Biblical Pacifism to the Crusades

By Nat Parry
July 29, 2006

Editor's Note: Though the Crusades date back almost a millennium, that history still colors the events playing out today in the Middle East. Muslims, across the political spectrum, view the U.S.-backed military interventions through the prism of the Crusades -- and many denounce George W. Bush as the new crusader.

But the Crusades also marked a profound change in Christendom, consolidating a transformation from Jesus's religion of peace to one that launched invasions of far-off lands and inflicted unspeakable brutality in Christ's name. In this historical analysis, Nat Parry looks at the concepts of Biblical pacifism and "just wars" as they evolved from the Sermon on the Mount to the sacking of Constantinople:

Of all the questions surrounding the history of the Crusades, perhaps the most perplexing is how a religion of peace like Christianity could be so effectively utilized to justify some of the most horrific acts of violence imaginable.

 The Crusades were not the first time that a religion was used to justify violence nor would it be the last. But the way that the tenets of Christianity were so thoroughly incorporated into what could only be called total war provided a theoretical and tactical justification for religiously motivated violence that continues to serve as a powerful precedent through today.

While the Crusades naturally enjoy a special place in history, viewed as mythological by some and cited by others, such as Osama bin Laden, as evidence of the unique brutality of Christians, in some ways the Crusades were not unique at all.

The combination of religion, politics, violence, intrigue and land acquisition that the Crusades represented had precedents before the launching of the First Crusade, and clearly has antecedents throughout history. What the Crusades dramatically demonstrate though is the power of exploiting religion in order to advance political goals.

One need only place the call to arms issued by Pope Urban II in 1095 alongside the fatwa issued by Osama bin Laden in 1998 to appreciate the unmistakable parallels between the religious motivations of the Crusaders and the motivations of modern-day Islamic militants. Calling upon Christians to liberate their oppressed brethren of Jerusalem, Urban said:

"We have heard … how, with great hurt and dire sufferings our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and the other cities of the East. Your own blood brothers, your companions, your associates (for you are sons of the same Christ and the same Church) are either subjected in their inherited homes to other masters, or are driven from them, or they come as beggars among us; or, which is far worse, they are flogged and exiled as slaves for sale in their own land. … Gird yourselves, everyone of you, I say, and be valiant sons; for it is better for you to die in battle than to behold, the sorrows of your race and of your holy places."[1]

Nine hundred years later, Osama bin Laden issued his fatwa for killing Americans and their allies:

"For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. … These crimes and sins … are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims. On that basis, and in compliance with God’s order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."[2]

While the actual motivations of Urban and bin Laden issuing their respective calls can ultimately only be known to themselves, the possibility that they were both more concerned with personal ambitions than they were with the welfare of Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land should not be dismissed. As Christopher Tyerman argues, “From its inception, crusading represented a practical expression of papal ideology, leadership, and power.”[3]

Rapprochement and Liberation

Just as bin Laden hopes to restore the Muslim caliphate, there is also reason to believe that what Urban was primarily concerned with was the reunion of the estranged Catholic and Orthodox churches. According to German historian Carl Erdmann, the First Crusade was a form of holy war that represented a rapprochement between a militarized aristocracy and a Church that since its inception had embraced pacifism.[4] Urban II was acutely aware of what this meant for his own authority, argues Erdmann, and feigned concern for the Holy Sepulchre to justify an ecclesiastical-knightly war upon heathens.[5] Only as a means of bringing this war about did he introduce pilgrimage and the liberation of oppressed Christians.

This view has been disputed by numerous scholars, most significantly H.E.J. Cowdrey, who argues that a man with Urban II’s background could not have been unconcerned about the status of Jerusalem. Cowdrey points out that as a former monk of Cluny, Urban shared its devotional world, in which Jerusalem claimed a central importance. Cowdrey argues that by examining the sources for the Clermont sermon, it can be concluded that Urban was just as concerned with Jerusalem as were the Crusaders.[6]

Whether Urban was primarily motivated by concern over Jerusalem or by an agenda to reunite the churches or by a desire to make Christianity compatible with the militarism of the aristocracy, what is beyond dispute is that his call to arms struck a deep chord among Christians, just as bin Laden’s call has struck a deep chord among many Muslims.

