by the 13th century, . . . had its symbolism, implying that by administering this kind of punishment, the church was not guilty of shedding blood.”
The inquisitors punished tens of thousands of persons. Other thousands were burned at the stake, leading historian Will Durant to comment: “Making every allowance required of an historian and permitted to a Christian, we must rank the Inquisition . . . as among the darkest blots on the record of mankind, revealing a ferocity unknown in any beast.”
The events of the Inquisition recall the words of Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French philosopher and scientist, who wrote: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” Of a truth, swinging the sword of persecution against persons of a differing religious persuasion has been characteristic of false religion ever since Cain struck down Abel.—Genesis 4:8.
Severed by the Sword of Disunity
Nationalistic dissension and political maneuvering led in 1309 to the transfer of the papal residence from Rome to Avignon. Although it was restored to Rome in 1377, further strife was caused shortly thereafter with the choosing of a new pope, Urban VI. But the same group of cardinals who elected him also elected a rival pope, Clement VII, who settled in Avignon. Things became even more confused at the start of the 15th century, when for a short time three popes were ruling simultaneously!
This situation, known as the Western, or Great, Schism, was ended by the Council of Constance. It invoked the principle of conciliarism, the theory that final ecclesiastical authority lies in general councils and not in the papacy. Thus, in 1417 the council was able to elect Martin V as the new pope. Although once again united, the church had been seriously weakened. Despite the scars, however, the papacy refused to recognize any need for reform. According to John L. Boojamra, of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, this failure “laid the foundation for the Reformation of the sixteenth century.”
Were They Living Their Religion?
The Founder of Christianity instructed his followers to make disciples but did not tell them to use physical force in doing so. In fact, he specifically warned that “all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Similarly, he did not instruct his followers to abuse physically anyone who was unfavorably disposed. The Christian principle to be observed was: “A slave of the Lord does not need to fight, but needs to be gentle toward all, qualified to teach, keeping himself restrained under evil, instructing with mildness those not favorably disposed.”—Matthew 26:52; 2 Timothy 2:24, 25.
By resorting to the literal sword of war, as well as to the symbolic swords of politics and persecution, Christendom was clearly not following the lead of the One it professed to have as Founder. Already wracked by disunity, it was threatened with total collapse. Roman Catholicism was “A Religion Badly in Need of Reform.” But would reform come? If so, when? From whom? Our August 22 issue will tell us more.
[Box/Picture on page 24]
Fine Christian Warfare?
Were the Crusades the fine warfare Christians were instructed to wage?—2 Corinthians 10:3, 4; 1 Timothy 1:18.
The First Crusade (1096-99) resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem and the establishment of four Latin states in the East: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the County of Tripoli. An authority quoted by historian H. G. Wells says of the capture of Jerusalem: “The slaughter was terrible; the blood of the conquered ran down the streets, until men splashed in blood as they rode. At nightfall, ‘sobbing for excess of joy,’ the crusaders came to the Sepulchre from their treading of the winepress, and put their blood-stained hands together in prayer.”
The Second Crusade (1147-49) was initiated because of the loss of the County of Edessa to Syrian Muslims in 1144; it ended when the Muslims successfully turned back Christendom’s “infidels.”
The Third Crusade (1189-92), undertaken after the Muslims retook Jerusalem, had as one of its leaders Richard I, “the Lionhearted,” of England. It soon “disintegrated,” says The Encyclopedia of Religion, “through attrition, quarreling, and lack of cooperation.”
The Fourth Crusade (1202-4) was diverted for lack of funds from Egypt to Constantinople; material assistance was promised in return for helping enthrone Alexius, an exiled Byzantine pretender to the crown. “The [resulting] pillage of Constantinople by the Crusaders is something that the Orthodox East has never forgotten or forgiven,” says The Encyclopedia of Religion, adding: “If any single date is to be cited for the firm establishment of the schism, the most appropriate—at any rate from a psychological standpoint—is the year 1204.”
The Children’s Crusade (1212) brought death to thousands of German and French children before they even reached their destination.
The Fifth Crusade (1217-21), the last under papal control, failed because of flawed leadership and clergy interference.
The Sixth Crusade (1228-29) was led by Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, whom Pope Gregory IX had previously excommunicated.
The Seventh and Eighth Crusades (1248-54 and 1270-72) were led by Louis IX of France but collapsed after his death in North Africa.
[Picture on page 23]
The Jewish cemetery in Worms, Germany—a reminder of the First Crusade