Comments 11

  1. Thank you for this insightful and informative piece, Dr. Cosgrove. While I appreciate the much-needed correction of the popular misunderstanding of the crusades (and the frequent mis-appropriation of them for scoring rhetorical points), as I read the President’s remarks, I do not find it accurate to speak of an “implicit connection between the medieval crusades and the actions of ISIS today.” The President uses the history of slavery in America and the crusades to draw our attention to “a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith,” and especially our need for humility as we make decisions in the face of unfathomable evil. As you point out, however much the crusades are misunderstood, they remain “an evil perpetuated in the name of Christ” and an “abuse of the very essence of Christianity as it was explored and expanded in its first three centuries of its existence.” Thus while I fully agree with you that the crusades are NOT a “Christian equivalent” of ISIS, I do not take the President’s remarks as implying this, nor would I take reminders from Christian history off the table when leaders urge us to resist viewing the current threat in terms of a simplistic binary (we the wholly righteous Christian America and they the wholly evil Islamic State).

    1. Ben,
      I appreciate your thoughtful response to my post. I am sorry for my delayed response, but I have been away from Internet the past couple of days.

      I could concede partially to your criticism, namely that the president did not intend an implicit connection between the two. I assumed motive/intention to his comments, which is impossible (and wrong) for me to do. That said, I do think my reading of his speech is a viable reading, and thus I think my comments are still relevant even if it is to clarify the difference between medieval crusades and ISIS for others who may read his speech in that light.

      I agree with you that we ought to avoid simplistic binaries, but even so, I think that we cannot be afraid to call out horrific evil when we see it. ISIS is evil, even al Qaeda kicked them out for being too extreme. So yes, America is a sinful place, an argument could be made that our government perpetrates evil across the globe, and no doubt our ties to consumerism also cause evil in places we do not even see. Regardless, ISIS is evil and should be labelled as such.

      I also agree with you regarding the importance of using Christian history when thinking about issues in the present, and I think we should continue to do so. I do have a couple of cautions about using church history. First, I think we too often we cherry pick bad examples from the past, especially the medieval past, as if we have moved on from those evils and hopefully will never return to them (Yes, we as Christians went “slumming” in fanatical religion in the medieval era with the crusades, but we have since mature and moved past all of that). I think it important that we also let positive, good examples from the past, and yes even the medieval past, to shine the light on our own errors, foibles, and even evils. Second, and more directly connected to the president’s comments, I think our medieval past is too easy for American Protestants conjure up for negative examples, without hitting too close to home and really feeling bad about our past. If we are serious about reminding ourselves that we are not without spot or blemish, I think more recent examples are in order, and I applaud the president’s use of slavery and Jim Crow from our own national history.

      One final point, and one that I did not have sufficient space to discuss in the post, is the specific use of the crusades when discussing issues in the Middle East. While throughout most of Middle Eastern history the crusades hardly registered as a blip on their radar, by the mid-nineteenth century they were being remembered in a very different way, namely, as early forms of colonialism and imperialism (thanks to contemporary European misinterpretations of the crusades). From the 1960s to this day radical groups like al Qaeda and ISIS refer to American ventures in the Middle East as “crusades,” and much of Osama bin Laden’s rhetoric against America referred to us as crusaders. So to mention the crusades at all in this context is tricky because for us they belong to a bygone era, but some in the Middle East it is as if they happened yesterday.

      Thanks again Ben for conversation,

  2. All very helpful responses, thank you Walker! Your comments regarding the crusades and the Middle East in recent history are particularly informative, and I think you make a crucial point in worrying about the comfortable distance we can keep between ourselves and our medieval past. I might also suggest that for many American Christians, even slavery and Jim Crow can be conjured up cheaply, and we do well to listen carefully for the prophetic voices that critique and energize the church today. Thanks again for the great post and response.

  3. Ben,
    Agreed, I do think particularly slavery is a bit too distant now, and too easy. I think there are parts of the south in which Jim Crow is recent enough, but probably not for the majority of Americans. We could bring up internment camps during the second world war, but we are fairly removed from that. All those examples, however, are closer to home than the crusades or inquisition.

    I do not have a good idea about what the president should have said instead. Perhaps something about consumerism and where I goods come from? I do not know. And again, I am not against using more distant-in-time examples, but I think we need to be more thoughtful about how we think about them, engage with that past, and even own them as our past, without quickly moving beyond them to make a rhetorical point.
    Thanks for the dialog,

    1. I don’t know about that… Violent racism seems to be having a comeback in the US, and it’s never been just a “southern” issue. What about South African apartheid? The treatment of European Jews by Christians, and the general complicity of European churches with Hitler? Americans don’t often know much about those histories, or how they connect to their own ethnic and theological past.

      Have you read Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church? I have been meaning to since running across this excellent review in Books & Culture. It is recommended as “Lenten reading” — Apparently he suggests “the church” (and every church) through its failure at unity betrays Christ and tends to be complicit with great evils though passivity, indirection, and feebleness if not direct complicity.

