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The Crusades and the Inquisition: Criticisms Against Christianity?

Enemies of Christianity sometimes use the Crusades and the Inquisition as ammunition against the religion of the New Testament.  By mentioning these two historical events at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama curiously supported this juvenile criticism. His remarks beg for a response. This article is written to (i) explain what the Crusades and the Inquisition were, and to (ii) respond to the criticism.

The Crusades

Europe and its near geographical neighbors in the Middle East have pushed back and forth for as long as history has recorded wars. Homer's epic poems Iliad and Odyssey tell the story of European Greeks invading the Middle East to battle the Trojans in about 1,200 B.C. Later, the Middle Eastern Persians returned the favor by invading Greece in 490 and 480 B.C. Some centuries after that, in 334 B.C., Alexander the Great led the Greeks back to the Middle East against the Persians. He was followed in 188 B.C. by Roman Legions that swarmed out of Europe. The next push-back occurred in 711 and 846 A.D when Middle-Eastern forces of Islam invaded European Spain and even sacked Rome. The Moslem push into Europe did not get pushed back until the Ottoman Turks were finally defeated at Vienna in 1683 A.D. Why can't Europe and the Middle East just get along?

Understood within the context of a long-running regional feud, the Crusades were just another chapter in European-Middle Eastern conflict. But the Crusades also contained a religious element. The Crusades were military campaigns begun by the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. In 1095, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade with the goal of wresting control of the Bible lands from Moslems. For almost 200 years, European knights sought eternal glory in what was, ultimately, a lost cause. After two centuries of blood-letting, the last Crusaders returned to Europe and the Bible lands remained in Moslem hands.

The Inquisition

Although the Crusades can be understood within their historical context, the Inquisition stands out as a uniquely horrid series of events. Inquisition refers to questioning. Fearing heresy, including threats from closet Jews and the earliest Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages sanctioned questioning and trials to identify and punish evildoers.

Unlike questionings today that are controlled by caution about civil rights, the trials of the Inquisition included brutal torture to force admissions from the accused who were then often imprisoned or executed anyway, sometimes by being burned at the stake. Of the Inquisition, one historian wrote, "To wring out confessions from these poor creatures, the Roman Catholic Church devised ingenious tortures so excruciating and barbarous that one is sickened by their recital."

Response

Truly awful, the Crusades and the Inquisition are awfully poor criticisms of Christianity. Jesus gave the explanation: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father" (Mt. 7:21). His point: Christ-like behavior and not claims of Christianity identify genuine Christianity. Also: some who claim to be Christians behave in totally unchristian ways. Can Christianity be blamed for behavior that contradicts Christianity?

Recognizing the source of the Crusades and the Inquisition is also important.  There were no Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian Crusaders because there were no Methodists, Baptists or Presbyterians until more than 300 years after the Crusades. Similarly, no members of the Churches of Christ were called before the Inquisition or participated as inquisitors. These two historical embarrassments belong solely to Medieval Roman Catholicism.

Blaming Christianity at large for the barbaric abuses of Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages is as incorrect as blaming all German people today for the atrocities committed by German Nazis in World War II. Against this kind of overbroad prejudice, the President frequently tells us of moderate and liberal Muslims who are unlike blood-thirsty Muslim Jihadists. Extending this gracious distinction in defense of Islam, one wonders why the President could not extend the same graciousness to Christianity.