The massive response to Urban’s call can be attributed to several factors, including the certainties of faith; fear of damnation; temporal self-image; material, social, and supernatural profit; the attraction of warfare for a military aristocracy; and an unequivocal good cause. Tyerman points out that the combination would be “a formula of sustained power for the rest of the Middle Ages.”[7]

But it also appears that over the years of crusading, and particularly by the Fourth Crusade, there is increasing disillusionment among the Crusaders with the stated religious basis for the violence. This can be seen in the abandonment of the Fourth Crusade by many of the Crusaders when the target became fellow Christians.

What bin Laden may have learned from the Crusades is not only that portraying Americans and Israelis as “crusaders” is a winning strategy, but also that appealing to religious solidarity is a useful way to both rally troops and circumvent religious doctrine that emphasizes peace and nonviolence.

This doctrine can be found in both the Bible and the Koran, and to understand the logic of holy war and jihad, it is useful to examine the transformation of Christianity from a pacifist religious sect into one that would kill thousands of people in the name of Christ. Imperative to this understanding is examining the importance of the Holy Land in the three big monotheistic religions, as well as the development of just war theory, most notably by Augustine of Hippo, and how this provided a religious basis for the Crusades.

Pacifism and Violent Tendencies

For hundreds of years following the death of Jesus Christ, pacifism was dominant in the faith of Christianity. Christians almost universally shunned service in the Roman military, and were often mercilessly persecuted for their convictions. According to War and the Christian Conscience, there were four primary reasons the early Christians embraced pacifism so uncompromisingly:

Rejection of idolatry. In repudiating the worship of false gods, the early Christians refused to acknowledge the divinity of Caesar.

The imminent second coming of Christ. Because the Christians thought that the reign of God was imminent, they did not see a need to care about worldly affairs.

An aversion to Rome. This was a product of the persecution of early Christians.

Love of enemies. The early Christians explicitly rejected the “eye for an eye” ethic and espoused Jesus’s command to love their enemies.[8]

Of these reasons, it is believed that the fourth was the strongest, as it was found throughout the Roman Empire well into the fourth century.

The basis for pacifism in the New Testament is evident, with exhortations to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies,” and the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

In Matthew 26:52, Jesus rejects the use of violence by a disciple who attempted to prevent Jesus’s arrest by cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus also clearly rejected the military option as a way to redress Jewish grievances, refusing to lead troops in war against Rome or defend his own cause by violent means.[9]

With this clear tradition of nonviolence in Christianity, it must be asked how it is that the religion’s tenets were adopted as justifications for the Crusades, in which horrific acts of violence were committed on a mass scale.

Renowned scholar Karen Armstrong argues that in fact it took very little convincing to get the European Christians on board for the Crusade. Indeed, she says, “the holy war is a deeply Christian act” and “when Pope Urban called the Crusade [European Christians] breathed a sigh of relief.”[10]

Despite trying to hold out against their violent tendencies for over a thousand years and keep Christianity a religion of peace and love, Armstrong argues that “Christianity had an inherent leaning toward violence.” When it came to crusading, “It is as though they felt that at last they were doing what came naturally.”[11]

This violent tendency was not unique to Christianity though. Armstrong draws connections between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, pointing out that all three religions are historically and theologically related, and all have tendencies toward violence.

“All three traditions are dedicated in some way to love and benevolence and yet all three have developed a pattern of holy war and violence that is remarkably similar,” she writes, ascribing this pattern to “some deep compulsion that is inherent in … the worship of only one God.”[12]

This can be traced to God’s revelation to Abraham and the realization among Jews that their God was not just one god among many, but rather, the only God and all other gods were simply human inventions. Armstrong notes that some of the first words that God uttered to Abraham were, “To your descendents I will give this land.”[13]

In order to realize this promise, a series of holy wars would have to be fought for the land. In these wars, not only was God considered to be commanding the conflict, but he was conceived of as being directly involved in the fighting, battling with the divine forces of the enemy on the cosmic level while the Israelites fought their human counterparts on the earthly level.

From the beginning then, control of the Holy Land would play a central role in the theology not only of Judaism, but also Christianity and Islam, whose adherents also consider themselves children of Abraham. Christians and Muslims both claim to be the recipients of the promises God made to the Jews,[14] which would play a dominant role in the Crusaders’ individual motivations.

