Someone I know posted a link to the following blog by Greg Boyd on Facebook. The title alone piqued my interest, and because I like to keep an open mind, I read it with genuine curiosity.
Thank You Obama for Denouncing "Christian" Violence: It is Actually Far Worse Than ISIS
This article was obviously written in response to President Obama's recent comparison between the barbaric practices of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the actions of Christian Crusaders from centuries ago. President Obama was speaking at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, which is hardly the appropriate forum to make such a comparison, but just to set the mood for this discussion – here are the president's exact words from Mr. Boyd's blog with regard to the recent spate of murders that have been committed by ISIS:
"Unless we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ."
President Obama has taken a considerable amount of criticism from Christians for that statement, and at face value that criticism might seem justifiable. However, that particular sentence is being taken out of context, which makes it somewhat difficult to evaluate on its own. To be fair to President Obama, here is a more complete quote from his speech, which adds a little more depth to his earlier statement:
"So how do we – as people of faith – reconcile these realities? The profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths – operating alongside those who seek to hijack religions for their own murderous ends; humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. Unless we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country slavery and Jim Crow [were] all-too-often … justified in the name of Christ."
By including the quote from President Obama within the context of his original discourse, his intended meaning does not seem to suggest that he possesses an anti-Christian ideology like most pundits are proclaiming. To be sure, President Obama's speech was poorly-worded and poorly-delivered in what was probably the poorest choice of locales. But what is worse, the President's examples are poor history, and while I could easily expound on the foolishness of his revisionist narrative, I will gladly refrain from doing so in favor of simply addressing Greg Boyd's equally lamentable indifference to the history of Western Civilization.
To begin with, it is sheer lunacy for anyone to attempt to draw a comparison between the actions of present-day terrorists with the actions of uneducated, Medieval warriors from 1,000 years ago. I whole-heartedly acknowledge that quite often the actions of the Crusaders were horrific and condemnable, but those actions took place many centuries ago and there is nothing that can be done about those atrocities now. However, the world can do something about the atrocities that ISIS is currently committing. For those reasons alone, making a comparison between these two sets of objectionable behaviors is completely ludicrous. In fact, making such a comparison is even worse if you hope to garner some degree of sympathy for ISIS, because comparing their current behavior with those of the Crusaders would seem to suggest that the members of ISIS have failed to evolve during the past 1,000 years. Christian armies are not currently marauding across the Middle East and oppressing the innocent – but ISIS currently is. This means that Europe and other Western Cultures have obviously moved past what is considered by many to be a dark period of religious dominance, imperialism, and intolerance, even though ISIS remains fully-engaged with theologically-sanctioned slaughter.
But let us set aside the comparison between the behaviors of two disparate cultures that are separated by a millennium. Instead, let's look at a few important historical subjects. But before I continue, I need to stress that I do not know Mr. Boyd personally. He could be a great guy, and I mean him no disrespect. However, based on his discourse he seems willfully dismissive of history. His rhetoric consistently employs a very common argument that I often hear about the Crusades, which is this: when you want to portray Christians badly, simply bring up the Crusades, regardless of the fact that nearly 1,000 years have passed since that time. While I agree that Christians should not attempt to ignore the atrocities of the Crusades, it is also true that anyone who wants to bash Christians by mentioning the Crusades desperately needs to get some new material. If the best that you can do is to bring up something from the Middle Ages, you really need to rethink your argument.
With that in mind, if you were to believe Mr. Boyd's blog – which would be a very foolish thing to do – you could easily infer that the Crusaders were a bloodthirsty mob which ravaged the Middle East on a quest for glory at the expense of the peaceful Muslims which inhabited the region. Nothing could be further than the truth, and it would seem that Mr. Boyd is simply regurgitating the uninformed drivel that was passed down to him as a by-product of his higher education.
Let me briefly step back in time to frame this historical discussion, and it is completely necessary for me to paraphrase a narrative from Jewish Scripture in order to put a few things in perspective. It is very important that you realize that I do not mean for anyone to believe the story that I am going to relate – you are welcome to believe that this is a fairy tale which is best reserved for Sunday Schools. But it is absolutely essential for you to understand that the inhabitants of the Middle East believe this story, which serves as an ancient foundation for unrest in the region.
According to Jewish Scripture, in approximately 2000 BC, God promised to give a son to an aging Abraham and his wife Sarah, and from that son God would make a great nation. However, when Sarah could not conceive a child, Abraham and Sarah grew impatient. So they took matters into their own hands, and Sarah offered her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham. Hagar had a son with Abraham, and she named the boy Ishmael. Many years later, Sarah gave birth to a son, whom she named Isaac. When sibling rivalry ensued between Ishmael and Isaac, Sarah insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Hagar took her son and left as instructed, and when she felt certain that she was doomed to die in the desert, God spoke to her and told her that her son, Ishmael, would also become the father of a great nation. (Genesis 16:1-18, 21:8-21, and 25:16-18.)
As I said earlier, you need not believe the preceding story as historical fact, but you need to understand that many inhabitants of the Middle East believe it to be true.
