Last week President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast issued a sobering reminder to us Christians not to paper over our own history of violence done in the name of religion.
“Unless we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ, And in our home country, slavery, and Jim Crow, all too often was justified in the name of Christ."
I can’t believe the outcry over this perfectly obvious statement. In fact, the situation is much worse than the President described. The Crusades and Inquisitions (there were more than one, though the President was probably, like most who are inadequately schooled in history, referring to the Spanish Inquisition of 1478-1834 which is the most notorious) are only the tip of the iceberg in Christian violence.
As I just remarked, President Obama often displays a lack of precise historical knowledge—but then he is not a historian and for a non-historian he is far more knowledgeable in the field than the majority of his critics and certainly those who fault his remarks about Christians doing violence in the name of Christ.
One idiot, someone by the name of Tom Hoopes, cited Cambridge historian Jonathan Riley Smith that the Crusades “were a defensive war.” Now Professor Smith is a leading authority on the Crusades but either Mr. Hoopes quoted him out of context—something he has been known to do before with other sources (Mr. Hoopes is a journalist and a professor of Journalism at a small Catholic College in Kansas) or Professor Riley-Smith is slipping into his dotage. A defensive war means that you are fighting to defend your own homeland. The Crusaders, drawn from what is today France, England, Germany and other European lands were attempting—initially with success—to seize lands in 11th, 12th, and 13th century Syria-Palestine. That is in no way defensive. And of course there were the Albigensian Crusades—which were a series of wars fought by Catholic knights (and the occasional prelate) with the blessing of the Papacy against those cities in what is today the South of France to root out the Albigensian heresy to which many of the citizens of those cities and towns subscribed. Not only were the battles bloody but when victorious, the Crusaders put those heretics who would not return to the Church to death in cruel and inhuman ways. And there were the Crusades in the Baltic where the Teutonic Knights came into what is today Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania to impose—by force and often with death—Christianity on the local population to up to that point subscribed to their worship of various ancestral gods.
And don’t forget the Inquisitions—often linked to those Albigensian Crusades but not limited to them. The most notorious, of course, is the Spanish Inquisition of 1478-1834 in which historians estimate about 5000 people were executed (out of about 175,000 who were brought to trial in one form or another) for a variety of “crimes” ranging from abandoning the Christian faith, Unitarianism, secret practice of Judaism or Islam, Witchcraft, Bigamy, Sodomy, Protestantism, and Blasphemy. Of course the Spanish Inquisition was only one of several inquisitions in Catholic Europe. The Pope had the Roman Inquisition (which was one of the more mild inquisitions though it too on occasion executed people for religious reasons. Giordano Bruno is the most famous of those so executed but his theological aberrations were possibly a cover for his allegedly being a spy for Elizabeth’s England.) The Portuguese had their own Inquisition. France had it Chambre Ardente for the trial and execution of heretics. And ol’ Henry VIII executed his share of Protestants—some with the help of his Chancellor, Sir Thomas More—both before and after his break with the papacy.
I recently did a series of postings on the history of Christian anti-Semitism in France that can be traced back at least to the Merovingian period of the seventh century, though admittedly we don’t—as far as I have been able to find—have any record of Jews being put to death at that period. By the time of the Crusades however the slaughter of European Jews by hysteric Christian mobs was somewhat commonplace in Europe. There are several episodes of Rhineland Jews being massacred by knights and their accompanying mobs in the wake of Pope Urban’s call for the First Crusade. At the same period there were episodes in England of Jews being killed and their homes burned. In 1279 approximately 300 Jews were executed for suspected “coin clipping”—the practice of shaving the gold along the edges of a coin. The expulsion of Jews from many European countries (England 1290, France 1306, Spain 1492) undoubtedly saved many Jewish lives as periodic violence against them in many areas of northern Europe where they remained, particularly in what is today Germany and the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands from the 12th through the 18th centuries. (Such violence did not end in the 18th century and the worst episode of course is the Holocaust of the 20th century, but the direct influence of the Church (or Churches as Lutherans and Calvinists also played a part) in encouraging such violence waned under the Enlightenment secularism of the Prussian and Austrian Crowns.
Much of the Christian anti-Semitism that fueled the murder of Jews in the medieval period was rooted in legends and wild stories of Jews murdering Christian children to use their blood in Jewish rituals. This is the so-called Blood Libel. In some cases, such as that of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (Little Saint Hugh to distinguish him from the great bishop of the same name) the child victim of a murder attributed to the Jews was venerated as a Saint and a Martyr to keep the animosity alive. There were also stories of Jews stealing consecrated hosts for the purpose of desecration. And there were stories and legends of Jews poisoning wells to kill off Christian populations.
Then there were the slaughter of Catholics by Protestants and of Protestants by Catholics during the Reformation. And the Wars of Religion. And the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 1572 in which probably 10,000 Huguenots (French Protestants) were killed by Catholic mobs. Pope Gregory XIII had a solemn Te Deum sung in thanksgiving in the Sistine Chapel and ordered frescoes of the slaughter to be painted in the Vatican’s Sala Regia, the Pope’s formal audience hall.
I could go on, of course, but the point is made. When it comes to Christian violence and Christian violence done with the sanction of the Church, President Obama was generous in his remarks. It has been far worse than he ascribed. History will treat the President more kindly than his critics. He will be remembered for his Health Care Reform, for the economic recovery from the economic “recession” (read “depression”) he inherited from the previous administration, the elimination of Osama bin Laden, and his support for Veterans. He also will be remembered as the first openly post-Christian president, and that demands a clarification I need to do in a future post. He won’t be a great president but he will, in fifty years and once we get over the shock of having a non-white person in the White House, be remembered as one of our better presidents. His foes (not those who disagree with him but those who have made him to be their enemy), for the greater part, will be remembered for their subtle—and for some, unconscious—racism that clouded their judgment and remind the rest of us of just how evil prejudice can be in sowing civil discord.
I can tell that this final assessment will evoke a certain response and advise readers now that I will be selective in posting responses.