However, it does not fully explain the ability of the Church to provide a ready rationale for the Crusades. To understand this, it is useful to look at the tradition of “just war” developed by Augustine of Hippo, and how this eventually morphed into the holy war phenomenon of the Crusades.

Augustine’s Just War

During the fourth and fifth centuries, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, developed ideas on just war that would play a large part in official Christianity’s acceptance of war in general and in the rationale of the Crusades in particular. While dealing on some level with questions of holy war, his just war theory focused primarily on other issues, such as just cause.

Three conditions, according to Augustine, could exist for just cause: defense, retaking something wrongly taken, and punishment of evildoing. Augustine did not only argue that just wars are acceptable, but that in fact they are necessary to wage. In The City of God, he discusses “the necessity of waging just wars,” arguing that “it is the iniquity on the part of the adversary that forces a just war upon the wise man.”[15]

Augustine also provided a theological basis for Christians to serve in the Roman military, arguing that it is imperative to protect the political community represented by the state.

He also developed the teachings of Christ in a way that departed from their pacifist origins. Discussing the Sermon on the Mount, Augustine argued that Jesus’s proclamation “Blessed are the peacemakers” actually provides a justification for war. “Peace is not sought in order to provoke war,” Augustine wrote to Boniface, “but war is waged to attain peace.”[16]

Those who fight wars are peacemakers, then, and through their victory they can bring the defeated enemy the advantages of peace. “Let necessity slay the warring foe, not your will,” says Augustine. Once they are defeated, however, Augustine emphasizes that they should be treated with mercy and compassion.[17]

While Augustine was instrumental in developing the tenets of Christianity in a way that provided a ready rationale for violence, it was Augustine’s mentor, Ambrose of Milan, who may have offered the most significant contribution to just war theory in specific relation to the Crusades.

Ambrose argued that in order to fulfill the Christian duty of loving his neighbor, a Christian must be ready to protect the neighbor from harm. When confronted with a case of an evildoer attacking an innocent victim, Christians should intervene and are justified in using force against the assailant. This paradigm provides a theological justification for the use of force and decisively counters the arguments for pacifism based on Jesus’s own nonviolence.[18]

It also fits in very well with Pope Urban’s call in 1095 to defend the oppressed Christians of Jerusalem.

The New Crusade Ideology

 The idea of the Crusade incorporated Augustine’s just war theory and took it a step further. Carl Erdmann argues in his 1935 study The Rise of the Crusade Idea that in the ninth and tenth centuries, Christian society underwent profound changes in thinking, particularly in relation to how war was viewed.

Early Christianity, which had grudgingly accepted Augustine’s justification for the legitimacy of war under certain circumstances, never had regarded war as virtuous or righteous. The invasions of Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries by Vikings, Magyars and Muslims, however, had been viewed by Christians as an attack upon their faith and demonstrated to them the necessity of the powerful to defend the weak. Furthermore, the new successes of Christian armies in Spain, South Italy, and Sicily represented a process by which Christians came to terms with war.[19]

Far from the days of the early Christians, in which military service was widely shunned, by the tenth century, Christians began regarding war and warriors as integral parts of God’s plan for the world.

By the late eleventh century, historian James Brundage argues, Western Christendom had arrived at the holy war concept of war, which was both novel and important. The holy war “was built upon the Augustinian notion of the Just War” but “went well beyond the positions which Augustine had set forth.” For one thing, the holy war was not only considered inoffensive to God, “but it was thought to be positively pleasing to Him.” Warriors fighting in a blessed cause were considered virtuous and worthy of God’s special favor.[20]

The Christian version of holy war differed from the Muslim jihad in significant ways, especially in that the Christian holy war was not aimed at converting infidels, but rather the recovery of holy places. Still though, the Crusades were directed toward a religious end, were proclaimed by the highest religious authority, and included spiritual rewards. They are therefore properly referred to as holy war.[21] 

Holy War and the First Crusade

Another departure from the just war tradition was the manner in which a war could be waged. Just war theory traditionally consists of two aspects, jus ad bellum, which prescribes the necessary preconditions for a just war to be launched, and jus in bello, which provides requirements to be met in the actual waging of war.