With that in mind, the present-day Jewish population of the Middle East traces its heritage back to Isaac, and the present-day Muslim population of the Middle East traces its heritage back to Ishmael. The descendants of Isaac believe that they are the true inheritors of God's blessing to Abraham, and therefore they are the heirs to God's promises for a great nation in the Middle East. They base this claim on the fact that God made His promise to Abraham and his wife, Sarah, and not to Hagar. Conversely, the descendants of Ishmael believe that they are heirs to God's promises for a great nation in the Middle East because Ishmael was the first-born son, and according to regional traditions of the time, the first-born son has the principle inheritance.
Leaving aside the Jewish and Muslim Scriptures, the kingdoms of Israel existed for several centuries, although many of those centuries were spent enslaved to other kingdoms which had conquered Israel. When the Jewish revolts of the first century AD failed, Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans in 70 AD, and the kingdom of Israel ceased to exist. Many Jews and Christians fled Judea, (this exodus was called the Diaspora), although considerable numbers of Jews and Christians chose to remain in the area despite their loss of national identity. As Christians made their way throughout the Mediterranean and European regions, they faced tremendous religious persecution due to their unwavering faith and subsequent refusal to convert to the religions of their host countries. Christian pacifism led to their widespread slaughter and martyrdom, although eventually their example of "turning the other cheek" and forgiving their aggressors won over the hearts of their oppressors. When emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in the 4th-century AD, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and thereby most of Europe. In addition, the ancient city of Jerusalem was under Roman rule, and therefore it passed peacefully to Christian control, (or more accurately to Byzantine control). In short, Christianity spread throughout Europe based on a lack of aggression, and not by violent overthrow.
Jumping ahead a couple centuries, Mohammed rose to power based on proclamations that he was the last prophet of God. Mohammed asserted that – as a direct descendant of Ishmael – he was heir to the kingdom that was promised by God to his forefathers, and anyone who followed him would be part of that kingdom. At the age of 40, Mohammed began to preach the message of Islam publicly, and he soon began a campaign of military conquests throughout the Middle East to spread Islam through violent oppression (Jihad). To Muslims, each new conquest was not new territory to them – they were the rightful heirs based on their promised inheritance. As they conquered each region, any non-Muslims residing in the conquered territories were offered few fates: forced conversion to Islam, paying the jizya (which is mandatory tax on non-Muslims), enslavement, or death. (It should be noted that the jizya is little more than an early form of a "Protection Money" racket, where non-Muslims are paying for their 'protection' from Muslim harassment.)
The stark contrast between the first centuries of Christianity and the first centuries of Islam is incontrovertible; early Christianity triumphed through pacifism and forgiveness, whereas early Islam conquered through violent subjugation. A series of Muslim rulers spent the next several centuries rampaging throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Southern Europe. By the start of the second millennium AD, Jihadists had brutally conquered much of the Mediterranean region. (As the Muslim armies made their way through the Middle East, Jerusalem was one of their most-prized conquests.) In each region they conquered, the existing Jewish and Christian populations were confronted with the fates that I mentioned earlier: conversion, jizya, enslavement, or death.
After centuries of militaristic aggression, the armies of Jihad stood poised to conquer all of Europe. When faced with that possibility, the European nations banded together under the Crusades and – with the Pope's blessing – set out on the First Crusade to halt the advance of Islam and retake Jerusalem. In this particular instance, one could rightly make the argument that the Pope – and thereby the Christian Church – had no just cause to promote warfare based on the theological tenets of their religion. However, the political situation of the time must also be considered; European leaders were often preoccupied by wars between their countries, and therefore they could seldom agree on any unifying purpose – even when their inaction might result in their own destruction. By rallying the individual nations for a single cause – however misguided or misrepresented that may have been – the Pope managed to unite the disparate European nations to join together and thereby preserve Europe from Islamic domination.
I should mention, however, that Mr. Boyd attempts to play games with his English vocabulary when he suggests that the Christian-affiliated armies were not called "Defenders," but rather that they were called "Crusaders" because they were consumed with offensive actions rather than defensive actions. I disagree – they were called "Crusaders" because they were sent out by the Pope and they believed that they were on a "Holy Crusade." Their mission actually was – at least in part – to defend Europe. For Mr. Boyd to make such an assertion – especially as someone with a Ph.D. – is rather poor form.
For the sake of reference, the following video illustrates the staggeringly-large scope of Islamic conquests over the centuries, and it compares that with the relatively minor impact of the Crusades; I highly suggest that you watch the video before you continue reading.
Jihad versus Crusades
As you can see in the video, for several centuries the Muslim armies wreaked havoc across the entire Mediterranean region – where they routinely slaughtered or enslaved the native populations of each territory. In contrast, the Crusades were a collection of relatively minor skirmishes. What's more, after the First Crusade, most of the subsequent Crusades were abysmal failures which have done little more than to serve as the foundation for Muslim hatred of Western interference in the Middle East.
