When people begin to list the many faults of the Christian church throughout the ages, the crusades are right at the top of the list. The image of barbaric knights journeying to the middle east and slaughtering Muslims is not uncommon. Rodney Stark argues in God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades that we have the crusades all wrong and that this is not the story.
I have enjoyed Stark’s books in the past. The Rise of Christianity is one of my all time favorites and many of his other books are also great. That said, I found this offering somewhat disappointing. Perhaps the main problem is that the book does not deliver what the title promises – there is no “case” for the crusades. A better title would have been along the lines of, “a case for why the crusades were not as bad as you have heard.”
Stark sets out to tell the story of what really happened. For example, the crusaders are seen as evil invaders, encroaching on Muslim lands. Stark shows what any student of history ought to know – the lands were only Muslim lands because the Muslims had conquered them from Christians over previous centuries. It is often argued that the European crusaders were barbaric and uneducated while the Muslims were honorable and chivalrous. Stark demolishes this claim too. He shows that the reason why the crusaders were often so successful, at least early on, was more advanced military technology. Things like heavy calvary and the crossbow allowed smaller crusader armies to win victories they ought not have won. Stark also shows that the crusaders were no more brutal then the Muslims when it came to sacking cities. Too often historians ignore the Muslim atrocities of this period and emphasize the crusader ones. Saladin, the Muslim leader, is often praised for allowing the Christians in Jerusalem to leave after they surrendered. But in those days the rule of war was to allow surrendering people to desert their cities. If they resisted and forced a sieging army to storm the walls, then murder and rape ensued. Saladin engaged in such acts on cities that did not surrender.
To some degree, Stark’s book is a big effort to show the crusades were a response to Muslim aggression (“you started it”). The crusades were a response to Muslim advances rather than unprovoked attacks. Further, in the face of the claim that Muslims have never forgotten the crusades, Stark shows that until the early 1900s the crusades were not high in the mind of Muslims, they kind of were forgotten.
Yet all of this is not really a case “for” the crusades. He shows that what happened is different, and perhaps not as bad when put in historical context, as what most think. But he does not provide a case for why the crusades were a good idea, which is what I expected. Or to be more blunt, he never offered any sort of argument for why people who claim to follow Jesus, the Jesus who commanded his followers to love their enemies, ought to have gone warring against those of other religions.
The closest he comes is a discussion on the Church of Peace and the Church of Power. The Church of Power came to prominence after the conversion of Constantine. Those who still wanted the intense, living like Jesus, form of discipleship found a place in the church of peace. The Church of Power set about running the world.
Perhaps it is harsh to criticize Stark for writing as a historian and not a Christian theologian or ethicist. Maybe he didn’t even choose the title. But in light of the title, it would have been very beneficial to include a discussion of whether crusading is a good idea for Christians today. It seems somewhat blind to offer a case for the crusades that happened 800 years ago without mentioning how such a case plays out today. We live in a world still filled with religious warfare. Should Christians see fighting and killing others as a God-blessed thing? Stark’s book alone could be seen as arguing yes – if crusading was a good idea then why is it not a good idea now?
The mere fact that such a conclusion could be drawn shows why Stark needed to add a chapter on what he thinks about war today. Crusading and religious war is never a good idea. Stark does show the crusades were not as bad as we have been told but in light of Jesus we Christians should not settle for “not as bad as”. Instead we should strive for a much higher ethic.