Though Augustine didn’t deal with jus in bello issues explicitly, later just war theorists have argued that its principles of discrimination, proportionality and noncombatant immunity are implicit in his arguments.[22]

In a holy war, these principles are easily ignored, due to the fact that the combatants claim to have God on their side and view the enemy as an affront to God that must be destroyed completely. As Urban instructed the Crusaders at the Council of Clermont, killing Muslims is a holy act, because it is a Christian duty to “exterminate this vile race from our lands.”[23]

This is the rationale that led to the total slaughter of Muslims in Jerusalem following the liberation of that city by the Crusaders. As Armstrong describes it, when the Crusaders arrived at Jerusalem, they were deeply insulted by the Muslim presence in the city, viewing them very differently than the Turks they had encountered in Asia Minor. In Jerusalem, the Christians saw the Muslims as the enemies of God.[24]

The Crusaders first tried praying and fasting as a tactic to inspire a divine liberation of the city, and when that failed, they were ridiculed and jeered by the Muslims who were watching it all from Jerusalem’s city walls. To the Christians, these taunts and insults seemed to be directed against Christ himself, and they vowed revenge.[25]

On July 15, 1099, the Crusaders invaded and conquered the city, killing everyone in sight, including women and children. The massacre continued for two days, at the end of which 40,000 Muslims were dead. It was described later by eyewitness Raymond of Aguiles:

"Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men … cut off the heads of their enemies; … others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. … [I]n the temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.[26]

While for the most part Christians greeted the news of the conquest of Jerusalem ecstatically, there were some Christians who were shocked by news of the massacre.

Pope Urban, for his part, died two weeks after the victory, but would have been horrified by the massacre in Jerusalem, argues Armstrong. What he had foreseen was an orderly war of liberation, not out of line with Augustine’s prescription for a just war, but instead, the Crusaders slaughtered tens of thousands of people indiscriminately.

This massacre would never be forgotten by the Muslims, and would precipitate Saladin’s reconquest of the city, as well as many years of sour relations between Christian rulers and their Muslim counterparts.[27]

Crusading Institutionalized and Constantinople Sacked

For the next hundred years, the practice of crusading would become entrenched and popes would learn how useful a tool it was to appeal to Christians’ faith as a way to raise an army.

The definition of a crusade remained rather fluid, with the essential element being the taking of the cross. Emperors such as Henry VI, Frederick II and King Louis IX appear to have taken the cross on their own authority, but it was necessary for the pope to bestow the expedition with the character of a crusade. Kings were permitted to launch “just wars” in the interests of their subjects, but had no authority to allow warriors to adopt the sign of the cross. Only the pope could authorize the taking of the cross, and only the pope could provide an expedition with the character of a crusade.[28]

While in these respects the concept of crusading was constrained, in other ways it was expanded during this period. Particularly of interest here is the way in which the papacy broadened the potential scope of a crusade from being limited to a holy war against Muslims to being a holy war against anyone who endangered the faith, broke the peace or undermined the Church or its rights. This could include other Christians, and in the Fourth Crusade, this expanded view was put into practice in the sack of Constantinople.

Originally intended to attack Cairo, the Fourth Crusade was diverted first to the key port of Zara in modern Yugoslavia, and then on to Constantinople, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, saw a great opportunity in capturing Zara and Constantinople, primarily for what it would mean for Venice. Some Crusaders were disgusted by the idea of attacking an innocent Christian city and left the Crusade. Others stayed on, however, and eagerly attacked Zara.[29]

Following the sack of the city, Pope Innocent III was distressed and excommunicated the entire Crusade, but Dandolo was undeterred. He despised Byzantium for the unfavorable trading terms it granted to Venice, and was determined to take Constantinople.

This idea was attractive to Innocent, who could not resist the idea of a newly united Christendom with himself at the helm. Repairing the rift between the Eastern and Western churches was one of the original objectives of the First Crusade, and if the Greek Orthodox Church could be forced to submit to the papacy, this objective would finally be realized.[30]

It appears however that many of the Crusaders were unsure about their mission. When they were initially unable to take the city, some wondered whether it was as a result of their sinfulness.

Robert of Clari, a knight participating in the Crusade, recounted the frustrations felt among the ordinary Crusaders. “They were very angry and grieved much,” he wrote. “When the barons had returned and had gotten ashore, they assembled and were much amazed, and said that it was on account of their sins that they did not succeed in anything and could not capture the city.”[31]

In their view of the holy war, God both willed their participation, and their successes. When they were unsuccessful, it was seen by some as God’s displeasure with their mission.