However, it must be reinforced that the Crusades were not a situation where a group of Christians woke up one morning and decided to march to Jerusalem and kill its peaceful inhabitants; the Crusades were launched as a reaction to centuries of violent oppression at the hands of invading Jihadists. It should also be repeated that Christians facing persecution in the first centuries of Christianity won over their oppressors by following the tenets of their religion: pacifism and forgiveness. While the Crusaders may have embarked on their journeys with the blessing of the Pope, that did not mean that they were actually Christians, nor does it mean that they were following Christian Scriptures. In fact, the opposite is true; the Crusaders were going to war in direct opposition to Christian beliefs.
On that same thought, much has been said of the condemnable actions of the Crusaders when they sacked Jerusalem: the invading Crusader armies killed Muslims and Jews throughout the city, which is hardly following the foundations of the Christian faith. However, that method of warfare was true for all conquering armies of the time; the Muslims behaved in a similar fashion when they conquered new territories, as did the Persians before them, and the Romans before them, and the Greeks before them, etc. The nature of warfare until recent history had always been that of systemic slaughter. While it does not excuse the behavior of the Crusaders, you must consider their actions in light of their time period and their society – their actions were neither worse nor better than the Muslims whom they were conquering. In a similar manner, when the Muslims retook Jerusalem, thousands of Crusaders were slaughtered.
Having expounded on the history of the Crusades long enough, there are literally thousands of better examples of violence that were committed "In the Name of Christ" that would have made both Mr. Boyd's and the President's statements considerably more valid. For example, I would consider the centuries of bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants in the wake of the Reformation even more apropos as discussion points for their position. But that being said, choosing the Crusades as a fodder for their arguments simply displays a wanton disregard for historical accuracy.
When considering Mr. Boyd's and the President's other examples, I have to agree – the Inquisition was inarguably a horrific episode in Christian history. But once again – the people engaged in torture and genocide were not following Christian Scripture. To restate my earlier premise, there is a world of difference between claiming to behave "In Christ's Name" and actually following Christian teachings. However, that does not excuse the actions of the Inquisition, nor does that absolve true Christians for failing to bring an earlier end to the Inquisition, (although many Christians died in their attempts to do so). Likewise the people who abused Christian Scripture to justify years of slavery and Jim Crow laws where decidedly un-Christian in their behaviors, and it should be noted that thousands of genuine Christians spent several decades fighting against those who justified slavery and racism based on false interpretations of Scripture.
The behaviors of false Christians are what led Gandhi to say, "I like your Christ, [but] I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Or, as Brennan Manning once summarized, "The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle." In other words, when people claim to follow Christ and do not follow Christ in their actions, they are not Christians, and they easily confuse non-Christians who cannot tell the difference.
As I mentioned earlier, committing atrocities on behalf of Christ is a violation of the core principles of Christianity. Over the two millennia since the foundation of Christianity, countless despots have justified their actions by claiming that they acted "In the Name of Christ," or they have convinced others to follow their orders based on a personal revelation from God. There is a section of dialog from the recent movie The Book of Eli which illustrates this concept perfectly; in one particular scene, the film's antagonist describes the Bible in the following manner:
"IT'S NOT A @#$% BOOK! IT'S A WEAPON! A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, @#$% town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they'll do exactly what I tell 'em if the words are from the book. It's happened before and it'll happen again. All we need is that book."
Carnegie (played by Gary Oldman), from The Book of Eli (2010)
Even though the film is purely fictional, this statement has a ring of truth to it; many people have abused Christianity for their own, selfish ends. That does not make them Christians, and their actions are easily identifiable as contrary to the Christian beliefs of forgiveness and pacifism. Conversely, Islam was founded as a "Religion of the Sword," where violent subjugation of non-Muslim peoples and places was foundational to the spread of that religion. There is an irrefutable difference between the two religions in that regard, and to compare the two is utterly ridiculous – with one exception: condemnation of their evil actions. Those who commit evil in the name of Christianity are acting in opposition to the tenets of Christianity, and their acts are to be condemned. Likewise, those who commit evil in the name of Islam – even if they are acting in accordance with the tenets of Islam – are also to be condemned. Evil is evil – regardless of the motivation.
In a savage turn of events, Mr. Boyd probably owes his physical existence to the Crusades, for without the Crusades the marauding armies of Jihad would more than likely have conquered all of Europe. And since each of us is the by-product of thousands of chance encounters between our respective ancestors, it is very likely that a Muslim conquest of Europe would have altered the face of Western Civilization to the point where someone in Mr. Boyd's family tree would never have met someone else, and as a result he would not have been afforded the opportunity to dispassionately persecute the actions of the Crusaders from the relative safety of the religious freedom that has been afforded to him by centuries of sacrifices on his behalf.
Just the same, it wouldn't hurt if both President Obama and Greg Boyd brush up on their history before they attempt to draw a comparison between the actions of 21st-century terrorists and 12th-century Crusaders. Because in the end, trying to compare the two simply makes them look silly.
Update: I discovered the following op-ed piece after I had published this blog; it's a great read on this subject: Obama's Morally Confused Prayer Breakfast Lecture