St. Francis and the Crusaders

Posted on September 14, 2017


A  few semesters ago I taught a course online at UA on the first half of the history of Christianity. The students in this course sampled how Christianity came into being and evolved over the first 1500 years.

One of the questions they had to address was how the Church could have produced both a St. Francis and the Crusades at the same time.

Most students also brought a good bit of study and learning to the course, much of it gained in their lives—young as they are—as Christians in churches, study groups, Sunday schools, etc.

Here’s what one wrote. I thought it was very perceptive.

“Although the methods of the crusaders and St. Francis were different, they still shared the same intent. They both showed their love and devotion to their religion, just in different ways. The crusaders were told that they would be forgiven from all their sins if they fought in the name of God, and they were also told that this is what God wanted them to do. They thought it was God’s will and that fighting in the crusades would eventually lead them to salvation. One the other hand St. Francis did not believe in violence, instead he preached love and charity. He lived a very simple life, and gave all his wealth away to live a holy life. Despite his different lifestyle from the crusader, they still share the common interest of showing their devotion to Christianity, and did what they thought God wanted them to do.”

My student Anna captured the dichotomy in behavior almost perfectly, better than I ever could in a lengthy and probably obtuse historical and theological disquisition. Francis, and a warrior like King Richard the Lionhearted, did what they thought was their Christian best.

Francis was devoted to peace, poverty and living the very words of his master. He was a peacemaker and totally committed to love, redemption, forgiveness, and living as Jesus. Instead of shunning lepers for example, he embraced them, literally, shocking his contemporaries by his repudiation of the world. He gave away all his worldly possessions and begged for a living. His father thought he had lost his mind.

The Crusaders, on the other hand, embraced their calling with an equal passion, to recapture the Holy Land from the infidel followers of the prophet Muhammad. Promised eternal life and forgiveness of sins, Crusaders struck terror into the heart of Islam and recaptured Jerusalem and ruled it for over a hundred years. The image of a Crusader was of a knight in armor, sword in hand, sworn to defend the faith and destroy his enemies.
It is perhaps little wonder that sometimes American troops in the Middle East today are referred to—disparagingly—as Crusaders by radical Muslims. It is imbedded in their cultural and religious memory, when Christian warriors pushed hard on their faith and their people.

Francis tried at one time to reach the Holy Land to preach the message of Jesus to the infidels. He got as far as Egypt where he was received with respect by the Muslim Sultan. Francis’s reputation of being a great man of God preceded him.

It wasn’t all blood and thunder between Muslims and Christians, and there was even a relatively halcyon period of several hundred years in early Spanish history when Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-habited some kingdoms in Spain in peace, if not equality.

Nonetheless, in the attempt to promote equality across the board today, we sometimes ignore that differences—some huge and some subtle—also distinguish our people. We are not alike. Christians believe and worship differently from Muslims and Jews. There do exist some similarities, but very basic differences distinguish them.

At the core of these differences is the Christian recognition of Jesus as savior and the son of God, not simply another prophet in a long list of prophets as do Jews and Muslims.

To be at peace with everyone is a wonderful ideal. But as Christians you are called to live apart, following Jesus, that a St. Francis or a King Richard the Lionhearted understood quite well.

Some modern Christians, like Pope Francis, flirt with universalism and embrace all, regardless of creed or beliefs. For be it for me to suggest something to a Pope, and a Jesuit to boot. But we all might do well to study both St. Francis and Richard, two different expressions of Christendom, but both applied in propagating and defending the faith over the centuries.

Published as “Reconciling St. Francis, the Crusaders in Christianity,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 9, 2017