Nevertheless, after 10 days of fighting, Constantinople fell to the Crusaders. Despite having taken oaths to conquer the city in a manner appropriate to the occupation of a Christian city (i.e., no women were to be molested and no churches to suffer depredations), the attackers sacked the city mercilessly.[32]

According to Jean Richard, the Crusaders spared “neither churches … nor the monuments and works of art inherited from Antiquity; the population, without there being a true massacre, suffered badly.” Armstrong goes into a bit more detail, calling the sack of Constantinople “one of the great crimes of history.” She writes:

"For three days the Venetians and Crusaders rushed through the streets, raping, killing and pillaging with a horrible eagerness. Women and children lay dying in the streets and nuns were raped in their convents. The Venetians knew the value of the treasures that they carefully purloined to adorn their own cities, churches and palaces, but the Crusaders from northern Europe simply went on the rampage."[33]

Conclusion: Just War or Just a War?

While the word “crusade” has generally taken on a positive connotation in popular vernacular – as we approvingly refer to a “crusading journalist” or a “crusade against corruption” – when it comes to military conflict, the use of the word is decidedly frowned upon.

It is hard to forget the controversy that ensued following President George W. Bush’s use of the word in describing the “war on terrorism,” and how Osama bin Laden so eagerly pounced on the faux pas as supposed proof of the “Christian-Zionist Crusade” against Islam.

Europeans were particularly appalled by Bush’s poor choice of words, because in general, Europeans have a much deeper appreciation for the impact the Crusades continue to have on relations between Islam and the West, and in some European countries, the word has no definition other than its description of the holy wars of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

When it comes to just war theory, the word has an even more negative connotation. According to just war theorists, a crusade, by definition is not a just war.

Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars, argues that once a military conflict exceeds certain constraints and assumes a sweeping, all-encompassing mission – such as “spreading democracy” around the world – the conflict becomes a crusade, and therefore is an unjust war. The legalist paradigm of just war theory rules out every sort of war other than those that are waged in order to defend the rights of a political community.

“Preventive wars, commercial wars, wars of expansion and conquest, [and] religious crusades,” he writes, “are [all] barred and barred absolutely.”[34]

Somewhat ironically then, the wars that were initiated by Pope Urban, relying on the just war theory developed by St. Augustine, have come to define what a just war is not. Instead, they have come to define what a holy war is, and in some ways, what total war is.

In assuming the view that Muslims were completely irredeemable and that their very existence was an affront to God, the Crusaders established a precedent for total war that would manifest itself repeatedly over the centuries, with often tragic consequences.

[1] “Urban II (1088-1099): Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095,” Internet Medieval Sourcebook,

[2] “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” World Islamic Front Statement, 23 February 1998,

[3] Christopher Tyerman, Fighting for Christendom: Holy War and the Crusades (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 38

[4] Norman Housley, Contesting the Crusades (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 30

[5] Ibid., p. 32

[6] Ibid., p. 33

[7] Tyerman, p. 30

[8] Joseph J. Fahey, War and the Christian Conscience: Where Do You Stand? (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2005), p. 42

[9] Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York,NY: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 68-69

[10] Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2001), p. 4

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 5

[14] Ibid.,

[15] Augustine, Political Writings (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1994), p. 149

[16] Ibid., p. 220

[17] Ibid.

[18] John Kelsay and James Turner Johnson, Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Oeace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1991), pp. 9-10

[19] Edward Peters, The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher and Other Source Materials (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971), pp. xiv-xv

[20] Ibid., pp. xv-xvi

[21] George Dennis, “Defenders of the Christian People: Holy War in Byzantium,” The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection), p. 32

[22] Kelsay and Johnson, p. 10

[23] Armstrong, p. 3

[24] Ibid., p. 178

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., pp. 178-179

[27] Ibid., p. 180

[28] Jean Richard, The Crusades, c. 1071 – c. 1291 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 260-261

[29] Armstrong, p. 384

[30] Ibid., p. 385

[31] “The Fourth Crusade 1204: Collected Sources,” Internet Medieval Sourcebook,

[32] Richard, p. 251

[33] Armstrong, p. 386

[34] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations (New York, NY: Basic Books), p. 72

Back to Home Page