      1. Anthony.
        Fair enough, I never meant to suggest that racism is not a problem in America today (or everywhere else on the globe). I also agree with you that in general people do not know their histories very well, particularly the rough aspects of their histories. I think my point still stands, namely that if we are going to use those types of historical examples (even the ones you provide) then we need to be very purposeful, thoughtful, and intentional to help people not simply sidestep them as in the past and not relevant. Thinking theologically about the past is not something that comes naturally, and we need to help people do just that, serious theological reflection on our past as the church.

        1. Sure, in this case I think US state-sponsored terrorism would make a better analogy than crusades, witch trials, and other western religious violence. ISIS is to Islam what Jim Jones or David Koresh were to Christianity — extremely marginal, extremist figures.

          The best US/western comparison for Obama to make with ISIS might be the US military and intelligence services’ Phoenix Program, which during the US occupation of Viet Nam was used as a “counter terror” program against the civilian political leadership of the NLF/Viet Cong. Of course this sort of thing persists today, so no president is going to say anything about it, especially one who said he’d shut down secret CIA prisons and then decided to change his mind. The lack of Christian outcry on these issues nowadays — less so in the 1960s-70s — might illustrate where we are most complicit in torture and murder done in our names and on our behalf.

  4. Anthony,
    Now you are getting beyond my area of expertise, though I certainly think we need conversations like these.
    Thanks for the thoughts and comments,

  5. As a History Dordt grad, it appears you under estimated how terrible crusades were. Obama was very justified in his comparisons. Many citizens want to forget the past. When we support war, it should become very personal: we should be willing to be personally involved, encourage our children to be involved in the armed forces, etc. WW II is a good example of this. This does not often happy anymore: most of my friends supported Vietnam War, for example, but fought to keep deferments forever.

    And, to agree with Anthony above that racism has never been just a ‘Southern’ issue, Dordt teachers (in Northwest Iowa) were supposedly against Jim Crow laws, but said and did nothing when stinging racial slurs were shouted by students are basketball games. Political dissent resulted in threats of expulsion. The one black student at Dordt was constantly harassed until he left.

    1. Thanks to both Roger and Paul for your comments.

      I do not much to reply to Paul regarding his comments, except to confirm that I am fairly apolitical. For me this has nothing to do with how I feel about the president and his policies, or even politics in general. My attitude toward any president leans apathetic, and generally it does not matter to me who is the sitting president. A Republican could have said much the same thing and I would have been equally critical. I am not Republican and I am not Democrat. So my post should be read in that light.

      Regarding Roger’s comments, while ultimately we can disagree in our opinions regarding the crusades, I have given a substantial amount of time to examining them in my doctoral work and after, so I feel pretty secure in mine thoughts and believe them to be correct. I do think warfare in general is terrible, and so I agree that the crusades were terrible in that sense. But the crusades were also seen as conventional warfare for their time period, which in my mind is one thing that sets them apart from what ISIS is doing at the moment (and which I think I clearly state in the post). I think that the average soldier’s experience in the trenches of WWI–dealing with machine guns, mustard gas, barbed wire, and bombings–was pretty terrible too, but I also think we can both agree that WWI was fundamentally different than ISIS in that it was a conventional, declared war between recognized states. I also think I have majority of medieval historians on my side on this thought, including Thomas Asbridge (who Paul quotes) who is one of the foremost experts on the First Crusade. Other than what Paul quoted, Asbridge also said, “…we have to be very careful about judging behavior in medieval times by current standards,” and I couldn’t agree more.

      If you are getting your information/knowledge of the crusades from Sir Steven Runciman, or something equally as dated, then I strongly suggest you take a look at the “Dig Deeper” section of my post for a couple of books that synthesize the current, updated research on the crusades from the past forty years or so.

  6. Insightful analysis highlighting the dangers (and inaccuracies) of linking ISIS and the Crusades in the public mindset. Cosgrove, who earned his PhD studying under perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the Crusades, has a firm grasp of the historical context. Cosgrove’s observations on such linkages (and similar interpretations of the Crusades) is in line with the reaction reaction of other well-respected historians of the Crusades around the world. As the NY Times cited, “Thomas Asbridge, a medieval historian and director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at the University of London. ‘Any use of the word ‘Crusade’ has to be made with great caution. It is the most highly charged word you can use in the context of the Middle East.’” Without much greater contextualization, comparing anything to the Crusades in the Middle East causes more harm than good in seeking to clarify issues—both in the West and the Middle East.

    This fair historical analysis importantly avoids conservative/liberal analysis that dominates many Christian responses to the world today. On both sides of the political spectrum, people cannot see valid historical criticisms of comments by Obama (or Bush or Clinton) apart from the political blinders that increasingly dominate their worldview. We either want to defend Obama or attack Obama; defend Bush or attack Bush. People get their information from slanted contemporary media outlets on the right and the left. Sadly, even Reformed Christians on the right and the left seek out opportunities to attack those who disagree with them out of their own narrow personal experiences. Rarely do we seemingly want to really gain wider perspective–we merely want confirmation of our existing political and social biases that make us feel better.

    Thankfully, Cosgrove masterfully demonstrates how a Reformed, historical perspective rooted in years of study (while not impervious to such blinders, of course) can provide an important corrective to our Christian community that increasingly depends upon liberal or conservative perspectives to interpret the world.

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