The Next Faithful Step

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Crusades

History

I say it to those who are present. I command that it be said to those who are absent. Christ commands it. All who go thither and lose their lives, be it on the road or on the sea, or in the fight against the pagans, will be granted immediate forgiveness for their sins. This I grant to all who will march, by virtue of the great gift which God has given me.  

These are the famous words of Pope Urban II in Clermont, France in 1095. They are the words that sparked Crusades—that march on the Holy Land against encroaching Islam that forever serves as a blight on the history of Christianity. The sermon incited a loose mob that set out for Jerusalem. They set out toward Byzantium and retook the cities of Nicea and Antioch before arriving in Jerusalem where they breached the walls. The carnage was tragic. And over the next centuries, the Crusading spirit would flair up over and again in what would come to be known as the second, third, and fourth Crusades.

Countless books, articles, and lectures have been dedicated to Christianity’s medieval march on the Holy Land. If the details are not well known by many, at least the general picture is legendary—who has not heard of the Crusades? But there is one aspect of the Crusades that has largely escaped general notice: the Fourth Crusade. Amidst the tragedy of the crusading centuries, the Fourth Crusade stands as a uniquely sad turn of events.

The Eastern Church had largely supported first three crusades with guides, food, and other necessities. They did not, however, join expeditions. And this was a cause of some suspicion by the West when they encountered difficulties on their crusading missions. Questions began to be raised about the possible undermining of Western efforts by the East. And things only got worse.

Venice had made ships to transport crusaders for Fourth Crusade. But the Western Church was having difficulties and could not pay off the bill. Venice demanded payment. In order to pay off their debt, the Crusaders began to capture certain towns that Venice wanted for its trade empire. And particularly attractive to Venice was the city of Constantinople—the very center and capitol of Eastern Christianity.

In 1204, Western crusaders marched against the city of Constantinople. What followed were three days of destruction, pillage, rape, and slaughter. Everything that was transportable and valuable was taken; the rest was destroyed. Even to this day much of the loot from the siege of Constantinople can be found in museums and private collections throughout Western Europe.

And so the Fourth Crusade was a march by Christians against Christians. It was this tragedy of the early 13th century that solidified the split between Eastern and Western Christianity that continues to this day. And whereas in the West we don’t seem generally to know about these events, the Eastern Church—for good reason—still feels the sting.

Any kind of analogy between the Fourth Crusade and the Church of today necessarily is going to come off as trite. But the crime perpetrated on our brothers and sisters in the East does serve as a warning pointing to general tendencies that flare up over and again in the Church in large (though, thank God, not so large again as the Fourth Crusade) and small ways. How often we find ways to march against one another. I see it in my denomination and in my own life as a pastor. How many times have I been tempted to insert something into a sermon that is subtly directed at someone who has wronged (or maybe just annoyed) me in some way? It is a quiet march, but it is an attack nonetheless. As pastors, it probably is fairly easy to see the way in which the crusading spirit against fellow Christians works it way out in people in our congregations. But I think that pastors need to be on their guard against it in a special way. We have a special voice in the congregation and have the ear of many people in ways that others simply do not. Whether it is how the message of a sermon somehow takes shape or a comment in a meeting or some other scoundrel’s way of doing it, I think it is easy for the pastor to show the crusading spirit in small but still destructive ways. Let’s not march against one another.