Between the years of 500 ᴄᴇ and 1250 ᴄᴇ, Christianity transitioned from being the state religion of the Roman Empire to being the assumed religion of the entire Western world. The power of the Church came to transcend government and culture to become the strongest tie connecting societies on one end of the continent with those on the other. As the West descended into a period of cultural, political, and educational darkness, Christianity came to represent a final vestige of the light of Rome’s former glory.
At the beginning of the second millennium, the Church used its political clout to issue a call to arms against the religious and political threat to the south, and Christians rallied in response. For the next two hundred years, Christians embarked on crusades against cultures and civilizations that they did not understand in a perverse attempt to restore the kingdom of God to those lands. These Crusades are one of the darkest blights on Christian history, but the theological and philosophical justifications for them persist in modern Christian culture.
As Christians, we must learn from our own history and take action to remove the corrupting power of political conquest from the practice of our faith. In the United States today, we are in the midst of a crisis of Christian allegiance: will we serve the Empire, or will we serve Christ?
Christianity in the Medieval World
By 500 ᴄᴇ, the Roman Empire, which had adopted Christianity as its state religion, was in rapid decline; by 600 ᴄᴇ, it was unrecognizable as an empire and Germanic kings ruled over several prominent regions formerly under Roman control. The political and cultural juggernaut that had been the standard of civilization for the previous half-millennium collapsed under the weight of a myriad of internal and external forces.
As the Empire faded from prominence, it was replaced by feudal territories governed by local kings and lords. The collapse of a unified government ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages marked by an increased disparity between ruling and peasant classes, a dramatic decrease in education and literacy, and a regressive neglect of art and culture. Eventually individual kingdoms began to solidify, forming the foundations of the European nations of today.
Christianity’s Response to Roman Collapse
When the Edict of Thessalonica officially announced Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire back in 380 ᴄᴇ, it set up the Church to become a second authoritative arm of the Empire, with popes and bishops governing alongside the official emperors and leaders of the state. Popes became diplomatic negotiators, ecclesial structures became methods of social control, and the government’s money fueled the growth of the Church.
As the political arm of the Empire began to collapse, the religious arm gained more and more authority. Though the political empire had essentially crumbled by 600 ᴄᴇ, in many ways the Roman legacy lived on through the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the West. In the absence of a unifying political presence, the Church provided a cohesive framework whereby people across the continent could relate to one another: they looked to a common pope, experienced a common liturgy, and shared a common basic sense of morality.
The power of the papacy swelled in this environment and the papal office became a political role that superseded that of any other in the region. In 800 ᴄᴇ, Pope Leo III took it upon himself to crown Charlemagne, the reigning king of the Franks, as the Roman Emperor. That coronation was not simply an effort to reinvigorate Empire - it was a demonstration of the papacy’s superiority over any other political office in the land. The Pope became an emperor-maker.
The Church, powerful as it had become, was not exempt from political troubles. By 1000 ᴄᴇ, it was common practice for newly-elected bishops to swear fealty to the civil lord of their province in order to secure the use of the property for their church. In return, the lord would invest that bishop with a religious symbol of approval. This practice, known as simony, quickly became a system for aspiring religious leaders to purchase levels of authority in the Church, which led to a dilution of the education of clergy for leading their people. This lack of education would prove disastrous for the victims of the Crusades because the religious leaders were not educated enough (and, in many cases, not faithful enough) to speak prophetically against the anti-Christ call to war.
Calls to Crusade
The political authority of the Church reached a climax in 1095 when Pope Urban II issued the first call for Christians to embark on a crusade against the growing Muslim population to the south. The visions and aspirations of Muhammad around 600 ᴄᴇ had created a movement in the Arabian peninsula known as Islam, which sparked a dramatic political and religious revolution in the area that spread rapidly to the north and west. This Muslim force, which saw itself as a correction to the Christian faith, violently overtook and occupied many of the lands that Christianity and Judaism had long considered sacred, including Jerusalem, the Holy City itself.
By the time of the first crusade, Islamic forces were fighting for control of Turkey, so Pope Urban II’s call for crusade was an effort to push back those forces and reclaim the city of Jerusalem for Christianity. Though it was for the most part successful in its goal, this crusade had a horrific impact that would ripple through history.
