When I was in the military a few years ago, I and two other friends had been given permission to pop into the local town to get some cash – and while we were there, we went into Macdonalds for a banana milkshake.
Unfortunately, when we entered Macdonalds, a gang of troublesome thugs also entered – and one very large troublesome thug flew into a rage and started to attack people. At the time, I was so confident in my own super-powers, I decided to engage the hostile. Selflessly abandoning my banana milkshake, I waded into the carnage in order to establish justice and apply the rule of minimum force.
The word ‘success’ could not be less applicable to what happened next. Within sixty seconds, I was running through the streets of Hereford, with a broken nose, being chased by approximately one hundred stone of angry troublesome thugs.
Several months later, the incident was being heard in Hereford Crown Court, where the chief thug had accused me of Grievous Bodily Harm, largely on account of his nose having changed shape and his teeth being fewer in number. Thankfully the judge was having none of it… awarded me a large sum of cash, and commended me for acting in the public interest. The judge then turned to me, peered over his glasses and declared, “Next time you act in the public interest Mr Perry, you may like to consider doing it more gently.”
This evening, we look at questions raised by the medieval adventures of thugerous chivalry, we call the Crusades. By crusades, we tend to mean western adventures into Muslim-controlled territory in order to buttress our own worldview and lifestyle by committing a host of atrocities. In the modern world, of course, we have developed new means of justifying precisely this kind of adventure. In the medieval world, it was necessary to embark upon such adventures with the approval of the Christian god.
For, the first crusade which took place at the end of the eleventh century, that was a fairly straightforward affair… Tales of atrocities inflicted upon fellow Christians by those nasty pagan Turks, filtered into Western Europe. The emperor of the Christian East appealed to the west for military aid, and Pope Urban II called for a crusade. Despite the fact that the first crusade was marked by incompetence, ignorance, and thuggery – these qualities are hardly absent from twenty first century adventures into Muslim territory.
In fact, many of those who embarked upon that first crusade were honest, well-meaning, self-sacrificing men (ready to leave their families and their homes and their banana milkshakes) and embark upon a quest to free the oppressed, and to bring liberation to those beset by undefeatable hostile forces of Islam. Sure, the later crusades descended into pointless but profitable excursions into foreign territory, where a fading warrior class got to attack those who were easy to cast as ‘baddies’ because they were Muslims. But the crusades began as a response to a genuine call from people who were under serious threat from a powerful and expansive enemy. Those who marched out to defend them, sincerely believed they were acting in the public interest, but might they have done it more gently?
There was certainly no Christian tradition of a ‘Holy War’. And it takes little biblical knowledge to see that Jesus of Nazareth would never have endorsed such an enterprise! Or would he? The New Testament reading we had drew from an incident at the very end of Jesus’ ministry – recounts the final evening of Jesus before he is arrested. Jesus has instituted the Lord’s Supper, warned Peter of his denial, and given them a speech implying that their own mission will cost them everything and bring them into conflict. And at the end of it, the disciples produce two swords, and Jesus said, “that is enough!” As though Jesus were about to launch an assault upon the Roman guard. But this, of course, would not be consistent with the entire sweep of Jesus’ ministry.
Here we have to address the question of how God achieves his purposes. Does god need to use armies in order to see his will done? The Old Testament – depending on how it is read, can imply that he does. The citation from the great Warrior King David, could be read either as the belief that God uses armies for his own purposes – or that his power implies alternative means of seeing his own will done.
It is from these kinds of passages that many Christians have bought into the belief that God is Omnipotent. If humans have power to achieve their own ends – then multiply that power by infinity – and God has absolute, unrivalled, unlimited power. Of course, by doing that – we are simply projecting our own beliefs about how to get things done – up onto God. In other words, omnipotence – as human power multiplied into infinity – is simply idolatrous. On the other hand, Scripture presents the portrait of a God whose purposes are achieved not by coercive power, but by entirely other means.
In Zechariah: Not by power, nor by might, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.
When Israel sought an alliance with Egypt, they were told not to trust Egyptian horses and chariots, as though God’s ends were achieved by military technology.
The whole notion of the Kingdom of God – the realm in which the authority of God is rightly exercised and justice is done – is not a kingdom of the sword.
Ultimately, the point of the resurrection is that human power cannot defeat the power of God, whose purposes are achieved not by military action or human might, but by radical self-giving love. That is the sense in which the portrait of God that emerges from Scripture is Almighty – not because he equips his people for acts of violence against other armies – no matter how justly or gently those armies act – but because the power of an army is unable (ultimately) to defeat the purposes of a loving God.
So when, at the end of Jesus’ ministry those who had been closest to Jesus all the way through, declare – Look – we’ve got two swords, Jesus simply rolls his eyes in despair and says, “Oh that’s enough.”
Omnipotence, as it is traditionally understood, is simply a means of baptizing one’s human ambitions with divine purposes – enabling you to claim that you will win because God is on your side. We sung the Agincourt Carol earlier on, and - as any historian knows, the English Army at Agincourt was led by Sir Kenneth Brannagh, who at the end of the battle conclude, “God fought for us”. That, according to those who believe in omnipotence, is how God acts in the public interest!
The crusades then, are widely seen as an example of how religion is dangerous: Christians armed with the belief that God is on their side march off into the world convinced that they are right, the enemy is wrong, and look at the disaster that ensues! Thankfully, now that we live in a secular age, we have evolved ethically and outgrown our morally retarded ancestors.
Last week, Dr Stewart quoted a recent book by the philosopher Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, in which he argues that humanity is becoming more intelligent, more rational and therefore less violent.
Violence, like that of the crusades, comes from dated religions who believe they have divine backing for their violent human enterprises. The trouble is … the violent enterprises continue in the world today. But we no longer appeal to a god who no one believes in, in order to justify that violence. We justify it in other ways. We need not even look simply at the way that modern wars have been justified by the west.
For instance, the IMF’s dictates for Madagascar – which resulted in loss of funding for a crucial project Mosquito eradication programme, and in turn – in the deaths of 10-15000 people, at least 5000 of them children. The children who died in Madagascar do not feature in Pinker’s statistics, because violence was inflicted by Mosquitos instead bombs. Since there is no easy, direct, identifiable link between those who suffer and those who benefit, then – by Pinker’s reckoning – no violence has been committed.
If I, the perpetrator, am protected by the complex systems of modern economics and technology, from the victim who suffers as a result of my actions, I can wash my hands and presume no violence is done. If I choose to buy low-priced chocolate or climb on an aeroplane for an unnecessary journey, never will I be regarded as committing violent acts – even though such actions might have consequences that inflict suffering upon others.
With smug superiority I can tut tut at the crusades. Crusades are easy to condemn, because they are easy to stick a label on.
The action of an Almighty God, however, is of a different nature – The way that this God is made present upon earth is not through successful armies, or powerful tyrants, but through the body of Christ: a community of people who commit to follow a condemned, humiliated political prisoner, who was ultimately tortured and executed. Faith is the readiness to follow this Jesus through failure and despair, in the belief that your actions will ultimately be vindicated in the way that Christ’s were.