Today, tourists of Europe still stand in awe at medieval cathedrals. The masses of soaring stone are a picture of the spirit of the Middle Ages, when people wanted desperately to construct earthly material into the likeness of heaven. But not all attempts at cathedral building were a pretty sight. Many toppled during construction. One of the biggest monuments of humankind’s effort to make things “on earth as it is in heaven” did, in fact, come crashing down—and it wasn’t made of stone. Today we still speak of the ruins. They’re called the crusades.
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II gave a rousing speech to a large crowd in Clermont, France. He promised spiritual and material reward to those who would fight to take back the Holy Land from Islamic rule. He compared those who would take up the sword to those who follow Jesus’ call to take up their cross and follow Him. In fact, the word crusade comes from “taking the cross.” The crowd roared at the end of his speech, shouting “Deus Vult” or “God wills it.” It became the battle cry of the crusades.
Church historian Bruce Shelley sagely advises us that, “while few contemporary Christians would defend the idea of the crusades or its most gross offenses, we must not overlook a simple reality. The Christians sought to counter Islam’s remarkable military conquest and preserve their geographic strongholds from being overrun.” Of course, the crusades were inexcusable. We might think, how could our brothers and sisters commit such horrific and hurtful acts? Because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), all of us are capable of such acts. We all have a desperate need for God’s redemption and grace. When we look at the crusades, we should react with humility, not self-righteousness.
As Shelley noted, the rise and spread of the Islam in the Middle East, which we looked at earlier in our series, was probably the single biggest reason for the crusades. The second reason was a deep reverence among medieval Christians for the land upon which Christ had walked. When Islam first emerged in the seventh century it didn’t interrupt the stream of Christian pilgrims who had been journeying to the Holy Lands for centuries. But that changed in the eleventh century with a new group of Muslim converts called the Seljuk Turks. They had just gained control of Jerusalem, and they weren’t interested in sharing tithe Byzantine emperor Alexius I appealed to Pope Urban for help, which is why Urban gave the speech in France that launched the first crusade. While there would be seven major crusades in the next two hundred years, the crusades are better thought of as a spirit that pervaded the whole age. It was a spirit that, in the words of church historian Justo González, hoped “to defeat the Muslims who threatened Constantinople, to save the Byzantine Empire, to reunite the Eastern and Western branches of the church, to reconquer the Holy Land . . . and—in so doing—to win heaven.” At a time when people in Europe were suffering from crop failures and diseases, the crusades offered something to hope for.
As we will see tomorrow, the crusades looked like anything but heaven. Yet many who went on them thought they were doing God’s will. In some ways, we could see the crusades as what happens when, instead of praying to God, “Thy kingdom come,” we try to build His kingdom all by ourselves.