Since the resurgence of tribalism in the Dark Ages had destroyed any established system of education, few common people could read or write; fewer still knew Latin, the language the Church used in all liturgy and theological study. With no access to read or understand Scripture, the people relied upon clergy to dictate their theological convictions and, with the prevalence of ill-trained clergy in local churches, most of the core doctrinal assertions came from the top of the Church’s hierarchy. Thus, when the Pope issued a proclamation of war, the people took it as a declaration of the very will of God - an assertion that could easily be demonstrated with a surface-level reading of the most ancient Hebrew writings. This divine authority, along with the absence of a secular political authority, made the call to arms unquestionable.
By justifying the Crusades as ordained by God, Christians brought about previously inconceivable levels of religiously-motivated death. Although most of the groups who responded to the Pope’s call to crusade evidently set out with faithful intentions, many of them found themselves returning home with their pockets lined with plunder from their adventures and their swords coated thick with blood. Crusaders destroyed towns and villages, killing civilians indiscriminately.
The relative success of this first crusade set a precedent that would continue in waves for over two hundred years. The subsequent crusades grew steadily less effective, and as they decreased in successfulness, they also became less popular. With each renewed call, fewer kings responded until popes ceased to call for crusades entirely.
Still Crusading Today
The Crusades remain one of the darkest stains on the history of the Christian church. Many factors contributed to the rise of warfare in Church: its rise of as a political force throughout the Western world, the collapse of the Roman Empire as a governmental authority, the growth of Islam as a competing religious and political system, the role of the Church in establishing kings and monarchs, and the perception of divine authority resting within the person of the Pope (a perception influenced by the lack of education among common people). These factors, as well as many others, heinously climaxed in the call to Christian warfare at the beginning of the second millennium, but the systemic abuses underlying them echo still today.
Education and Politics
Evangelical Christianity in our country fears theological education - resents it, even - and our clergy are often poorly prepared for the task of guiding the theology and faithful practice of their congregations. Many of our popular church leaders have little theological education and, like the medieval Church, we as a culture have set up the pastoral office as a place of political (and sometimes financial) power. We harbor a perverse, backwardly-influential relationship between national politics and Christian faith.
Just as the medieval populace understood Roman Catholic popes to hold divine authority over civil rulers, so do we allow our religious leaders to directly shape the election of our congressional and other governmental authorities. Too many evangelicals rely on the endorsements of their religious leaders to determine their votes, and common citizens often fail to recognize the underlying political motivations driving those religious endorsements.
Christian Leaders as Divine Messengers
We have a tendency to assume that our Christian leaders operate by the divine call of God rather than considering the possibility that they may be influenced by positions of power; any dissenting voices are labelled as counter-biblical and ostracized from the community of believers (or banned from our bookstores). Evangelicals cannot hear prophetic voices calling us closer to God because we immediately condemn anything that threatens our allegiance to the position of our inseparable political-religious affiliation.
Failure to Understand Scripture
Although our evangelical society is almost entirely literate, we have neglected the philosophical discipline of critically contemplating what we read. While Christians have developed a deep responsibility to read Scripture for ourselves, we have not yet converted that into a personal responsibility to interpret Scripture. Just as the Roman Church left the work of theology to the clergy, so do we leave scriptural interpretation to our pastors and academics, and our Christian leadership is no more immune to the corrupting influence of power than were the clergy preceding the Crusades.
When an evangelical religious leader today issues a call to war, whether that is a call to fight Muslim forces in the Middle East, a call to protest corruption in the capital, or a call to ban refugees from a place of solace, the Christian community roars to life in support, calling for the defense of our country as a Christian nation, pressing for the embrace of Christian ideals in government, and rallying an army to fight in the name of God.
A Better, More Christian Faith
We have a natural inclination to give our religious leaders politically-potent positions within our social hierarchy, and history demonstrates over and over that the imposition of such power carries destructive consequences. The life of Jesus Christ, the model by which Christians should aspire to live, shows us a different way.
When the exiled Jews prayed for a savior, they expected a divine warrior, a political leader who would summon an army and guide them to victory over their oppressors, but instead of assuming a royal throne, Jesus Christ the King was born in a stable, lived a humble life of servitude, and died the death of a criminal. Instead of initiating a political revolt (as his people expected), Jesus taught his apostles to work under political rule to provide physical, spiritual, and social deliverance; the goal was not to overthrow government, but to operate on a different plane of existence altogether, living in a state of continual preference for the status of others before caring for one’s own status. This model was a direct subversion of the natural human desire for influence, and it transformed the culture of that day.
Embracing the example of Christ would have shaken the very foundations of the Roman Catholic Church in the medieval paradigm, as it should shake the foundations of evangelicalism in the United States today. We must build a Christian community that is biblically literate, is able to understand and interpret Scripture, is led by humble, faithful, and prepared men and women who are willing to divest themselves of political power.