The First Three
The first crusade was a success in that it accomplished what it had set out to do: recapture Jerusalem. But, as historian Mark Noll observes, “it accomplished this with such crass military bluntness—slaughtering Jews and Arab Christians as well as Muslims—that already the underside of the crusading ideal was becoming altogether too apparent. “At one point in the battle at the Porch of Solomon, a colonnade in the outer court of the temple where Jesus once walked (see John 10:23), horses were seen wading in blood.
Within fifty years Jerusalem was under threat again, but the second crusade didn’t achieve much. Then in 1187 the Muslim leader Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria, declared jihad—or holy war— against Christians. His threat inspired a third crusade. Three European kings led the fight, including Richard the Lionhearted of England. Richard and Saladin ended up agreeing on a three-year truce that allowed Christian pilgrims to keep visiting Jerusalem.
A Disastrous Detour
While the results of the third crusade were mediocre, the fourth crusade, launched in 1198 by Pope Innocent III, was a disaster. The crusaders didn’t even make it to Jerusalem. While all the crusades had included a mixture of the well-intended and those less so in their troops, this time some greedy Venetian merchants mixed in. On their way to Jerusalem they decided to attack and loot Constantinople. For three days, they sacked the city, embittering the already fragile relations between the Eastern and Western parts of the church.
By the end of 1204 Pope Innocent III condemned the destruction, but the damage had been done. In fact, “Not only did they cement the schism of 1054, but they also remained a festering memory that poisoned communications between parts of the Christian church for many centuries to come, perhaps even to this day.” Several other crusades followed, but they couldn’t put a stop to Islam’s grip on the Holy Lands. Above all, they did nothing but further corruption and division, and tarnish image of the church.
The Crusades’ Wake
A look at the crusades should rightly still make us feel sick today. Not only did the church perpetrate violence against the very world that Christ called her to serve and suffer for, she also inflicted it on her own body. While some crusaders engaged in obviously corrupt and violent evils, the sobering fact is that other crusaders were also sincere Christians who believed they were following God’s will.
We should mourn that that crusades happened in the past, but we should also repent that we are no less susceptible to acting out of a crusading spirit today. It can be easy to confuse God’s coming kingdom with the things and ways of this world. Like the crusaders, we are sinners in need of God’s grace. The good news is, Christ came into the world to save sinners, even — in fact, especially — in His church.