Crusades and Inquisition: Part of a pattern of Christian violence?

Following up on my recent book note about a current bestseller on the Crusades, here are some further thoughts on that horrible episode of Christian history, as well as that other horrible episode, the Inquisition(s), from a 2003 article triggered by the capture of abortion clinic (and Olympics) bomber Eric Rudolph.

I’ve also added, at the end of this piece, a note by Ted Olsen on how the Inquisition, though atrocious, was not the wholesale bloodbath portrayed in modern anti-Christian rhetoric:

Did Eric Rudolph Act in a “Tradition of Christian Terror”?
A historian considers the evidence of the Crusades and the Inquisition.
Chris Armstrong

The specter of the “Christian terrorist” presented by the recent capture of accused bomber Eric Rudolph has raised again the old charge of the skeptic: “Why should we be surprised when Christians kill people? They’ve always done so. Church history itself is the best advertisement against the church.”

Christianity’s opponents love to use church-historical examples to “prove” that violence is inherent to the Christian church. The favorites are the Crusades and the Inquisitions. The critics ask: Don’t such violent blots on the church prove Christians have never followed their Lord’s loving, non-violent lead and obeyed the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill”?

In his book The Case for Faith, pastor-apologist Lee Strobel records an interview he conducted with church historian John D. Woodbridge about the Crusades, the Inquisition, and other historical episodes that have provided the church’s enemies with so much fodder. Woodbridge was careful to admit that even genuine Christians seeking to serve their Lord have proved capable of violent acts. But he insisted that this is neither within the spirit nor the practice of Christianity as it has been lived over the two millennia since Christ. Here is a quick summary of his responses, as reported by Strobel.

The Crusades

Strobel sets the scene with an eyewitness description of the First Crusade’s first hours in Jerusalem. There, at the Temple of Solomon, “men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.” Added the triumphant eyewitness, “It was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.”

Of course, to Woodbridge, as to Strobel and to us, such horrors were anything but “just and splendid.” From the first Crusade, launched by Pope Urban II in 1095, to the last, in 1291, at least some of the crusaders “thought they were doing something magnificent for Christ.” The goal, after all, was to retrieve the Holy Land from the Muslims, who (it seemed obvious) were enemies of Christ. However, even such high motives did not keep the Crusaders from indulging in far less noble pursuits. Woodbridge reminds us that in one of the most notorious crusades, the Fourth, “the participants didn’t even make it to the Holy Land. They got as far as Constantinople, seized it, and set up their own kingdom. Tremendous bloodshed ensued. Western ‘Christians’ killed Eastern Christians.”

Clearly the Crusades were anything but Christian. From Popes who promised people their salvation if they went on Crusades to transparently bloodthirsty and money-hungry people who used Crusades as an excuse to pillage, these bloody enterprises “made a mockery of the teachings of the Bible and can’t in any way be squared with historic Christian beliefs.”

What, then, are we to conclude? Woodbridge put it like this: “The Crusades … need to be confessed as being totally contrary to the teachings of the one the crusaders were supposedly following. It’s important to remember that it’s not Jesus’ teachings that are at fault here; it’s the actions of those who, for whatever reason, greatly strayed from what he clearly taught: we are to love our enemies.”

The Inquisition

What, then, of the Inquisition? Here we have an undertaking set up with the highest of theological motives: keeping pure the teachings of the church, and preventing innocent people from being led away from the saving gospel of Christ. How could such goals produce such terrible results?

First, the facts: Beginning in 1163, bishops were instructed to discover heresy and act against heretics—especially the group known as the Albigenses. There followed two more “waves” of inquisition—one beginning in Spain in 1472, and one in 1542 that was focused on Calvinist Protestants.

Whatever our opinion of heresy trials as a necessary or effective measure of church discipline (see our previous newsletter on this), it is clear that if there is a “right way” to conduct one, these Inquisitions’ way was not it. Swiftly, these became marked by “secret proceedings, supreme authority vested in the inquisitor, and a complete lack of due process, where the accused didn’t know the names of their accusers, there was no defense attorney, and torture was used to extract confessions. Those who refused to repent were turned over to the government to be burned at the stake.”

What the Inquisition, like many other historical cases of “church brutality,” illustrates is the bloody consequences that ensue when secular powers identify heresy with sedition. In a parallel Protestant case—that of Michael Servetus, tried and executed in Calvin’s Geneva—it was the state who actually put Servetus to the torch. Why? Because the powers-that-be expected and feared that a threat to the church was also a threat to the state. Woodbridge reminds us that throughout the Reformation period, “religion and politics were bound up together,” and that this was often an explosive, bloody mix—not the first and not the last.

The deeper question remains: were events like the Crusades and the Inquisition representative of the history of the Christian churches? Woodbridge thinks that although such events were tragedies that the church can not run away from, “It’s too much of an extrapolation to say that this kind of hateful activity is part of a pattern.” He continues:

“For much of their existence, many Christian churches have been in a minority situation and therefore not even in a position to persecute anyone. In fact, talk about persecution—millions of Christians themselves have been victims of brutal persecution through the ages, continuing to the present day in some places. … there have been apparently more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in any other. To this very day, Christians are being killed for their faith around the world.”

Strobel emphasizes Woodbridge’s point with a quotation from Christianity Today editor David Neff: “The typical Christian lives in a developing country, speaks a non-European language, and exists under the constant threat of persecution—of murder, imprisonment, torture, or rape.”

Christians have far more often suffered than perpetrated terror. This does not excuse those who in the past have named Christ’s name but broken God’s Fifth Commandment. But it does put the lie to the skeptic’s image of a church characterized throughout its history by brutal oppression and violence.

ADDENDUM: “How the Inquisition saved lives”

Ted Olsen, from Christian History & Biography Issue 83: “Mary in the Imagination of the Church”

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” goes the popular Monty Python sketch. But everyone believes that the Inquisitions rate among the all-time worst sins of the Christian Church. An 800-page report issued by the Vatican in June 2004, however, suggests that conventional wisdom is wrong. “Recourse to torture and the death sentence were not as frequent as was long believed,” said Agostino Borromeo, professor of church history at Sapienza University.

In fact, only about 1 percent of the 125,000 brought before the Spanish Inquisition were executed. But the unheard story, says St. Louis University’s Thomas F. Madden, is that “the Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense, not the Church.” The Inquisition “saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.” As the Inquisition “slipped out of papal hands and into those of kings,” practices varied by region. This, coupled with attempts to stifle Protestantism, gave rise to the more popular view of the Inquisition.

“There is no doubt,” says the report, that Inquisition procedures “were applied with excessive vigor and in some cases degenerated into real abuse.” The report arose from John Paul II’s desire to apologize for the abuses. “Before seeking pardon,” he said, “it is necessary to have a precise knowledge of the facts. The image of the Inquisition represents almost the symbol … of scandal.”

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

One response to “Crusades and Inquisition: Part of a pattern of Christian violence?

  1. I am a middle school teacher in NC and came across your site while researching the Crusades for my history class this year. I just wanted to thank you for the great information and articles.

    We would love it if you could write a couple articles for us, link to us to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers, or even if Tweet or “Like Us” on Facebook. Anything is much appreciated in our quest to spread trusted resources.

    Thanks and keep the great resources coming

    Bre Matthews

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