In the Beginning There Was the Holy War. Why?
On November 25, 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade. For Western Europe it was a crucial and formative event and it is having repercussions today in the Middle East. Addressing a vast crowd of priests, knights and poor people, Urban called for a holy war against Islam. The Seljuk Turks, he explained, a barbarian race from Central Asia who had recently become Muslims, had swept into Anatolia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and had seized these lands from the Christian empire of Byzantium. The Pope urged the knights of Europe to stop fighting each other and to make common cause against these enemies of God. The Turks, he cried, are "an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation, forsooth, which has neither directed its heart nor entrusted its spirit to God." Killing these godless monsters was a holy act: it was a Christian duty to "exterminate this vile race from our lands." Once they had purged Asia Minor of this Muslim filth, the knights would engage in a still more holy task. They would march to the holy city of Jerusalem and liberate it from the infidel. It was shameful that the tomb of Christ should be in the hands of Islam.
There was an extraordinary response to Urban's appeal. Popular preachers like Peter the Hermit spread the news of the Crusade and in the spring of 1096 five armies of about 60,000 soldiers accompanied by a horde of noncombatant pilgrims with their wives and families set off to the East. They were followed in the autumn by five more armies of about 100,000 men and a crowd of priests and pilgrims. The numbers were astounding for this time. As the first armies approached the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, it seemed to the appalled but fascinated Princess Anna Comnena as though "the whole West, and as much of the land as lies beyond the Adriatic Sea to the Pillars of Hercules [Gibraltar]--all this, changing its seat, was bursting forth into Asia in a solid mass, with all its belongings." To the sophisticated Byzantines it looked like a great barbarian invasion, similar to those which had destroyed the Roman Empire in Europe. The West was invading the East for the first time in the modern period, filled with the aggressive righteousness of a holy war, a righteousness that would characterize its future dealings with the Orient. This Crusade was the first cooperative act of the new Europe as she crawled out of the Dark Ages. It appealed to all classes of society: to popes, kings, aristocrats, priests, soldiers and peasants. People sold all they had to equip themselves for this long and dangerous expedition, and for the most part they were not inspired by lust for material gain. They were gripped by a religious passion. They sewed crosses on their clothes and marched to the land where Jesus had died to save the world. It was a devotional pilgrimage at the same time as it was a war of extermination.
Clearly crusading answered a deep need in the Christians of Europe. Yet today most of us would unhesitantly condemn the Crusades as wicked and unchristian. After all, Jesus had told his followers to love their enemies, not to exterminate them. He was a pacifist and had more in common with Gandhi, perhaps, than with Pope Urban. Yet I would argue that the holy war is a deeply Christian act. Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity had an inherent leaning toward violence, despite the pacifism of Jesus. All three religions are historically and theologically related and all worship the same god. All three traditions are dedicated in some way to love and benevolence and yet all three have developed a pattern of holy war and violence that is remarkably similar and which seems to surface from some deep compulsion that is inherent in this tradition of monotheism, the worship of only one God. The pattern is as regular as a Jungian archetype. For over a thousand years European Christians tried to hold out against this violent tendency and to keep Christianity a religion of love and peace, yet when Pope Urban called the Crusade they responded with a sigh of relief and reproduced the pattern of holy war with an uncanny accuracy. It is as though they felt that at last they were doing what came naturally. In order to understand the Crusades, therefore, as well as the holy wars of today, we need to examine this pattern of violence and try to discover why each of the three religions felt that they needed a holy war.
In about 1850 B.C.E. a man called Abram left his home in Ur of the Chaldees and journeyed to the land of Canaan, the modern Israel. He had been summoned to emigrate by a Divine Being who revealed that he had decided to be the special God of Abram and his offspring. Abram should change his name to Abraham as a sign of his new status, and should make a covenant agreement with God, who in return would bless him and his descendants. The children of Abraham would become a great people and God promised that he would give them the land of Canaan. This event, as it was told centuries later in the Bible, changed the world. It is not only the Jews, Abraham's physical descendents, who see this as the beginning of their history--Christians and Muslims also regard themselves as children of Abraham, as we shall see later in this chapter. Christians and Muslims have persecuted or fought holy wars against Jews at different times in their history, but both claim the Jewish past as their own and see themselves as the recipients of the promises God made to the Jews. This revelation to Abraham was a revolution in the history of religion. Gradually the Jews came to realize that their God was not just one god among many. He was the only God and all other "gods" were just human inventions. This was an extraordinary idea in the pagan world, where people worshiped many gods and had developed some religions of great power and beauty. The Jews themselves were often unable to believe that there was only one God and often lapsed naturally and easily into paganism, but eventually monotheism, the worship of only one God, was firmly established in Judaism, and later in Christianity and Islam, the two religions that derived from Judaism. These three religions are all deeply related, yet at different times they have fought each other in savage holy wars. The seed of much future strife is found in the original revelation to Abraham. Almost the first words that God spoke when he revealed himself to Abram were: "To your descendants I will give this land" (Genesis 12:7). To make this promise good Abraham's descendants had to fight the first of many savage holy wars for this land, which many Jews today still see as essential to the integrity of Judaism. After all, God spent more time promising Abraham that he would give this land to his descendants than making any further theological revelations about himself. The Holy Land will be key factor in our story.
Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe that God has revealed himself intervening directly in human affairs in events that become a history of salvation. One of the most crucial of these events was the Exodus, the mythical story of the Jews' liberation from slavery. The Israelites, Abraham's descendants, had emigrated to Egypt in about 1700 B.C.E. Their position there deteriorated so much that by 1250 they were mere slaves. Then God intervened. He told his prophet Moses that he had to act and save his people; he must force Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free and then lead them home to the Promised Land of Canaan. Moses was very reluctant to do this, because it seemed a hopeless task, but God promised to help him. He terrorized the Egyptians by sending cruel plagues, and when Pharaoh remained obdurate in his refusal to free the Hebrew slaves, God sent the most terrible plague of all. The Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Jews and killed the firstborn son in every Egyptian family. Every year Jews celebrate this saving event in the feast of Passover, for it was a graphic demonstration of their status as the chosen people: God had drastically discriminated between themselves and the Egyptians. After this catastrophe, Pharaoh decided to let the Israelites go and Moses led his people out of Egypt. But before they had got very far Pharaoh changed his mind. He and his army pursued the Jews and caught up with them at the Reed Sea (usually misleadingly translated Red Sea). It seemed that the Israelites would be herded back to slavery or even exterminated, but God intervened once more. He parted the waters of the sea so that his people could cross dry-shod, but drowned the whole Egyptian army when they tried to follow. This story of violent miracles was obviously a mythical version of the Hebrews' escape from Egypt, but the myth was crucial in forming the Jews' view of themselves. It shows what is involved in their view of salvation. God's people have to act to save themselves, even though their position seems hopeless or dangerous. God will always help them in miracles that suspend the normal course of nature, and the salvation of the chosen people means the annihilation of their enemies as two sides to a single coin. Salvation is the violent separation of the just and the unjust. The next stage in the story of the Exodus reveals the archetypal paradigm that has recurred in all three of the monotheistic religions, when a holy journey or a migration becomes a holy war.
The Israelites were now an independent people, but their salvation was not yet complete. They were still only a collection of tribes who had been unused to controlling their own destiny and they had to learn how they were to live as God's chosen people. They did not journey directly to the Promised Land, but for forty years they lived as nomads in the Sinai Peninsula. It was a holy journey during which, the Bible tells us, they were deeply dependent upon God, who fed them with manna and guided them step by step. Most importantly, on Mount Sinai God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the basis of the Torah or the law. This was God's greatest gift to his people, because it imposed the divine order on the world and was a revelation of God's will. By observing the 613 commandments of the Torah, which governed the smallest details of everyday life, the Jews naturally acquired a unique identity, which they believed to have been directly inspired and shaped by God. Throughout their history Jews have revered and studied the Torah, which they believe God gave to Moses during the forty years in the wilderness. That this formation of a new Jewish self should have begun during a journey was significant. Traveling and migration are evocative symbols of spiritual passage. The Israelites were traveling away from shame and oppression to dignity and freedom, from desolation to intimacy with God, from helplessness to self-determination. Journeys and migrations have also been crucial and formative events for Christians and Muslims.
One of the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai was "Thou shalt not kill." Indeed most of these commandments are concerned with an absolute respect for the inalienable rights of others, and this is one of the greatest legacies of Judaism to the rest of the world. But, as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, God told his people that they would have to engage in a ruthless war of extermination. By taking his people back to Canaan, Moses was taking them back to their roots because of God's original promise to their father Abraham. They believed that the land was theirs, but there were other people living there already who had made it their home for centuries, and naturally they were not going to hand over their country without a fight. These people were in the way of the divine plan; they were also essential enemies of the new Jewish self. Because they opposed values and plans that were "sacred" to the Jews and essential to God's plans for them, they had to be annihilated. The normal human rights that Jews were commanded to extend to other people did not apply to the Canaanites, who had become the enemies of God. This absolute hostility is a characteristic of the holy war. Because the Canaanites were obstacles to Jewish fulfillment they had to be exterminated and there was no possibility of peaceful coexistence. "I shall exterminate these," God told his people, "they must not live in your country" (Exodus 23:23, 33). It was not simply a territorial matter. The Canaanites had achieved a more advanced culture than the Israelites and their lifestyle would be very attractive to the weary nomads. They could destroy this newly emerging Jewish self and the new religion of monotheism, which was still so revolutionary that it was a fragile plant. The Israelites could very easily be seduced by the Canaanites' fertility cults and idolatrous faith. Therefore God gave Moses very clear instructions, frequently repeated in the Bible, about how these new enemies and their religions were to be treated:
When Yahweh your God has led you into the land you are entering to make your own, many nations will fall before you: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than yourselves. Yahweh your God will deliver them over to you and you will conquer them. You must lay them under a ban. You must make no covenant with them nor show them any pity. You must not marry with them: you must not give a daughter of yours to a son of theirs, nor take a daughter of theirs for a son of yours, for this would turn away your son from following me to serving other gods, and the anger of Yahweh would blaze out against you and soon destroy you. Instead, deal with them like this: tear down their altars, smash their standing stones, cut down their sacred poles and set fire to their idols. For you are a people consecrated to Yahweh your God. It is you that Yahweh your God has chosen to be his very own people out of all the peoples on the earth.
In a Jewish holy war, there was no question of peaceful coexistence, mutual respect or peace treaties. The little Jewish kingdom was an island of true religion in the ocean of Middle Eastern paganism. There was a religious siege and naturally a deep insecurity. Until the Israelites felt more confident, they could only fight their enemies to the death. When God has saved his people from the Egyptians the ordinary laws of nature had been suspended; so too when the Jews had to establish themselves in the Promised Land, ordinary morality ceased to apply. This is a crucial element in the holy wars of both Jews and, later, Christians.
Copyright © 2001 by Karen Armstrong. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.