Good interpretation matters, because God’s word is life-giving. When we don’t receive Scripture well, we don’t live well. We make choices that seem right to us without the wisdom of God.
The Crusades are a stark reminder of how we can misrepresent God. In 1095, Pope Urban II called European Christians to take up arms and fight for the Byzantine Emperor to retake Jerusalem, particularly the site of Jesus’ temporary grave (Holy Sepulchre). “God wills it,” cried the conference he addressed.
That’s how Christians (?) decided God had called them to fight and kill Muslims for control of a “holy” site:
[Previously,] pilgrims could not carry arms on the way to the shrine. Warfare and religious travel, conceived as a meritorious act or as a penance, were deemed contradictory. It is of course on this very point that pope Urban made headlines in 1095. In his famous sermon the pope actually managed to remove most of the incompatibility between war and pilgrimage. … The expedition announced by the Roman pontiff was viewed primarily as an armed pilgrimage for the liberation of Christendom’s holiest site. This was, it seems, the implication of the indulgence mentioned in the papal sermon. More specifically, the same spiritual rewards proffered until then by the Church to the unarmed pilgrim were also extended to the armed knight on crusade. Although the exact meaning of pope Urban’s indulgence is controversial, it was probably understood simply as an absolution or cancellation of the penance already imposed by the Church in confession.
— Aristeides Papadakis and John Meyendorff, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church AD 1071–1453, (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), 4:83.
We’ve never recovered from this shameful misrepresentation of the God we claim to serve. Even today, people still raise the Crusades as “Exhibit A” for why they don’t believe Christians are genuinely loving people. Who can blame them? The whole “might makes right” approach makes a mockery of the gospel of the crucified king.
And the Crusaders wore a cross emblazoned on their armour! Did none of them question whether this was what our king meant when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me?” Was Jesus gathering forces to kill his enemies? Or was he calling us to accept crucifixion from those who use death to support their power? Which path did he believe would unseat the power of evil?
The essence of evil is the desire to control. Whether it’s a spouse using anger to manipulate their partner, a cult leader using charisma to control a group, or Putin invading Ukraine, evil at every level is about dominating others. Evil refuses God’s authority, so I enforce my own.
Hypocrisy is doing evil in God’s name. There is no more damaging misrepresentation of the gospel, the good news of how God restores his reign through a cross.
Living by faith
To repaint the cross as a symbol of war, the church must have lost the gospel. With the cross, God was wearing the world’s rejection of his authority. The cross is the truce that calls us to throw down our swords, our angry rejection of divine authority. The cross is God calling us to do right, to entrust ourselves to the one he has appointed to restore us into his governance and care.
This was Habakkuk’s message. “Babylon’s armies are coming to destroy Jerusalem! Run!” he cried. “Their desires are evil, yet the righteous person will live by faith(fulness), while Babylon will eventually fall under the weight of its own evil.” As we explained, that’s Habakkuk 2:4 in context.
This was Jesus’ message. “When you see Rome’s armies surrounding Jerusalem, flee!” he cried. “It will be the worst of times, but this isn’t how it ends: you’ll see Heaven give the kingship to the son of man” (Luke 21). That’s why Jesus didn’t fight. Or run. The unarmed king rode into his capital knowing it would hand him over to their oppressors rather than gather under his leadership. As we explained, he did right because of his faith in his life-giving Father: the righteous person will live by his faith(fulness).
This has not always been the church’s message. Like Urban, we’re seduced by the emperors and presidents and political powers of this world who want to use us to enforce their power over society. It’s not the gospel. No other leader or crusader has the power to change the world.
The only thing that makes people do right is faith in and faithfulness to the leader God has appointed to lead his world. That message is not credible if we’re trying to enforce our will on society instead of taking up our cross and living faithfully. Only faith in Christ leads us to do right.
Trust God. Put the swords down. Babylon will fall anyway, and the righteous person will live by faith(fulness).
What others are saying
Constantine R. Campbell, Jesus v. Evangelicals: A Biblical Critique of a Wayward Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023), 15–16:
Confidence in political influence has been a major misstep of American Christians, and of white evangelicals in particular. In an effort to impose Christian values on the wider society through political means, evangelicalism has become politicized to the extent that its spiritual nature has been distorted. The politicization of evangelicalism has damaged the credibility of the evangelical church. Historian Thomas Kidd comments, “White evangelicals’ uncritical fealty to the GOP is real, and that fealty has done so much damage to the movement that it is uncertain whether the term evangelical can be rescued from its political and racial connotations.”
At the heart of this misstep is the assumption that political power will necessarily lead to transformation in American culture. But this assumption has been challenged in recent years. Sociologist James Davison Hunter has argued that cultural transformation rarely if ever happens through political mobilization. Rather, “cultural change is most enduring when it penetrates the structure of our imagination, frameworks of knowledge and discussion, the perception of everyday reality.” Political engagement is not wrong, but it is not a silver bullet to cultural transformation and renewal. Americans will live Christianly if they think Christianly, and that will happen only if their hearts are transformed by Christ. Laws do not transform hearts. Even less so political parties. For all its investment of capital, energy, and cultural disruption, evangelical political power has not led to a widespread turn to biblical values in America. If anything, through an overreliance on political power as the solution, evangelicalism has undermined its potential to bless society.