It was the essayist and philosopher George Santayana who first made the statement that has inspired about a zillion paraphrases:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
My friends, we are in danger of not remembering a truth we cannot afford to forget.
A thousand years ago — before BuzzFeed and Fox News and the Democratic National Convention and The Onion — civilization buckled under the back-and-forth conflicts we now popularly refer to as The Crusades. They were not a singular event for a singular purpose–it was far more complicated than that–but most humans look back on them collectively with much remorse.
While it’s difficult to judge motives in real time, let alone a millennia later, on the face of it the Crusades were just awful. Like most “religious” conflict, they had as much to do with politics and world geography as they did faith itself. That’s lesson number one from the Crusades:
You can’t separate faith out as the single defining factor for those wars. Religious ideology is seldom the cause for that level of conflict. Obtaining territory, wealth, resources, and influence in a region are often the driving factors behind a war, even if they are labeled as “religious.” It was true back then and it remains true today.
The world in the Dark Ages was a barbaric place (that fact, in some ways, hasn’t changed much), and fighting over beliefs and land and world domination was something that motivated both Muslims and Christians. Back then, like today, a lot of Muslims didn’t think real highly of Christians. As the Christian world drifted westward, the Muslims gained dominance (yes, violently) in Jerusalem in the 630s. Four centuries later, the Christians wanted it back. Things got so bad that even women and children, at times, were sent into battle to try and fight off the enemy. There were beheadings and other horrific acts. Both sides did inexplicable things in the name of their faith as they pursued their desires.
As I consider the setting in which humanity finds itself presently, I can’t help but think that we are fighting New Crusades. There is certainly still animosity between Muslims and Christians, but our named enemies are even more numerous and our motivations more nuanced than ever. It is a multi-front battle and our foes consist of nearly everyone with whom we disagree. A week after I post this blog a new foe will likely emerge that isn’t yet on the list.
A thousand years ago, there was the First Crusade and the Second Crusade and the Children’s Crusade, but they were all motivated by (basically) one thing and consisted of (basically) two obvious sides. Now we have Conservatives vs. Liberals and Israel vs. Palestine and ISIS vs. everyone and Russia vs. the USA and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Left vs. Right and Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice and Muslims vs. Christians and Muslims vs. Hindus and Hindus vs. Christians and the NRA vs. Pacifists and a million other battles raging on a million other fronts. I literally can’t think of them all and you’re probably thinking of a biggie right now that I missed.
In each fight, there seems to be little room for civil discord. There is no space for reasonable disagreement. We drop verbal bombs (or, in some cases, real bombs) on one another as if we’ve forfeited everything civil about our civilization, content to go down blazing if we’re to go down at all. Our opinion is the territory we defend. Increasingly, we go on the attack against folks with a dissenting perspective.
Look, I’m not saying there’s nothing worth fighting for. I’m not suggesting that we all join hands and sing “We Are the World.” There ain’t no way in Mecca that I’m converting to Islam (like, ever). And while I’m not a big fan of the whoever-has-the-biggest-army wins strategy of settling world disputes, I don’t consider myself a pacifist either.
What I am saying is that if the Crusades taught us anything it’s that fighting usually leads to — well, just a lot more fighting. That’s true no matter what kind of weapons you’re armed with.
In ancient times the weapons of sword and shield were used by opposing armies to destroy each other. We still wield weapons — drones and bombs and automatic rifles in the hands of snipers — designed to pierce flesh. But terrorism and hatred and prejudice are actually defining the battle lines for an even greater conflict in these New Crusades, and I’m afraid it’s one that will not be won by either side. Instead, like the Crusades of old, these new battlefields of the human opinion will only serve to set the table for centuries more of disputes and animosity. Someone is going down. Or maybe we all are.
When the only thing you consider valid is your opinion and your agenda, you set yourself up for a multi-front war that no individual, group, nation, or church is likely to win. And, as we learned in the middle ages when the cross was a symbol of violence and torture, winning didn’t fix all their problems. Because in any crusade there is one more lesson we must learn or we will be doomed to repeat our folly:
Even in “winning” it’s possible that you may still lose quite a lot.
It wasn’t George Santayana but Jesus who said, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” It was certainly true of the Crusaders from 1,000 years ago. For God’s sake and the sake of His Kingdom, may we not repeat that tragic mistake.