Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The "Kingdom of Heaven" - History Rewritten

Ridley Scott's movie, "the Kingdom of Heaven" was filmed in consultation with Muslim scholars and has received praise from Islamic leaders for its fair portrayal of Islamic beliefs and personalities during the Crusades, especially Saladin the Great.

There has been no mention of any consultation with Catholic scholars - after all, we all "know" how evil the Latin Crusaders were.

There is, however, a problem with this simplistic scenario. From middle school to graduate school, from "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" to current Hollywood attempts to have terrorists be anyone but a Muslim, we are fed a diet of anti-Christian propoganda that fails to tell the whole story.

I am not going to historically or theologically defend one of the darkest chapters of church history. The Crusading spirit is antithetical to most Christian's understanding of the message of the Bible and the progress made since the 12th-14th centuries is welcome. Using violence to promote faith is contrary to the noble teachings of Jesus and even the early chapters of the Koran.

With this caveat, however, it is helpful to understand the historical forces at work prior to 1099, when the Latin armies conquered Jerusalem.

From 632 to 732 a variety of Islamic armies conquered vast territiories in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. Were it not for the efforts of Charles Martel at Tours, the crescent might have been the dominant symbol of much of Western Europe rather than the cross.

As Islamic empires consolidated control, Christians and Jews were tolerated as dhimmi, inferiors fit for menial tasks and higher taxes. Treatment of non-Muslims varied from location to location. In some cases, there was considerable cooperation, especially in the fields of philosophical scholarship in Spain.

The Catholic Church and the emerging nation-states of the West were coming out of a long season of civilizational decline as the year 1100 approached. The Byzantine Empire was continuing to shrink under the pressure of the new Ottoman power. In 1054 the Latin and Greek branches of Christendom severed ties over political and theological differences spanning five centuries.

The First Crusade was preached in 1096 as a call to restore the holy sites of Palestine to Church control, or at least allow Christian pilgrims free access. By 1099, it had degenerated into a bloodbath during the conquest of Jerusalem. In the succeeding two centuries God, glory, gold and outlets for an excess of petty nobility would darken the chronicles of world history. The last Latin presence in the Holy Land ended in 1291.

The Crusades were not simply about religion and war. Complex geopolitical and economic interests created shifting alliances, pragmatic partnerships and provided the foundations for the emergence of the modern world. Byzantine intrigues, the national aspriations of western monarchs, Italian trading centers, and competing Islamic forces make these centuries rich with events that defy simplistic analysis. Add to these facts the gradual Reconquista of Spain, the Catholic crusades against heretics and the emergence of proto-Protestant dissent and the years 1100 to 1300 emerge as the dawn of modern history.

For some sane accounts of the Crusades that consider all sides, I recommend Geoffry Hindley's, The Crusades: Islam and Christianity in the Struggle for World Supremacy (Carroll and Graf, 2003). Jonathan Ridley-Scott has written a concise narrative, The Crusades: A Short History, that is worth reading. James Reston's Warriors of God: Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin in the third Crusade (Anchor Books, 2001) is another fine work. Duncan Baird's editing of The Illustrated History of the Crusades (University of Michigan, 2004) is balances and contains amazing maps, plates and original art form the period.

As we face a post-9/11 world we confront radical Islamic movements with long (and selective) memories and a Western culture that has abandoned its Christian principles. The road ahead is not found in a revival of pious militarism, but in moral renewal, military restraint and wisdom and a recognition that freedom requires sacrifice and virtue.

No comments: