church, History

Frank Answers About the Bloody History of the Church

Question: The murder of people because of their religious identities by the so-called Islamic State and related Islamic groups in Africa is horrible. But Christians too have shed the blood of others in the name of Christ, as in the medieval crusades against the Muslims. How can I reconcile the bloody history of the Church with the words of Christ? I don’t know if I want to call myself a Christian any more, or even be identified with a religion.

In her recent book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014),  the respected religious writer Karen Armstrong tackles what she calls “the myth of religious violence.”  Without denying that religious people have been involved in some terrible blood shedding in history, she notes how often religious wars really have been provoked by issues of politics, economics, social conflicts, and cultural shifts. The sweep of world history she surveys is broad and she may be guilty of stretching some points to prove her thesis. But she is correct to point out that before the modern period in Western history, religion was not a private activity, hermetically sealed off from all other activities; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics, and warfare.

So, for example, the medieval Crusades were certainly inspired by religious passion, but they were also deeply political and to some extent even defensive. Pope Urban II aroused the knights of Christendom to go to war against the Muslims in the Middle East in order to come to the defense of the shrinking Christian Byzantine Empire that was no longer in a position to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land.  Those crusades of Western European armies into the Eastern Mediterranean world were not even called “crusades”—that was a later term applied to them.  They were regarded as pilgrimages. I don’t say this to justify the terrible things that were done in the name of religion, including the murder of Jews in the Rhineland by these same “pilgrims.”  But we need to be reminded how complicated and messy history really is.  As in all warfare, atrocities were committed on both sides. Atrocities committed a thousand years ago should not be invoked to justify atrocities committed today in the name of religion.

As for the bloody history of the Church, it is of two types. One is the blood Christians have shed. The other is the blood of Christians that has been shed. Yes, Christians have shed the blood of others. It is a sorry history, and it is clearly contrary to the words of Christ. In many European wars Christians were killing other Christians. But the blood of Christians has also been shed, famously in the so-called age of martyrs in the first several centuries of Christian history, and infamously by the evil regimes of the twentieth century (e.g. Hitlerism, Stalinism, Maoism), but also today by Muslims in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

The first instance shows how far Christians have sometimes been from following our Lord’s teachings. This is undoubtedly true also of the followers of other religions. But the second instance shows how far some Christians have gone in their commitment to our Lord’s teachings—all the way to giving their lives. Christian history on this score is contradictory. Pope Urban II stirred up the first crusade to recapture Jerusalem because the Muslim Arabs were interfering with Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. But by the time of the third crusade Francis of Assisi went to Egypt to meet with the Saracen sultan, perhaps to try to convert him, but certainly to work for peace.

To refuse to call yourself a Christian because of the sins of some Christians also means distancing yourself from the witness of other Christians who have advanced the kingdom of God, not with the sword, but with their own blood. If we are part of a community we cannot avoid identification with both the good and the bad of that community. The Church whose priests abused altar boys is also the Church of Father Flanagan who founded Boys Town. The Church that raised up southern racist preachers also raised up Martin Luther King, Jr. The German Christians who supported Nazism were countered by the Confessing Church of Karl Barth, Martin Niemoeller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many others. We need to lament and confess the sins of Christians who have compromised Christ’s gospel of peace. We also need to celebrate and profess the faith, hope, and love of those who laid their bodies on the line to advance it.

Pastor Frank Senn

Note: the following image is a romantic view of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden praying before the Battle of Lutzen in 1531, in which the Swedish (Lutheran) army defeated the Austrian (Catholic) army of General Wallenstein and saved German Protestantism during the Thirty Years War.  The king lost his life in the battle. He is reported to have said: “There you have the enemy in front of you… Fight them, my dear countrymen and friends, for God, your country, and your King. I will reward you all, and bravely: but if you flinch from the fight, you know well that not a man of you will ever see Sweden again. Forward in God’s name; Jesu! Jesu! Jesu! help us to strive today to the honour of thy Holy Name.” The Swedes came to the defense of their co-religionists in Germany just as in a later century Czarist Russia supported Orthodox Christian believers in the Ottoman Empire and today Iran supports Shiites across the Middle East and Saudi Arabia supports Sunnis.

Gustavus Adolpus prays before battle

4 Comments

  1. Marian Gabriel

    Glad to see this answer! Thanks for posting!

  2. Levi Powers

    Very nice read. Thanks for sharing your refreshing perspective.

  3. Phillip Gagnon

    Great answer, Frank. While certainly the numbers of battles are not a basis concerning the righteousness of the cause, or equity, it is notable that Muslim aggression beginning in the 7th century and continuing today goes well beyond the 548 battles that Muslim armies undertook (and which you refer to) during the times of the “crusades”, which numbered 20 in response. According to most responsible historians over 30,000 churches were destroyed in the 7th -10th centuries and most have forgotten that Northern Africa and much of the Middle East was Christian during those times. Not so today.

    • Frank Senn

      Philip, when we think of “religious wars,” how much worse when Christians fought other Christians. The image at the end of the post is a scene from the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) between Catholics and Protestants (although that conflict turned more political by its end). My nation (I know you live in the frozen north of Canada) is commemorating this week the end of its Civil War, which claimed more lives than all other American wars put together. The American Civil War is not usually thought of as a religious war, but President Abraham Lincoln noted that both sides prayed to the same God and that both abolitionists and slaveholders believed that their cause was righteous in the sight of the Almighty. Soldiers from both North and South thought that they were engaged in a religious crusade, one to free slaves, the other to preserve a way of life. The early Christians, by the way, were pacifists.

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